Strikeforce middleweight looking to make the most of his time away from active duty
We often talk about the sacrifices fighters make in their careers, the things they give up or put on hold to embark on their personal journeys.
Tim Kennedy made a difficult choice when he decided to pursue his fighting career full time, a choice that weighs on him every day.
Kennedy is a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army, and a member of an ODA — Operational Detachment Alpha — a team of US Army Special Forces operators. You know those digital bad asses from games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? He’s the real life version, having deployed multiple times in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
The 31-year-old earned the Bronze Star for valor for his efforts during his time in Iraqi, and his numerous deployments are the reason he has just 16 fights in a career that started in 2001. Fighting in the cage came secondary to fighting for his country.
After an 18-month hiatus from competition, Kennedy returned to the cage in June 2009, defeating Nick Thompson in his Strikeforce debut. He had decided to put his military career on hold to focus on mixed martial arts, but not a day goes by where Kennedy doesn’t think about his brothers and sisters in the military.
“I wouldn’t change me taking a break from active duty to do this,” offered Kennedy prior to departing for suburban Chicago and his meeting with “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler on Saturday. “Every day is bittersweet for me. Every day I regret not being in uniform, not having my long rifle, not jumping out of an airplane, not repelling out of a helicopter.
“Every day it eats me. Every day I read something on line about a soldier being hurt it hurts me. Hearing about bin Laden getting killed I was like, `Aw man, it should have been me and my team.’ It’s bittersweet, but I’m very, very happy with what I’m doing. I’m proud that I’m able to represent the military community. I’m going to keep doing my best.”
Boasting a 4-1 record since committing himself to the cage full-time, many would say Kennedy has been successful. He’s beaten veterans Nick Thompson, Trevor Prangley and Melvin Manhoef. He went the distance with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in a battle for the vacant Strikeforce middleweight title that was much closer than the words “unanimous decision” bring to mind; the judges scored the fight 49-46, 48-47, and 48-47 in favor of Souza.
Everyone measures success differently. Even though a pair of first round submission wins over experienced talents bookend his game performance opposite “Jacare,” Kennedy says he isn’t satisfied with his progress.
“I’m not where I should be. I’m not where I wanted to be. I need to go out there and get some more wins — get some more fights — to really be in a position… I gave up a lot to fight. To have the feeling of contentment, there is a lot more that I need to accomplish, so I’m very, very hungry to go out there and prove that I’m one of the best in the world at 185.”
His next opportunity to do so comes Saturday night against Lawler. While he didn’t exactly call him out in the traditional sense — there was no trash talk involved — it’s a fight Kennedy has wanted for quite some time. The decorated Special Forces sniper couldn’t contain his excitement about finally getting back into the cage and facing the man he’s been hoping to face.
“I’m super-stoked,” said Kennedy. “I’m ecstatic — thrilled — that I’m getting to fight Robbie. He’s been in the game for so long, he’s dangerous in every way, in every place inside the cage, so I’m stoked that I get to fight him.”
Lawler has alternated wins and losses since his second meeting with Scott Smith under the EliteXC banner in 2008. Despite his inconsistency, Kennedy knows the 29-year-old veteran is presents a challenge — one that will much harder than he says fans on the Internet expect, that’s for sure.
“That guy’s dangerous everywhere. Everybody on the forums is saying, `Tim Kennedy’s going to take him down.’ Robbie’s an amazing wrestler; he’s not somebody you can just go out there and take down, and that’s definitely not going to be my game plan. If that’s my plan, I think I’m going to be busted up by the end of the night.
“This has to be an MMA fight,” continued Kennedy. “I have to go in there and be changing levels, coming in from every angle that I can — low, high, left, right — to get away from his power shots. I have to pick my shots on our feet so I can do damage, so he can’t counter-punch.
“He loves doing that; he has an amazing right hook. He’s hard to kick; he’ll take his legs being blasted so he can land his right hand. He’ll circle into your power hand the whole, entire time so that he can give you a straight left. He’s tricky with his southpaw. His wrestling is out of this world; he’s probably the best wrestler I’ve ever fought — maybe besides Trevor Prangley — so I think it’s going to be a really, really dangerous and tough fight for me.”
Getting the chance to get back in the cage against someone he’s had on his radar for quite some time is only part of the equation for Kennedy on Saturday night. While he’s excited to test himself against Lawler and add another established name to his list of vanquished foes, it’s also an opportunity to prove he deserves another crack at the middleweight championship.
With the lack of depth in the 185 pound ranks, a rematch between Kennedy and Souza could have made sense; almost a year has passed since their first encounter, and both have won since. It wouldn’t have been ideal, beggars can’t be choosers.
Strikeforce chose to pair the champion with unbeaten prospect Luke Rockhold instead. He sports a 7-1 record and has earned finishes inside the first five minutes in each of his wins. No one denies that Rockhold is a solid prospect, but he’s been out of the cage battling injuries since February 2010 and counts Jesse Taylor as his biggest win to date; not exactly the high end credentials and recent track record you’d expect from a title challenger.
“I was surprised with the announcement of that match-up for the title,” admitted Kennedy. “Not because Rockkhold doesn’t have the skills to go out there; he definitely does. He’s very dangerous in every position, he’s a fantastic wrestler. He’s amazing with his submissions, he’s gigantic for 185 — he’s very tall — and his striking is ever improving.
“I didn’t even think that he had been proven to fight for a contendership. He hadn’t really fought anybody dangerous in their prime. He’s fought some older, name guys, but he’s never gotten to fight any hungry guy that’s wanting a contendership fight off.”
Like it or not, the decision was made. Instead of stewing on what could be perceived as a slight, Kennedy looks ahead, focused on proving he’s deserving of another opportunity to fight for the title, no matter how many fights it takes.
“Strikeforce thought that Rockhold was the #2 guy, so he’s getting the title shot. I would love to go out there and put on a show, demonstrating that I want to be back there for title contendership. If fans don’t think so, if journalists don’t think so, I don’t care — I’ll fight again.
“If they’re not going to throw me in there with the winner of Rockhold and “Jacare,” I’ll fight somebody else. I don’t care. I know they’re bringing over some more guys from Japan, some more guys from Brazil — some really talented guys. I would love to introduce them to Strikeforce and say, `Welcome to my cage. I’ve been here for a while.’ I just want to fight. I took a break from my military service so I can fight, so give me more fights.”
One way or another, Kennedy is always going to be a fighter; it’s who he is. Right now, he’s focused on competing inside the cage and reaching the goals he set for himself when he made MMA his focus two years ago.
But the clock is ticking.
“I have a clear timeline of how long I’ll let myself fight for. I have a timeline, and I have goals. If I achieve them sooner, I’m going to hang my gloves up and put my boots back on. If I don’t achieve them in the time that I set out to do this stuff, I’m going to hang up my gloves and put my boots back on.”