In a very personal book (Wounds and bumps, Nimrod editions) Tim Kennedy tells his open heart about his not always very elegant life, and how the fight civilized him. In the army he was part of the elite, joining the “rangers” to fight in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. In MMA, his career took him from Strikeforce to the UFC where he fought twice for the middleweight belt.
Rarely shy of compliments for the French soldiers encountered in external operations, he admits to being happy that the preface is signed Benoît Saint-Denis, another warrior who also fought in the war in the special forces before rising to the heights of MMA. Beware of sensitive souls; the passages on his battles in external operations, in particular the evacuation of Kabul, are written in a documentary style, informative but without pinching.
Le FIGARO - After experiencing fire in operations, and the excitement of the cage in front of huge audiences, is it possible to find peace?
Tim KENNEDY – Yes. Imagine a cold day, very cold. You are in bed with your wife. You are going to raise your children. Their room is comfortable and warm, they smell good; you breathe in their scent like a “crackhead”. When you've experienced trauma, those little sensations are so sweet! I have spent my life causing violence; that’s why I enjoy peace so much. I enjoy solitude, tranquility, and I couldn't enjoy it as much if I hadn't loved war, chaos and madness. Today, I can really enjoy being in Paris with my wife for example! (he smiles).
Do you still feel the call of fire and the octagon?
I went to Israel this year, and to Ukraine the year before. I worked on the cartels on the Mexican border. I still have that call from the front line. I continue to train as if I were a young soldier, even though I am getting older. But the passion remains.
Is it hard to see your body change when you’ve relied on it so much?
Yes. My mind feels very young, my mood too, but my body feels old. It's strange to think you can do something, but your body tells you you can't.
On the battlefields, you felt the fear of dying or being maimed. Was the fear in an MMA octagon different, or was it the same but less intense?
That's an excellent question. The fear of dying is really different from that of sporting combat. A martial artist knows that there is an arbiter between him and death. On the battlefield, fear is different, because you don't know how bad it can go. But in both cases, training allows you to hold on. To master fear under fire or in the cage, you have to practice, practice, practice.
The fear before an attack is excruciating, you have to be able to hold on to practices that have been repeated countless times. It's a little different before entering an octagon. You prepare yourself, put on your protections; an official announces: “Kennedy! You’re next!” (his eyes shine). You enter the tunnel, and hear the crowd screaming, shouting your name. Fear gives way to exaltation.
Was it harder to stop operations, or your career as a professional fighter?
It was pretty easy to stop fighting in MMA. I wanted to become world champion. However, after two defeats in fights for the belt (his defeat against Yoel Romero is widely controversial, Editor's note) my body simply said that I could no longer fight at this level and win. There were no real regrets about stopping: I was certain that I had gone to the end. Regarding operations, the army forces you to move away after a certain point. When you regularly rise in rank, the army ends up removing you from the front. It’s a good thing and a bad thing: I wanted to stay at the fire, but I recognize that I have to give way. It's painful.
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Many MMA champions refuse to end their careers with a defeat, going through fights and sometimes declines that are grueling to watch. Has that crossed your mind?
I still fought once after my controversial defeat. I shouldn't have, but indeed, I wanted a victory, to end like a beautiful story. Come on, one more last one! At the hospital afterwards, my eyes were still closed when my manager and friend asked me what I wanted. I understood that I had been selfish, I wanted at all costs the beautiful story of the champion carried away by the wind. In this beautiful thought, there was no room for my family, my children, my entourage. After I figured that out, I never fought again.
Many MMA fighters share that it is as much a team sport as it is an individual sport. What do you think ?
They are right. I think of my sparring partners, my coaches; Without each of them, if they hadn't given so much of their time, I would never have won a fight. It’s very paradoxical; the fighter is alone in the octagon, but it’s a team job. It is both a very solitary sport, where you are in front of yourself, but you would not succeed without a group.
The virtues that are required to become a good fighter are the same that are required for a good commando. It takes fitness, discipline, intentions, and attention to detail. To break a door, send a “flashbag” and shoot a headshot, you need to have a warrior spirit. Same for a fighter. The motivations for a knight and a savage to commit violence are opposite, but the act itself is the same.
Do you think that combat sports take a place among men left vacant by the temporary disappearance of war?
Every man has a war within him. Needs to fight, to know what his strength, his speed, his will are. Every man, in his own way, wants to be the strongest, the best, the most intelligent. This is a magnificent characteristic of masculinity. Every man has this question: what am I capable of doing? It’s in our DNA, and I’m amazed by that. I love judo, ju-jitsu, and all combat sports for this reason. Their practitioners are healthier people.
One of the best French MMA coaches says that what makes the difference between a good fighter and a champion is intelligence.
Quite. It’s actually surprising when you go to the gymnasium of the best teams in the world: Brazilian top team, American top team… These are extremely tough places. However, when you talk to the best in the room, you notice that they are courteous, well educated, often well qualified. Take the example of Jon Jones, current heavyweight champion, or Francis Ngannou. They are brilliant, they express themselves perfectly, they appreciate philosophy, and they are obsessed with perfection.
How do you judge the sporting evolution of MMA?
MMA has fashions. At the very beginning, ju-jitsu was the most important discipline. Then, wrestling took over, for a while it was kick boxing. The only thing that doesn't change is the absolute necessity of having good wrestling defense. In my opinion, the best MMA fighter is not the one who is the best in a particular discipline, but the one who takes the best from each. He's not great anywhere, but bad nowhere either. MMA is becoming more and more symmetrical. Georges Saint-Pierre, who is a good friend, understood this before anyone else; he was looking for a good mix of each discipline.
Is there a discipline that is a notch more important than the others?
If there was an essential sector it would be the struggle. For two reasons. Firstly, this sport is incomparable for sharpening athletes, physically and mentally. Second, a good wrestler makes the fight easy, because he has the power to decide where the fight is going to go, stay standing or go to the ground. Justin Gaetje is one of the best punchers in the UFC. It hits so hard! Everyone knows him for his kick boxing. However, he is an elite wrestler. But his level in wrestling gives him the possibility of choosing his fight and imposing it on his opponents.
Chuck Liddell, one of my former training partners, demonstrated this very early on. His sporting message was: “I can knock you out; you can’t take me to the ground.” If I had to recommend a single sport for a young person wanting to get structured before doing MMA, I would without hesitation tell them to start with wrestling. A blue belt in wrestling will defeat a black belt in ju jitsu who has never wrestled, because he will have no control over himself.
What do you think of the UFC as an organization?
The UFC is a billion-dollar business that relies entirely on its athletes. Now, it’s terrible, but they get paid a pittance. I believe that Dana White (the head of the UFC, editor's note) is an excellent businessman, and not a bad person. But he looks like a horse promoter who doesn't love his animals. He just wants to see them win, but doesn't care about their lives. He is not interested in their development. A fighter who has fought for twenty years in the UFC has no retirement, no medical aid, no severance check, he must face all the damage to his body alone. In a way, it's almost criminal. I appreciate what Dana White has done for this sport: but he should realize that it's all on the athletes. He should take minimal care of it.
Are you part of the class action against the UFC, this vast lawsuit launched by the American competition authority?
Yes, like hundreds of former athletes. I consider, and I deplore having reached this point, that this is a good thing. Changes absolutely must take place; if a lawsuit is the only way to get them, then fine. Francis Ngannou was right to leave for the PFL (a competing organization, less important than the UFC but which claims to be more ethical, Editor's note). He was not respected. He was the heavyweight champion of the world, the scariest guy in the world, but the UFC wanted to pay him three cents. It's insulting.
The rules of doping have changed considerably since your career, what do you think?
I have never used performance enhancing drugs in my entire life. I've fought loaded guys, on steroids or testosterone. It was unfair, everyone should be on equal terms. If there were no tests, everyone could load up; now that there are tests, all fighters who test positive should be permanently excluded. We know the guys who go doping in Brazil for eight months before stopping their fight for two months, we see their bodies change: they should be cleared forever.
What is the biggest regret of your career?
Do you know the “f. it buttom? (the “nothing to f.” button in French, Editor’s note.) That moment when in your head you say to yourself “I don’t care about the plan anymore, I’m just going to blow this guy?” Well, I sometimes forbade myself from touching it. Against Ronaldo Souza and Luke Rockhold, my two belt fights, I was too focused on my game plan, too focused on the videos that I had analyzed with my trainer. When I look at these two fights, I tell myself that it’s not me. It's not my personality, I don't find myself, it's not the best version of myself. Against Robbie Lawler, Mickael Bisping, and even Yoel Romero, there I pressed this “f. it buttom”, and it gave very different performances. If I could go back and do those fights again, I would forget about wanting to have the perfect fight. Just being myself, like Gaetje for example.
You can make the most meticulous preparations, a fight remains chaos, the will to win and to do badly wins in the end. Maybe it’s a matter of pleasure and instinct. The mistake I made twice was focusing on being champion, not on fighting. Georges Saint-Pierre hated the moments before a fight, but was happy during. When we see Jon Jones walking towards the octagon, singing “I’m coming home,” we see a happy man going home.
What is your proudest moment?
Not to be dead. (He laughs heartily). I have been targeted so many times!
Your toughest opponent?
Myself. The hardest thing to overcome is yourself. Apart from that, I would say that the worst enemy is terrorism. He plays with his millions of faces, he blends in with the civilian populations. Hezbollah, Hamas, he has the face of an eight-year-old boy, he is a peasant or a businessman who crosses all borders legally, and suddenly he kills indiscriminately. These are m. selfish.
What do you think of Benoît Saint-Denis, and his chances of taking the lightweight belt?
Benoît is remarkable, very talented. However, he fights in the toughest weight division of all. In the top ten, each fighter could be in the other's place. To take this belt, it's a question of timing, of opponent, of luck. The number of variables that make a champion are incalculable. This is one of the immense strengths of this sport: old names resurface, young people arrive, things are bubbling.
What is your opinion of young French MMA, which has only been legal for a few years?
France surprised everyone. For twenty years, there was no important French fighter in MMA. Three years after legalization, they are everywhere! We wonder where they came from so quickly. They have good wrestling, clearly above average boxing, good ju jitsu, it’s refreshing. Benoît Saint-Denis started MMA in 2019, it’s astonishing to be so fast.
Benedict relies a lot on his Faith. What place does she have in the fight?
The vast majority of fighters, in MMA or in the army, believe in something. These jobs make life very real. The pain is real, feeding your family is real. All this makes you appreciate Faith and family more than anything. And freedom, as far as American athletes are concerned!
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