The Professional Fighters League has offered several fascinating stories to watch in its first season, from Steven Siler’s surprise run to the No. 1 seed at featherweight to Ray Cooper III’s dominant star turn at welterweight. Yet none may be more fascinating than the tale of Kelvin Tiller, “The Mama’s Boy” who found a better path in life through MMA.
“I’ve never had an MMA fight as hard as the street fights that I’ve been in,” Tiller told Sherdog.com.
The Kansas native heads into the PFL playoffs eager for what lies ahead. As many of his contemporaries feel an added pressure entering the cage this Friday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Tiller has no such issues. Why? Because he sees fighting in a cage as far easier than many of the difficulties he has endured in life.
“There’s things I’ll never go through in a cage fight that I’ve been through in street fights,” Tiller said.
Growing up destitute in Topeka, Kansas, was not easy. Tiller went entire summers without electricity, and his neighborhood had its share of drug dealing, gun violence and death.
“My life has been rough. To get to the point where I am today has been nothing but pain for me,” Tiller said. “Everything that I’ve been through, getting shot at, having guns pointed to my head and me thinking I’m going to take my last breath, me being in a fight [is] therapy to me.”
For most young men in rough neighborhoods, basketball and football can be outlets for self-improvement and opportunities to escape their situations. Tiller was not good at either sport. While he exceled at dancing and track and field, the activity that garnered the most acceptance from his peers was street fighting.
“I did a lot of street fighting, so I thought I was a tough guy,” Tiller said. “I beat up a lot of people [and] probably had 50 [or] 60 fights.”
Because of his experiences on the street, Tiller figured he was well-equipped for mixed martial arts. Fighting with guidelines and regulations would be a piece of cake, or so he thought. At the suggestion of a local promoter, he sought out Shane Hutchinson -- a veteran of the sport who trained in the area. Unbeknownst to a then 18-year-old Tiller, he was about to experience an awakening. Hutchinson stood 5-foot-9; Tiller was 6-foot and likely outweighed him by 30 pounds.
“The first day of practice, this 155-pound short white guy beat the crap out of me,” Tiller said with a laugh. “From that day forward, I wanted to learn what he knew.”
Tiller had found a new outlet to which to dedicate his life, an outlet that did not involve crime, violence and the possibility of an early death. Now, 10 years into his journey, he loves the catharsis MMA offers and finds a deeper meaning in it. Tiller, 28, had the first of his four children at age 16.
“A lot of people I knew were dying because of the street life,” he said. “[Getting into MMA] was more about getting out of the street life and finding something to do for my kids to be proud of me.”
Not much rattles Tiller after the life he has endured. He was not on the original PFL roster but answered the call to fill in on three weeks’ notice. He had ballooned to 292 pounds after a year and a half of rehab for a torn Achilles’ tendon but cut the necessary pounds to make the heavyweight limit and then knocked out Caio Alencar in the first round. After a quick turnaround, Tiller faced three-time NCAA All-American wrestler Jared Rosholt and submitted him with a second-round guillotine choke.
Tiller enters the heavyweight playoffs as the No. 2 seed at heavyweight. Not even the prospect of two fights in one night -- a rematch with Rosholt awaits in the first round of the tournament -- at PFL 8 seems to faze him. Tiller draws confidence from the belief that has room for improvement.
“My mental game is the best part about me,” he said. “I have prepared myself for this moment for the last 10 years. Those two fights so far, you all have seen nothing. Nobody has seen what I actually can do and what I do in practice. I see [the rematch with Rosholt] ending in the first round in less than three minutes. I’m telling you this now. I believe in my heart I’m going to win. I will win this tournament, and I will make these next two fights look easy.”
Fortitude allowed him to survive the tumultuous years, which included being assaulted by three men on his 23rd birthday. However, Tiller credits the boundless support of his mother, Patricia Rains, who has been there to support her son at every competitive moment of his life. She has no plans to stop, even if it means having to board a plane for the first time to see him fight.
“Like, I hear her at my fights yelling. I heard her at my track meets. When I was dancing, I heard her at my dance battles,” Tiller said. “She will be at every fight. Only death can keep her from those fights.”