At Bellator 170, middleweight Kevin Casey returns to his hometown of Inglewood, Calif., to make his promotional debut against veteran Keith Barry. Casey didn’t grow up just anywhere in Inglewood, though; he grew up in the shadows of The Forum, staring at the iconic venue through the windows of his elementary school, just a street separating the two.
“There are so many memories there from my roots and from my foundation,” Casey told SI.com. “The spark from being there at The Forum. Whenever there was an event there, the parking lot would fill up next to my apartment building.”
During Casey’s formative years in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, led by Pat Riley and Magic Johnson, called The Forum home.
“I grew up as a Laker fan, watching the Lakers. Different Lakers on any given day show up at the gas station and I’d pump their gas for quarters or to get an autograph,” Casey said.
“I remember distinctly, I ran into Elden Campbell. I literally had just walked into the store and bought a deck of basketball cards and when I was walking out I saw Elden Campbell pumping his gas. I knew exactly who he was and I got excited right away. I said ‘Elden, Elden, can you sign something for me?’ He was like 'yeah, yeah, I’ll sign something for you.’
“I didn’t have his card, I didn’t own it, but I had him sign someone else’s card. It was funny. I was just so excited to get his signature it didn’t really hit me that I was giving him someone else’s card to sign, but he pointed it out. ‘Hey kid, this isn’t even my card.’”
Those early interactions with successful professional athletes fueled Casey’s dreams as a child. Fighting at The Forum is his career as a professional athlete coming full circle.
“They would come and visit the middle school and do assemblies and things like that. We’d chase Magic Johnson around the school,” Casey recounted, noting that Magic was his favorite player. “I feel like I had a lot of things to look up to growing up over there."
Casey continued: “I used to sit on the corner with my friends and we’d see all the nice cars drive by and we’d say things like, That’s my car. For me to now be a professional athlete myself and to be fighting in The Forum is an amazing feeling. It’s definitely fulfilling for me as far as the things I’ve done and where my career has taken me.”
It isn’t the first time Casey has fought at The Forum—that came in June 2016, when he fought to a draw against Elvis Mutapcic at UFC 199—but the differing circumstances of the two fights have almost made it feel that way. The day before he arrived for his first fight at the venue, his father-in-law and combat sports icon Muhammad Ali passed away.
“There were some things going on in my personal and family life at the time that made it difficult for me to absorb the overall experience of being there,” Casey said. “I felt a lot of pressure. It was an unnatural amount of pressure on me during that fight. I don’t think I was really enjoying it and soaking it up the way I will at Bellator 170.”
Casey’s second opportunity to fight at the iconic venue from his childhood also comes with the help of some guiding hands. Scott Coker and the Bellator MMA brass are familiar faces from Casey’s days in Strikeforce.
“It feels like I’m coming home,” Casey said.
On top of the card is Chael Sonnen, an MMA icon and Casey’s former coach on The Ultimate Fighter.
“I actually reached out to Chael a couple of weeks back,” Casey recalled, “and the first thing he said was ‘let’s sell this thing out.’”