Tim Kennedy has dodged bullets, bombs, and—in his own words—nearly frozen his dick off. Do you think he really cares if you throw a punch at him?
The middleweight contender, who fights at UFC 206, is an Iraq war veteran who’s served as a Special Forces sniper and Green Beret. That gives him a completely different sense of fear than most men, or even most professional fighters. Essentially, he has none.
What was your physical training like in special forces?
A Special Forces mission is one that may require you to sprint 20 meters with a dead dude on your back. Or you might be in a gunfight for five days straight. So training your body for that is different than the front line infantryman who needs to march for hours. It’s very similar to fight training. We do Crossfit stuff some days, Gym Jones stuff other days. Some days we run, some we ruck. Two or three days a week we’ll just do combatives training—wrestling, boxing, jiu jitsu. We did a lot of stuff in body armor. We had something called a Viking Workout where we had full armor on and a sledgehammer, which was like our rifle. You get on a rower and row a thousand meters. Get off and pick up a sledgehammer and run a mile with it. Slam a tire with the hammer a hundred times. Then run a mile and row another thousand meters. The whole team did this and we all had to row and run together. The idea is to be like an old viking boat: you row to shore, go to battle and kill, run back to the boat, and row away.
You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so you could only row and run as fast as the slowest guy. There was a lot of peer pressure.
Was there hazing in your unit?
Absolutely, and it’s a good thing. I don’t know what’s happened in the past 10 years where everybody thinks hazing is a bad thing. This isn’t a fraternity. It’s not a bunch of college kids who want to be cool and are picking on each other. These are guys who are going to war and are going to burn alive if they make mistakes. They’ll literally drown in shit.
The team is a refiner’s fire. The only way a weapon gets strong is from pressure and heat. Literally pounding the impurities out of it. I was hazed. I was beat up. It’s not like getting beaten with soap at the end of a sock like you see in movies. It was more like… I talked back to my team Sergeant, saying I should go on this mission. He said “No, we don’t have enough seats on the helicopter.” I acted like a little girl. I come back to the team and they’re sitting there with boxing gloves on and say, “We’re going to figure this out.” So I had to fight them for a seat.
I wouldn’t have learned any other way. Hazing is just another exercise. It’s really easy to watch TV news and say, “That poor soldier who got hazed was treated so badly,” but you know what? His whole team would have died [if they had had to rely on him.] Beheaded, skinned alive, hung.
Do you really train three times a day?
Yes but not for the same amount of time. I might do strength and conditioning in the morning at Onnit Academy, then some flow technical sparring in the afternoon. That night I’ll do jiu-jitsu. It’s like 90 minutes, 60 and 60.
My strength and conditioning is 10 minutes of warmups, then mobility. Speed drills, ladder drills, box jumps. I’ll do line drills and grass drills, then a big power movement. Sometimes it’s an Olympic lift, sometimes pullups. Then circuits. Monday is a power day, Tuesday is metabolic conditioning, Wednesday is cardio, Thursday is cardio, Friday is met con again. For me, a cardio day is keeping a constant heart rate. Wednesday we ran 800s followed by tire drags for 400 meters. Then we did sets of 100 stepups onto a box at the end.
Yikes. That’s a lot of work. Do you think recovery is more a state of mind than body?
The body will definitely give out later than the mind in most people, but I take recovery seriously. When we’re done talking I’ll get cryotherapy, then take an ice bath, then have sex for a while. That’s a part of recovery too. Then I’ll put on compression sleeves to fight inflammation. Tomorrow I’ll get a massage. Most people are so focused on recovery and they haven’t earned it.
What are you eating?
I get red meat a couple times a week, mostly wild caught. Deer, elk, fish, chicken. I’ve been a pro athlete for 15 years so I don’t need to calorie count. I have an idea of what I eat in every meal. People would be surprised by the amount of fat I eat. Fish, MCT oil, coconut oil, butter. I take Total Strength + Performance pre-workout, Shroomtech Sport, Total Primate Care in the morning and at night, Dolce whey and Hemp Force protein, Oatmega and Warrior bars.
What are some of your best lifts?
I can deadlift in the mid 400s. I don’t go below five reps training for a fight. I don’t do heavy singles, because one rep doesn’t help in a fight.
You’ve competed in military martial arts tournaments, the UFC, and the Ultimate Soldier Challenge [a History Channel series]. Which was the toughest?
The Army Combatives championship. It’s the longest with the highest level of competitors. Friday is grappling only, six or eight matches. Saturday is Pancrase rules—you might fight three or four times with open palm strikes and kicks, knees, and submissions. The top four guys advance to the finals on Sunday.
When can you remember being most frightened?
I don’t have regular fear. There were times when I was pretty sure I was going to die. I’ve made a lot of choices that were not always in the best interest of self-preservation. I’ve been scuba diving too deep and took my tank off to try and get a lobster. I’ve pulled my chute a little later jumping out of a plane so I could get a few more seconds of free fall. I’ve been in situations where you know you’re surrounded and there’s 400 of them and 20 of you and I’ve thought I’m probably going to die here. But that’s not what I was afraid of. I was afraid of failing my team, failing my family, and that if I died my friends were going to die. I don’t get nervous before fights.
When you’re tired or in pain, Do you embrace it or ignore it?
I love it. Being in pain, hungry, tired, or sore—that feels like home now. When I don’t feel that way, there’s something off. When I’m at the shooting range and I don’t have sweat in my eyes, it’s weird. It’s too easy. I want sunscreen and bug spray getting into my eyes and ears and burning. I want the feeling of missing a spot on my back with sunblock and the sun getting in there and burning. I want ants crawling up my feet, and wet clothes. Sand inside wet gloves that’s turning to mud against my fingers. I have a callus from the trigger well of my Glock. When I feel it bleeding inside my glove… Now I can start shooting. That feels normal. That feels right.
How do you get used to that? Do you have a natural proclivity for it or is it years of training?
Both. In this day and age people are so afraid of pain. They look for the easy way. They don’t realize that the best version of everything is at the end of something hard. Nothing you value will ever come easy. This entire generation is just shortchanging itself.
How can regular people start training to be mentally tough?
Get off your ass. It’s super easy. Come into Onnit’s gym. What’s the point of life besides to live and do epic shit?
Is there ever a time you came close to breaking or quitting?[Long pause] I don’t think so. There was a time at Ranger school; it was winter. I was freezing my balls off. We were about to do this ambush drill. One of the Ranger Instructors said, “I’ve got hot coffee and soup in the back of the truck. Anybody who wants it can just walk down the road and have it. That’s voluntary withdrawal.” They were trying to get us to quit. I thought that sounded really good, and I hadn’t really eaten in, like, two months.
The ground was frozen. I was laying on top of it, and it was snowing on the back of my head. My frozen dick was against the ground. One guy stands up and says, “I quit,” and that’s when another guy says, “Get the fuck down, we’re about to do an ambush.” And that was it. I missed my chance.
I thought about that coffee and that soup and I almost went. Everybody wants the easy way. Hot soup and coffee would have been delicious that night, but standing there with 150 other now-Rangers, and going to Afghanistan a few months later as a Special Forces Green Beret sniper and Ranger… That was better.
What weapon do you recommend for self-defense?
Whatever they’re going to carry. Knife and gun. I have a Glock 31 in my gym bag.
If a guy had to pick one martial art to study for street self-defense, what is it?
Just one? Jiu-jitsu. It makes you aware of your body and you’ll understand weight and how to use somebody else’s against them.
What has war taught you?
War has taught me two things. It’s absolutely necessary and it’s totally and utterly the embodiment of evil. We have to have it. There’s good on the other side of war. For evil to conquer good men have to do nothing. When good men step up to do something, that’s a fight, or a battle, or a war. Whether it was against the fascists in the 30s and 40s or the Communists in the 70s and 80s, and now its radical Islam, war is a necessary evil to fight.
Do you ever have moments of guilt about any of the things you’ve done for your country?
I relive one of 20 or 30 decisions I’ve made every night before I go to sleep. One of them creeps into my mind somehow. One was throwing a grenade through a window I was getting shot at from. Even though there was a machine gun sticking out of the window, I knew there were women and kids inside.
Seeing this guy walking along this ridge holding a gun… We were in the middle of a firefight, and I put that guy on the ground, later to find out it’s a 12 year-old kid carrying a rifle from one fighting position to another. Yes, he was helping the bad guys, but I just shot a 12 year-old kid.
Did I make the right decision? When I ask people what they would have done, everybody agrees they’d do the same thing, but that doesn’t make it right or any less horrible. Occupationally, I am a Special Forces sniper, Ranger-qualified, Green Beret, attached to a halo sniper team. I’m supposed to be good at a lot of things but really good at just one. If I can’t do that when I’m supposed to, then why am I in this job? So it’s black and white to me. It’s justice or injustice. So while it might be horrible for me on a personal level, ultimately it is what I have chosen and dedicated my life to doing. That’s being hard to kill and stopping people from doing evil.
What do you think america has lost and how do we get it back?
We’ve lost our balls. We used to be a country that stood for something, that understood right and wrong. We didn’t used to be so easily offended. We weren’t walking around with safe spaces and trigger words. We were people that aspired to reach for the stars, to walk on the moon. We built the tallest buildings and bridges and the strongest economy on the planet. We fought in the greatest war and if we didn’t there would be no Jews on the planet. No blacks on the planet. That’s what we were. Now we’re a culture that’s so easily offended, so internally focused, that we forgot to aspire. We forgot to be hard, to be tough. What it looks like to have calluses on our hands and bleeding fingers.
How do we start turning that around?
Individual responsibility. The Constitution was written by bad asses. They understood individual responsibility. They could feed their own families. They understood what a long day’s work was. The people who wrote the Constitution weren’t in Congress for 40 years. They were doctors and lawyers and scientists. People need to get off their asses and get to work. You do not deserve anything. Get it yourself. When you work for something and you get it you will value it.
We think of elite soldiers as being a little withdrawn, or antisocial. Are you the exception to the rule or is that a stereotype?
I have no idea where that stereotype came from, but I 100% agree that it exists. If you come and hang out with my friends—snipers, Rangers, SEALs—you’ll see the funniest, most intelligent group of people you’ve ever seen. They’re self-deprecating and non-stop funny. Gregarious personalities. Loving, kind family men. I don’t know if it’s the media or what but the guy who can’t speak or laugh, that’s the anomaly. I think I’m the norm.
See Kennedy vs. Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 206 on Saturday, December 10, at 10 p.m. EST on pay-per-view.