(Cover Photo: Ginger Beard Photography – Dave Fogarty)
The MMA world is full of uplifting and inspiring stories, but Luka Jelčić’s is as special as any you’ll ever hear.
The 28-year-old Croatian currently resides in Dublin, Ireland where he trains out of SBG under the tutelage of Head Coach, John Kavanagh. Jelčić is a relatively quiet, reserved character when it comes the media, but earlier this week he spoke exclusively to MMAUNO.com and explained the incredible circumstances that led to becoming a professional MMA fighter and moving to Ireland.
“I started off in martial arts when I was five years old and I started karate after my Dad came back from fighting in the Croatian civil war,” Jelčić said. “My dad was a boxer, as was his brother and my grandpa, so my younger brother and I went the same path. I just started off with karate, but to be honest I didn’t really enjoy it because my teacher was just an absolute asshole. I thought karate was cool, but he made it unenjoyable. I just wasn’t happy doing that and all my friends were playing football, so I just started doing that myself.
“I was cross training alongside my football and I was always going a bit of boxing with my dad. The problem with football though was that I was always getting into trouble. I was from a troubled neighbourhood and even before my dad came back from the war I was always fighting my cousins and the kids from the war-torn area. They were traumatised and a bit mad a bit, so we went mad along with them.
“We’d just fight all day.”
While fighting was originally getting him into trouble, it soon became a more productive outlet for Jelčić when he joined his first MMA gym.
“When I was about 14, my younger brother was getting bullied so I had to defend him and I was getting into a lot of fights,” Jelčić said. “I brought him to a gym and I went in with him. I got asking to the coach who invited me to roll with them and come train with them. At the time I was a major fight fan–I’d watch PRIDE and the UFC. Mostly Pride Bushido, that was my main thing when I was younger because those were the lower weight classes. Those were the skinnier guys and in the UFC I loved Robbie Lawler and Nick Diaz. I was massive fan and I thought to myself I could do that.
“All this fighting I already did and all these scraps that I was having, it made me believe that I could do what they did. That’s basically how I started and I went on to do some good things in grappling in the Gi. I competed in the European Worlds and I won the Abu Dhabi Combat Club AD–I won that three times. I also did amateur boxing, kickboxing and was the amateur state champion.”
Making his pro debut
Jelčić then explained how he went on to have his first amateur MMA fight against a man that was six years older than him. Suffice to say, things didn’t quite go to plan that evening.
“I had my first fight when I was 16 in the Croatian National Championships,” Jelčić said. “They allowed pros to come in though and the guy I fought was 3-0 and he was 22. He was an animal and he’d already knocked two people out bad. I literally had to call my dad to come in and sign the papers for if something happened to me. That’s a time when soccer kicks were allowed and knees and everything. In my head though I believed I was the kid that was coming from the street and that I was the best in the world.
“I literally believed that at 16 I could beat anyone in a fight.”
“I thought I was the toughest motherf***er in the world, but obviously I was wrong. I didn’t get knocked out, but I lost by submission and it humbled me a lot. I realized that I had to work hard and there was a learned a big lesson. You learn how to be a martial artist in moments like that.
“I don’t care who you are. In this sport you’re going to get humbled.
A life changing offer
Life really started to change when Jelčić turned professional. This is when he and his now fiancé made a life changing decision having been handed an opportunity to change their lives forever by Kavanagh.
“I turned professional and I started cornering some of my teammates who were fighting on the big stages, like in the UFC,” Jelčić said. “When I was 6-1 I had like two wins in a row and my girlfriend, who’s now my fiancé, we were looking how to better our lives. The whole country of Croatia was in economical crisis so we had to choose what to do with our lives. It was either sit in the same place and in ten years ask ourselves what could have been, or we could do something about it.
“I took my chance and I reached out to John four years ago. Even before I moved out of the country I dreamed about how I could make a living out of doing what I love and providing a decent life for my family and two years ago he gave me a chance. He didn’t spoil me, but he gave the chance that I needed and I’m just happy things are going they’re. I won’t ever been able to fully repay what he did for me, but I’m going to try my hardest to do so.
“I’m not there to just latch on to the success of the people that built that gym: John, Owen Roddy, Chris Field, Cathal Pendred, Philip Mulpeter, Conor McGregor. I want to give back and I want to fight for them.”
Jelčić is now 10-2 as professional and is currently the lightweight champion of Croatian promotion Final Fight Championship (FFC) and Total Extreme Fighting Championship (TEFC) in Ireland. He’s aiming to one day fight under the UFC banner, but for the minute he’s happy to continue striving for that in FFC.
“FFC is a big stage and we’ve had plenty of people go to the UFC,” Jelčić said. They’re based in Vegas so they aren’t just some local promotion. They have fighters who are going to be in the UFC and fighters that have already been there. As far as I’m concerned, Cage Warriors is the UK version of that.
“I believe FFC is great for me right now and I’m getting very well taken care of there.”
“If I’m going to be representing anyone who isn’t the UFC I want to represent them. I’ve been calling for a call up to the UFC for a few months now. I don’t get fighters who don’t call for it. I guess some of them are on steroids and they know they will have to come off them if they’re in the UFC. Trust me, a lot of fighters are on steroids and they know they will fail if they come off them. I’m a clean fighter. I’m clean, I’m lean, and I’m definitely mean. I’m calling for my shot now.
“Give me the big stage, give me the toughest guys. I’m ready.”
“I’m a prize-fighter. I’m not doing this for fame. I’m doing it because I love to fight and I want to pay my bills with it. I’m doing this for my family and I want to provide for them. I look at my past et and even some of my future opponents and they’re in this for the wrong reasons. I’m being real, they don’t know what this is truly about. This is the only thing I want to do in life.”
SBG brothers in arms
This attitude is what makes Jelčić feel comfortable in his surroundings at SBG. The Croatian is clearly honoured to be training where he does and is focused on giving back to his coach and teammates for the opportunity that they’ve given him.
“I can’t say I built this gym. They built this gym through all their hard work and sweat and now they’ve let me come work with them and be one of their brothers. I want to keep this going with them. I’m not here dancing around taking pictures and saying I’m SBG. If the OG’s want me in their pictures it’s an honour for me. I don’t need documentaries, I had my first highlight video made about me like a month ago and that’s the way I want to do it. These guys deserve all these things and I also want to earn it.
“Whenever I think about SBG, I see a damp gym with yellow mats full of savages and warriors, with John Kavanagh at the front with the OG’s That started all this…that’s SBG.”