When heavyweight Kelvin Tiller fought Jared Rosholt at PFL 4 in July, his mother and sister were in the crowd at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island cheering him on. They had driven the 1,300 miles to New York from Topeka, Kan., to support Tiller, who was coming off an improbable knockout of Caio Alencar just a month earlier in a fight he was booked to lose. He made good again by submitting the wrestler Rosholt with a rear-naked choke in the second round.
When the fight was over, his mother and sister showered him with affections before loading into their Dodge Journey to begin the endless trek back to Kansas that same night. His sister, Autumn, who suffers from kidney failure, had skipped her dialysis to see her brother compete. His mother, Patricia Rains, has reliably driven all over the country to watch her boy engage in the laying on of hands. They are a tight-knit family, willing to go through any inconvenience if it means being there. Patricia has told Kelvin his whole life that he would amount to something — something purposeful, something great — and she wasn’t about to miss the initial blooming of her prescience.
That’s why Kelvin Tiller calls himself, “The Mama’s Boy.”
“My mom, she was a single mother, and she took care of me and my three sisters all by herself,” Kelvin told MMA Fighting, days ahead of his rematch with Rosholt at PFL 8 in New Orleans. “My dad was not around. I got into a lot of trouble growing up, and she was just always, always by my side. She used to always look at me and say, ‘One day you’re going to be great, son. No matter what these people say about you, you’re going to be great.’ Through all my fuck-ups, she used to look me in my eyes and tell me I’d be great, and I always believed her.”
Tiller, a colossus who walks around nearer to 300 pounds than the 265-pound max for heavyweight, grew up in a particularly rough area of Topeka, which in broad daylight can often resemble a war zone. Guns, drugs, fights and general lawlessness. He carried a gun from the time he was a youngster. He engaged in petty crimes, and fought frequently. When he moved to Kansas City, Kansas to attend high school, the scene wasn’t much better. He was on the wrong side of the economic divide, and packing heat wherever he went. Every day was a survival course with very real consequences for the slightest misstep.
It was a life bound for nowhere; either that or an early grave.
“My uncle doesn’t like me saying it, but he was a gangster. He used to always tell me, you do the dirt, but you don’t get caught,” Tiller says now. “I was in a lot of gang violence growing up. I was getting shot at, you know, and we were shooting at people. All my homies were selling drugs, gang-banging, running the streets. A lot of street fights, a lot of running from the cops.
“We were young kids looking for a way, and we thought that was a way. We was in beef with other people, and it was one of those things where we had to carry guns, because we not knowing what the next 10, the next 20 minutes, the next day was going to bring. We always had to bring protection for ourselves.”
Tiller’s sister, Autumn, hasn’t made it to many of her brother’s fights. Just a couple. But she wasn’t about to miss the scrap with the former UFC fighter Rosholt, whom everyone had a gut feeling would be in for a tough night with the unmovable Tiller. Autumn showed up to Long Island at the expense of her own well-being. She sacrificed a round in her own fight to see her brother compete in the biggest spot of his career.
“My sister and I are like neck-and-neck close,” Tiller says. “She skipped dialysis to see my fight in New York. When she skips these things, she don’t have good days after that. She doesn’t feel good at all, but she told me I’m not missing this fight and we’ll just have to figure this out.”
She will be in New Orleans when Tiller, now a No. 2 seed in the PFL heavyweight tournament, fights Rosholt again. His mother Patricia will be there, too, as she has been for every fight since 2012. And even his uncle, Harrison, who has never seen him fight in a sanctioned bout — but who has seen Kelvin fight his whole life — will be in the Big Easy to see what he’s become.
“This will be the first fight out of town where I have a big crowd,” Kelvin says. “My uncle that helped raise me, he’s the one who got me into fighting. He used to beat me up. I knew how to do a rear-naked choke before I even knew what MMA was. He wrestled in high school, and he’s into kickboxing. He helped me get into it — not MMA, but my mentality, where I tell people I’m never scared to fight anyone. He put that into my head when I was young, seven, eight, nine years old: You never be scared of a man because everybody bleeds.”
Everyone bleeds, including Tiller himself. And everyone close to him. Blood is life.
Tiller has six children, including a newborn who came into this world shortly before he got the call to take on Alencar on three week’s notice. He does door-to-door offering lawn care service in his spare time to make ends meet, which is one of the reasons a million-dollar tournament calls to him. “I’m trying to keep busy to keep out of trouble,” he says.
While he’s saying this, he’s walking into a hospital in Topeka, checking in on the mother of his daughter. He’s talking to nurses with a sense of familiarity. This is the kind of trouble he’s talking about, the kind of ruthless reality he deals in. Just three weeks ago she was gunned down in a senseless shooting. It’s why everything he knows is tenuous.
“She got shot 10 times, and she’s living to tell the story,” Tiller says, en route to her room. “That’s the kind of things I speak of, and why I’m trying to get my family together. They’re trying to say she may be paralyzed, but she’s up, she’s moving her arms, she’s talking. She’s in a wheelchair right now and heading downstairs. She was shot ten times — face, back, stomach, spine, legs. So I’ve been up here once and twice a week to check on her, while taking care of the kids and home and bills.”
It’s not an ideal setup for training, and nor is it the stuff of a feel-good Hollywood movie. He is a redemption story in real time, taking it minute-by-minute, day-by-day. What Tiller returns to each night in Topeka is a cold reality that the next random bullet could be headed for him. That next time it might be him in the hospital.
“It’s just the world we live in, the environment that I live in, it’s still like that — you still got to carry a gun on you,” he says. “I don’t do nothing. I just take care of my kids, go to the gym, then home, but I still live in a not-so-decent area.”
A million dollars is a good dream. So is winning multiple tournaments in PFL, or fighting in the UFC. In his heart of hearts, Tiller believes he would be a top-10 heavyweight on the UFC roster right now. He is 10-1 as a professional MMA fighter, with six submission victories and three knockouts. He can do it everywhere, and he feels he can do it to the brand names of the sport.
When he got the call to take on Alencar, he was 295 pounds and out of shape. “I could barely run a mile,” he laughs. But in three weeks he whittled down his being to 265 pounds and fought with everything he had in New York City. He was flat-footed and heavy, but he endured. He ended up flattening Alencar late in the first round with a powerful shot that seemed to carry with it the frustration of the last 16 months spent waiting to return.
He considers that last fight with Rosholt — in which he showed up in much better shape — a final tune-up before he showcases himself for real. Before he lets the world know the kind of thing he’s taken to his pillow through all the uncertain nights in Kansas, harnessing a dream of one day becoming something. Becoming a prizefighter. Getting paid for his hazards, rather than engaging in them on the streets for nothing. Being glorified rather than vilified. To be the father for his children the way his mother was for him and his sisters. To extract the essence of what he was taught, and let the other stuff begin to fade away.
“My uncle always told me, when you fight somebody, you make sure you hurt them,” he says. “That’s how I grew up. I grew up in a bad area and I was always fighting. So that mentality kind of went with me towards MMA. That’s why I tell people who see me smiling and having fun, that’s my therapy.”
Harrison is Tiller’s mom’s brother. He and his sister will be rooting on the kid who rose from the streets in landlocked America, fighting his way into something. “The Mama’s Boy” will look over and see his mom sitting cageside, and he’ll want to prove her a prophet.
“I moved out on my 18th birthday, so as I explain to people, I’m not that kind of mama’s boy,” he says, hardening his voice for just a minute. “I just love my mama because she’s been my rock my whole life.”
“I’d be lying to say the UFC isn’t my dream, but I feel like I owe the PFL this tournament,” Tiller says. “To do this one or two more times — if I win this one and another, there’s no question I should be in the UFC.”
It’s an endless game of proof in fighting. Every fight is either making fools of doubters or filling in the unflattering details of a well-stretched delusion. Every career is a broader picture of a larger fight, the one for validity, for relevance, for glory, or for purpose. To prove people wrong. Or to prove hunches right. Sometimes, with the select few, it’s even to prove one’s greatness.
And there are times it’s just to put a smile on your mom’s face. To say, ‘hey, we did it!” as if a fight were nothing more than an allegory. To have your arm raised so that there is a moment to look back on, a beautiful instance in time, when nothing else mattered except the feeling of having broken through. To show through actions that drugs and bullets and crime aren’t forever, but that a mother’s belief can change the direction of a life.
Kelvin Tiller has a long way to go. But he’s fighting.
Rosholt will be in front of him again next on Friday night, but the fight is bigger. Demons abound, pressure, bullets, life. He is fighting for his sister, whose kidneys have fought her the whole way. He’s fighting for his children, whom he brought into the world, and his uncle Harrison, who instilled him with a fighter’s attitude. He is fighting for the mother of his daughter, who is battling back after being shot multiple times in a hospital back home, and his own mother, who battled the encroaching feeling that nothing good could ever happen.
She told him he was worth it. She continues to tell him just by being there.
“My mama is my rock,” says “The Mama’s Boy.”
It’s not just a fight, but it’s his fight. Everybody bleeds, it’s true. But with Tiller and his family, it’s one blood.