In a Facebook post announcing his retirement on Tuesday, longtime middleweight contender Tim Kennedy wrote of his reasons for walking away from the sport at the age of 37, and also touched on his greatest moment in a pro career that began in 2001. Not surprisingly, it was a night the decorated member of the United States Armed Forces shared with his fellow soldiers.
“I’ve been a professional fighter for two decades, but there was no greater moment for me than winning the main event of Fight for the Troops 3,” Kennedy wrote. “You made me invincible that night.”
It was a cold night in the hangar at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in November 2013. The troops in attendance were cheering from the start of the first fight, but they got even louder when Kennedy made his walk to the Octagon to face Rafael Natal. And less than a round into the bout, the hangar shook as Kennedy knocked Natal out.
“It was emotionally overwhelming,” the Special Forces veteran told me before his next bout against Michael Bisping. “A fight’s a fight, and once you get in the cage, it’s just a fight. But leading up to there and being able to see a whole bunch of guys I hadn’t seen for a long time, some guys I hadn’t seen since Iraq or Afghanistan, it was surreal, and cool.”
When you talk to Tim Kennedy, you talk about his fellow vets, the soldiers still out in the field and the ones who never came home. Kennedy’s service to his country was never about him, but about those with him.
“Everybody says it, and, not to be corny, but at the end of ‘Black Hawk Down’ when the main character says ‘I don’t do it for them, I don’t do it for me, I do it for the guy standing next to me,’ there is nothing like being deployed with the Special Forces ODA,” Kennedy told me before his UFC debut in 2013. “You have 12 dudes on a team, and I know those 11 dudes would jump on top of a grenade for me. Those 11 dudes would run through a wall into a burning building to carry me out when their skin’s melting. There’s nothing like that. War is horrible, but it’s real and bearable because of the guys standing next to you. The rest of my life will always seem that much less real and that much less beautiful unless those 11 dudes are with me. It’s hard to explain.”
It’s why the prospect of fighting in New York City on the UFC 205 card meant so much to him, because if not for the attacks of 9/11, his life might have been profoundly different.
“I enlisted into the United States Army because of 9/11,” Kennedy said before he was supposed to fight Rashad Evans on the Nov. 12 card, a bout subsequently canceled. “I was sitting at a computer in California during the dot.com bubble. I was answering customer service emails on the east coast, so I had gone in early that day, and I watched the second plane crash into the tower live. I was standing at the recruiter’s office that afternoon.”
What followed was a decorated military career that Kennedy remained in even as he began another career as a professional fighter. Yet even while he was climbing the ranks in the middleweight division, his duty always came first.
“For the first seven years of my military career, I had a 30-minute callback,” Kennedy said before his 2011 Strikeforce bout with Robbie Lawler. “I couldn’t even drive to the beach, I could never have a drink, and I always had to be ready to go, bags packed, because if the phone rang, I had 30 minutes to be into the office.”
He never complained, and in spite of such a hectic existence, he became a heck of a fighter. He defeated Lawler that night in Illinois, his fifth victory in the Strikeforce promotion where he made his name. Kennedy would lose his next fight to Luke Rockhold for the Strikeforce title, but after a 2013 win over Trevor Smith, he was in the UFC and ready to tackle whoever was in his way.
“I always want to fight the best guys,” he said. “To me, it’s irrelevant where they are. The shape of the cage, the color of the cage, and the color of the gloves is really second to ultimately who’s trying to knock me out or submit me on the other side of the cage.”
Over the next three years, Kennedy defeated Roger Gracie, Rafael Natal and current middleweight champion Michael Bisping, with his only losses a controversial defeat at the hands of Yoel Romero in 2014 and a final loss to Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 206 in December that left the California native and Texas resident with a final record of 18-6.
After the Gastelum fight, Kennedy decided his run as an active competitor was over.
“A lot of my coaches, friends and fans immediately tried to build me up again,” he wrote in his Facebook post. “‘Kelvin has the right skillset to beat you and it was your first fight back.’ ‘You had ring rust.’ ‘You’re still a top 10 middleweight.’ I appreciated their comments and I don’t think they are wrong. I know I am still a good fighter. I know I was away a while. But they didn’t feel what I felt, and that’s being 37. I felt like I was in slow motion the entire match. I felt tired for the first time ever in a fight. I’m the guy that once graduated Ranger School – a place that starves you and denies you sleep for over two months – and took a fight six days later in the IFL and won. I’m the guy that is always in shape. And I was for this fight. I worked harder than I ever have before for this fight. But I wasn’t me anymore. My brain knew what to do but my body did not respond. I’ve watched other fighters arrive here. I’ve watched other fighters pretend they weren’t here. I will not be one of them.”
For a man who has always followed the path of most resistance, this was another example of who Tim Kennedy is. The easy road is boring. The hard road is the satisfying one. And Tim Kennedy is king of that road.