As a special forces soldier in the U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Tim Kennedy has survived IED blasts, 30-hour gunfights and missions behind enemy lines so classified that he’ll never be able to discuss them. He also survived time away from his wife, two daughters and his professional sports aspirations.
And like every good soldier, Kennedy did it without hesitation.
“It’s surreal to be with those guys the first time out,” he said of his time spent with elite combat squads. “Gunfire goes off, and everyone runs towards it. I guess that’s a character trait that sounds flawed, but it’s reassuring to find there are others like you.”
Kennedy, a Green Beret who was awarded a Bronze Star for his time in Afghanistan, is, however, now looking forward to the rest of his life. And that means a return to mixed martial arts.
The 29-year-old ends an 18-month hiatus from the cage this Friday night when he takes on Nick “The Goat” Thompson at a Strikeforce Challengers event in Kent, Washington. The fight airs at 11 pm ET/PT on Showtime.
But though he was away, his mind was never too far from what he always knew his future held. Something of a gym rat, Kennedy would often take out his daily frustrations in sparring or on a heavy bag. During evenings, he would find fellow MMA enthusiasts (of which there are plenty in the military) to kickbox or roll some jiu-jitsu.
Occasionally, he got to compete with other soldiers who take part in the Army’s Combatives program, a martial arts system that is a close cousin to MMA. Representing his Fort Bragg, N.C. base, he won his weight class in the All-Army Combatives tournament all three times he entered. But the feeling of re-starting his pro career is like nothing else he’s experienced in the fight world.
“I’m literally overwhelmed with excitement,” he said. “By no means is what you’ll see the finished product of what I’ll be as a fighter, but this is the first time I can really focus on fighting. I’m ecstatic.”
Make no mistake about it: Kennedy is a legitimate prospect. At 9-2, he holds wins over DREAM star Jason “Mayhem” Miller and ex-UFC fighter Dante Rivera. He had talks with top organizations like the UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator before making his decision. Part of the difficulty in reaching a deal stemmed from the fact that Kennedy will not finish his current military obligations until August, and he needed to work with a promoter who would respect and appreciate that his Army life comes first.
While Strikeforce won out in a bid for his services, let it be said that the organization did not exactly gift-wrap a welcome home opponent for him. Thompson (38-10-1) has a significant edge in experience and once fought Jake Shields for the EliteXC welterweight title.
But Kennedy will have a significant size advantage as the fight will be contested at 185, a full weight-class higher than Thompson’s usual division.
To prepare, Thompson, who trains at Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, went straight to the biggest and best, utilizing the academy’s heavyweights, including UFC champion Brock Lesnar. Still, the prospect of moving up a weight class was not overly exciting to Thompson.
“I am not a middleweight and have no desire to be one,” said Thompson who recently passed the Minnesota state bar exam and handles some small criminal and civil cases. “At the end of the day, this is how I provide for my family. If I don’t fight, we don’t eat.”
Like Thompson, who fights mixed martial artists and injustice, Kennedy hopes to continue to fulfill his two professional dreams. Although his current Army obligations end in August, he hopes to become the first MMA fighter ever admitted into the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which would allow him to compete as a full-time fighter while maintaining his military career.
That decision is moving up the chain of command, but will take time in coming. Kennedy hopes he is not forced to choose one or the other; both careers call out to him.
“I raised my right hand and swore to uphold the constitution,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. I didn’t want to fall short of what I was supposed to be doing. But there is a passion in me to push in MMA and compete. Those two things have really complemented each other.”
Kennedy began his MMA training years ago in his home state of California, training with Chuck Liddell and John Hackleman at The Pit. These days, he trains in and around Fayetteville, N.C., but he also took the sport around the world with him to dangerous places.
Suffice it to say, MMA has had a hold on him through some trying times. On the battlefield, he has seen the best and worst of man. He’s had his life in danger, seen friends killed and been part of a brotherhood willing to lay their lives down for each other. The game of MMA was always his escape. But now, it becomes a job, a mission.
How far can he go? For once, the soldier’s objective is not classified.
He wants to prepare, focus, win one fight at a time, build a record of success, win another award of battle that must be earned — a shiny gold belt.
How far can he go? That’s a mission he can’t wait to begin.
After all, whether it’s signified by gunfire or an opening bell, whenever the action starts, Tim Kennedy will run towards it.