Kevin Kelley was celebrating as if he had just won the heavyweight championship. The thin crowd was gutted out near the ring, and Kelley was standing over them on the top rope, screaming.
“What is he running for, mayor?” a security guard quipped as Kelley came down from the ring, shaking hands and kissing babies.
On March 3, for the first time since he got knocked out by Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003, Flushing's Kelley was back in a professional prize fight against Felix St. Kitts of the Bronx, a stubborn yet willing accomplice who was bigger but not better than Kelley, a former featherweight champion. After laboring for the first few rounds, Kelley picked up the pace and drove Kitts to the ropes with straight left in the eighth round, prompting Kitt's corner to throw in the towel at 1:47 of the scheduled eight-round junior welterweight bout at Madison Square Garden, where Kelley cut his teeth as a pro.
“I felt good about my performance,” said Kelley, who weighed 132.5 pounds for the fight, almost five pounds lighter than Kitts. “I have been sparring with Wayne McCullough and Stevie Forbes. It took me a little while to rise to the occasion because I didn't know Kitts, and I was fighting at a heavier weight. It took time for my timing to come back.”
Still the master of the interview, Kelley, an on-again-off-again boxing commentator needed only one reporter's question to get him going. The 37-year-old Kelley (55-6-2, 37 KOs) interviewed himself, asking and answering a series of queries that certainly facilitated the process.
Why are you doing this?
“My goal is to win a third world title and then retire,” he said. “I've never won a title at 130 pounds.”
Who do you want to fight next?
“I would love a rematch with either Erik Morales (who knocked him out in seventh round). I took that fight on 10 days notice.”
How did you feel about fighting in New York again and do you think you have lost anything over the years?
“When I was in the ring, I was focused, I just blocked out New York. I was having flashbacks of what Kevin Kelley used to do, but I'm not that fighter anymore. I still throw fast combinations, but now I mix in uppercuts and fight off the ropes. But I can't judge me. You guys can judge me. How do you guys think I did?”
He was asking the reporters to assess his performance, a dangerous line to cross and Matt Richardson, a writer from Fightnews.com, took the baton and ran with it.
“Well, we want you to retire, Kevin,” he said. “We don't want you fighting anymore.”
And with that, Kelley, surprised and a bit miffed by the response, cut him off and continued talking about how he can still win a title and make a dent in the 130-pound division. And after a while the discussion ceased being an interview and turned into Kelley trying to convince himself that he can still fight, which he certainly can against the likes of Kitts, who dropped to 12-5 with 7 KOs.
But against elite boxers, Kelley the commentator would surely tell Kelley the boxer to call it a day.
Kelley and the show's promoter, Sal Musemeci, began discussing the prospects of working together last year. The talks intensified in the last couple of weeks and a deal was finally brokered Feb. 23.
A fan of Kelley in the early days, Musemeci, who regularly promotes fights in the New York area, was receptive to Kelley resuming his boxing career. Kelley fought his first six fights at the old Felt Forum.
“Kevin was asking me for an opportunity, and I came back to him with the perfect situation for him to fight at Madison Square Garden, where he was groomed for greatness,” Musumeci said. “Kevin is the ultimate New York fighter for the New York boxing fan.”
Alleviating concerns about Kelley's age and fitness, Musemeci described him as a “37-year-old in a 27-year-old's body,” and as someone who eats and lives well.
“His body hasn't been abused,” he said.
Kelley, who moved to Las Vegas eight years ago, received a clean bill of health from the New York State Athletic Commission, passing a battery of tests before getting permission to fight. Kelley isn't the first old fighter to step into a ring, but his record and reputation make him one of the most popular.
“I would never deny him the opportunity to fight,” said the commission's chairman, Ron Scott Stevens, a former matchmaker and promoter who worked with Kelley early in his career. “If he passes his medical exams, then it's not my place to say he can't fight. We're interested in his health and safety, so as long as he's physically fit, he should be allowed to fight. I have to be neutral in this situation.”
Stevens has been down this road before, having served Evander Holyfield with an indefinite medical suspension following his loss to Larry Donald last November at Madison Square Garden. The 42-year-old Holyfield took a beating in that fight, and Stevens was applauded by many for taking a hard stand against the legendary Holyfield.
Since then, Stevens has given Holyfield a chance to resume his career by offering him a medical examination. If he passes, Holyfield would be granted an administrative suspension, allowing him the chance to fight anywhere in the country, with the exception of New York.
Holyfield has yet to respond to the offer.
Kelley, for his part, is already eyeing an April 30 date possibly at the Garden on the undercard of Vitali Klitschko and Hasim Rahman's heavyweight clash.