Posted by Jonathan Snowden on January 25th, 2008
The training discussed in this article is a look at general Army training. I did not talk specifically with Tim Kennedy about his Special Forces training and we did not discuss his tour in Iraq. Opinions expressed are my own and not SSG Kennedy’s or the Army’s.
By Jonathan Snowden
For some fighters going to the resort town of Big Bear, California, for a few weeks before a fight helps toughen them up and get them focused. Army Staff Sgt. Tim Kennedy is not that brand of tough. Before the Army Combatives tournament in 2005, Kennedy wasn’t “roughing” it in cabin with his boys, he was completing one of the Army’s most difficult courses. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. One soldier I know who has been through Ranger and Airborne school and been in combat says it is the hardest thing he’s done in the Army. You start in the woods of Fort Bragg, on your own, with some of the Army’s top Special Forces soldiers trying to track you down. That’s the easy part.
When you are captured, and you will be, you are taken prisoner. Then they will break you however they can. Remember all of the atrocities at the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq? Forced nudity, stress positions, endless physical training, even water boarding? The Army does this to its own soldiers at SERE school to prepare them for the worse case scenario. So, one week before his fights in 2005, the Army tried to break Tim Kennedy. Despite this, he won the tournament. Tim Kennedy is that kind of tough.
Enlist and Serve
When Arizona Cardinal’s football star Pat Tillman left fame and fortune behind to serve his country in the Army Rangers it was national news. More quietly a fledgling professional fighter from San Luis Obispo, California, made the same leap. Tim Kennedy was a Columbia graduate, so it’s no surprise that the attacks of September 11th affected him profoundly. He had a successful career just taking off in MMA, beating Cruz Chacon and Jason Miller at Extreme Challenge 50. He seemed on the path to UFC stardom, but instead didn’t fight again for three years at least not inside the professional ring. Instead he joined the Army, went to Iraq, went to Ranger School, and became one of the most elite soldiers in the world when he moved to the Special Forces.
Kennedy thrived as a soldier. For many soldiers the Bronze Star, once a sign of meritorious service during combat, has become an end of tour award for staff officers who never come within miles of any actual combat. Combat soldiers call it a “BS” award for obvious reasons. Unless it is a BV, a Bronze Star awarded for valor under fire. That’s the real deal. Tim Kennedy has a BV for his service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He’s an honest to God war hero. Now back at home and in a more stable position training future Special Forces soldiers, Kennedy has the time to do double duty. He started back in the ring last year with three wins in the IFL and a decision loss to world-class fighter Jason Miller. Two gruelling full time jobs isn’t an easy load to manage, even for Tim Kennedy.
“Days are long. I start my days real early when I do my conditioning and my strength training and my day ends real late when I get off work and then go to the gym and work on my boxing and jiu jitsu. The military has been good to me and I don’t have any complaints there,” Kennedy said. “I’ve never shied away, even when I’m talking with the IFL about when my fights are coming up. I’m still in the military and when something comes up I’m going to have to press pause on my fighting and take care of my first commitment and keep my word and do whatever it is the Army has asked me to do.”
His military duties have kept him from racking up wins, but he bristles at the idea that he’s a part time fighter. Last year he fought five times in the Army Combatives tournament in addition to his four professional contests. Nine fights a year is pretty active, even for Jeremy Horn, Travis Fulton, or Dan Severn. And the fights in the Army ring aren’t walkovers. There are no tomato cans.
“Soldiers are really blossoming to become amazing Mixed Martial Artists. Every single one of my opponents had a strong wrestling background, better than most guys in Mixed Martial Arts, and by the time we got to the semi-finals they were a couple of ex-pro boxers that were pretty good. I think if they left and came to MMA they would do really well,” Kennedy said. “Everybody that sees this is going to be impressed with the overall level of ability most of these soldiers have. Everything you see in most fights, you’re going to see in this Combatives tournament. Flying triangles, flying armbars, guys going for kind of cool heel hooks, it’s busy. There are some really good guys in the Army right now and the program’s getting a lot better.”
For most professionals, training for a fight is not only their only job, it’s their only training. Kennedy does more, much more. Combatives is part of training to be a Special Forces soldier but only one small part. Soldiering requires a different kind of physicality, built for endurance more than explosion.
“There are road marches that can go 12, 18, 30 or more miles. We’re talking10 miles of straight walking with between 50 and a hundred pounds on your back compared to a 15 minute fight,” Kennedy said. “The athleticism can be different at times, but it’s still the warrior mindset, making sure you’re never going to quit, never going to stop, you’re just going to keep going.”
Inside the Ring
Special Forces guys are by reputation quiet and contemplative, thoughtful professionals who excel at their craft. They are like a stiletto. Rangers are loud and boisterous and in your face. Rangers are a grenade. Kennedy may be Special Forces, but he fights like a Ranger. There is very little finesse to his game and the influence of one of his training partners, Chuck Liddell, is obvious.
“If you look at all of my fights they’re all pretty similar. I’m pretty consistently looking for a knockout on my feet and if it goes to the ground, then looking for a knockout on the ground.” Kennedy said. His next opponent is the new IFL Middleweight Champion Matt Horwich who is known as a ground specialist. So, there is no reason to expect Kennedy to change things up now. “Preparing for this fight I’m kind of importing a lot of guys and exporting myself kind of all over. I’m bringing in a lot of pretty phenomenal boxers from the Army boxing team. There are a lot of schools on the East and West coast that have some pretty good wrestling teams and I’m using them to work with me on my wrestling. I have a pretty awesome bunch of jiu jitsu guys lined up that I’m going to be enlisting to help me stay out of trouble so I can get back to my feet and bang with Matt. ”
Team Quest’s Horwich is known as a ground wizard and has 18 career submission wins. But he surprised everyone with two knockout wins this year and has finally developed a standup game to compliment his ground genius. Kennedy watched his IFL title fight with Benji Radach in December with particular interest and was impressed with Horwich’s game.
“The guy is so aggressive, so unorthodox, so awkward. How do you train for an opponent like that? Pretty much the only thing that you can do is put in extra hours, muster up your work ethic and bring in every possible training partner that you can to put you in every terrible position you could imagine,” Kennedy said. “And then drill it over and over and over again. Hopefully I’ll try to compartmentalize my training, so I can find guys who are better than me in absolutely every part of the MMA game.”
The Title Shot
Giving Kennedy a title shot is an interesting decision for the IFL. The company is looking for something, anything, to connect with the millions of MMA fans out there who have yet to discover their promotion. A war hero champion might help get the promotion some positive mainstream press. Randy Couture has certainly shown that the All American hero can draw money in Mixed Martial Arts. Maybe Tim Kennedy can be the IFL’s Captain America? That’s the upside. The downside? Maybe Kennedy gets deployed for another year and isn’t able to defend the title.
“Tim is one of our top athletes and we are pleased that he will be competing for the middleweight title vs. Matt Horwich on Feb. 29,” IFL CEO and President Jay Larkin said. “As his military duties primarily involve training, we are confident that the flexibility in our scheduling will offer sufficient opportunities for him to compete in 2008. While we will recognize Tim’s military service, particularly as it highlights the IFL’s strong connections with the USO and other military organizations, it will not necessarily be the focus in promoting him and his bouts.”
The IFL is ready to work with Tim Kennedy. If they were smart, they’d be looking to use him: for publicity, for the simple fact that the millions of Department of Defense employees worldwide will cheer him on, and because America needs a hero. He may be pulled in different directions, but you can count on one thing. When Kennedy is booked, he shows up for a fight.
“I really love my job, I really love the military. The IFL, they’re extremely understanding with my military service. They’ve been so flexible with giving me a fight when I can fight and being understanding when I can’t. When the Army says it’s time for me to go to work, I’m going to go to work,” Kennedy said. “But if I’m free, whoever I’m fighting in the IFL, they know that I’m going to be prepared to come in there, I’m going to come in there professional and pretty much try to knock the guy out.”
Kennedy’s a true Renaissance man, a social experiment whose mother gave him art and piano lessons to counteract the martial arts and weapons his father encouraged. The final product is a well-rounded American Hero who has served his country with honor and loves his family, his God, and his country. He’s doing more than seems humanly possible and still isn’t sure it’s enough. “Am I giving enough to my fighting? Am I giving enough to my country? Am I doing everything I possibly can to be a good soldier?” Kennedy asks. “That’s something I have other people keeping me accountable on, to make sure I’m doing the right thing all the time.”
It will be hard to root against Tim Kennedy. This is exactly what the IFL is counting on.