Fighters can get by with talking like Conan the Barbarian, because they are the closest we get to him in the realm of nonfiction. “Your muscles should be a byproduct of your explosive power,” Tim Kennedy once casually said in an interview well into his MMA career, right there in broad daylight. “It’s all about raw explosion.”
Kennedy is, of course, a figment of Frank Frazetta’s savage imagination—an impossibly athletic, war-ready machine with soft brown eyes and a million miles of patriotic backstory. In his own words, he’s “unapologetically American.” And he is. Just check his Twitter feed.
But he’s more. We sling words like “hero” at him, and, the truth is, it’s not exactly hyperbole (other key words when Googling him are “sniper,” “Green Beret,” “valor under fire,” “special forces operator,” “badass,”—words we can barely conceive of). Never mind his unsettling Katy Perry impersonations: He could kill you with his hands, should you do something stupid, like try and steal his car or charge him with a bayonet.
(Not that he would—he just could).
And when you really think about it, one question starts to plague you: What the fuck is going on in Tim Kennedy’s mind? What drives this man to do such ridiculous things? WTF? Most people drag their skin and bones through life in escalating degrees of exhaustion. Kennedy, long before he was signed to fight Roger Gracie in his UFC debut at UFC 162 this weekend, was doing burpees with sandbags somewhere in Iraq and bench-pressing artillery trunks. He was doing the most miserable things—around the miserable things he was out there to do—for no reasonable reason. And he loved it.
It’s the “loving it” that doesn’t compute for people who enjoy their comforts. Isn’t it counter-intuitive to live for inconvenience in 21st century America? Kennedy actively embraces hardship, which is just sort of difficult to fathom.
But because of it, he is human pay dirt when it comes to our ideals of mental and physical endurance. He was on the cover of Muscle and Fitness a couple of years ago, and that shucksy smile conceals a lot. Him chatting casually about “raw explosiveness” is perfectly acceptable, especially in the context of MMA training. And MMA? That’s perhaps the sanest part of his existence. That’s the bed of down he reclines on—just a bit of compulsive, extraordinary fun that he just happens to be totally serious about.
It feels like we’re laying things on thick, but Tim Kennedy is, by definition, extraordinary. And you can’t be that if you aren’t a bit of a madman.
Ask anybody other than him, and they’ll tell you. Former UFC fighter Jorge Rivera trained in New Mexico with Kennedy in preparation for Alessio Sakara (who ended up being Costa Philippou when Sakara got hurt). I talked to Rivera the day he arrived back in Boston, after a “couple of grueling weeks out there.”
“Grueling?” I said. “How so?” Here Jorge laughed and shook his head, as if we don’t know Tim Kennedy at all. As if, if you were to peel back Kennedy’s brow, there would be a silver titanium skull with red glowing eyes behind it that activate when discovered.
“I’ve worked out with a lot of people, man, and I’ve yet to see anything like that,” he said. “That is an animal of a different breed. It’s unbelievable. He would literally break me every night.”
Rivera, 39 at the time, trained at Greg Jackson’s in the morning, and then sprinted up Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak—ominously dubbed the “hill of tears”—at the urging of Kennedy in the blazing 100-degree afternoons. Why? Because it’s there, man, because it’s there. And Kennedy, according to everyone you talk to—from Brian Stann to Jackson to Clay Guida—has to conquer the things that are right there in front of him.
“He literally trains three-a-days, six days a week,” says Rivera. “He trains hard and intense every single time. He’s focused and driven…dude, he’s literally every cliché and then some.” This type of sentiment is echoed by his Jackson teammates.
For those of us covering somebody who is “literally every cliché and then some,” that can be its own daunting challenge. It’s impossible to meet Kennedy on his level of intensity, because most of us don’t fly that close to the sun every minute of every day. That gap becomes the third party between Kennedy and the guy with the digital recorder. It’s hard enough to empathize with anybody willing to punch guys in the face for the privilege of getting punched in return for a purse of money.
That in itself is fairly lunatic. We all know this, and we get over it. Soon enough we bond over it.
With Kennedy, though, it’s always been a little deeper than that. He’s taken the most ridiculous detour to arrive at the MGM Grand on Saturday night, to the point that when he enters the cage, no matter what narrative we go in for, the only thing we can be absolutely certain of is that we don’t know the half of it.