In the time honored tradition of hyping up a hotly anticipated championship bout, it’s quite unique for the challenger to believe the exchanging of fists and feet with the current title holder is the reward and not the typically coveted gold belt that hangs in the balance. At the same time, not every professional cagefighter is comfortable donning a black wig and wrapping their pectoral muscles in ace bandages in their free time in a hysterical effort to spoof a pop music video. Nor are many Bronze Star awarded Staff Sergeants of the United States Army. These wildly different character attributes are among a host that set Kennedy apart from the Strikeforce pack outside of the cage almost as much as his abilities to dispatch opponents inside of it.
A top ranked middleweight, a Special Forces soldier, a promising Youtube sensation, but, most of all, Kennedy is a skilled fighter looking for a five round scrap with his division’s best: Rockhold.
“I am honored and excited to fight an athlete like Luke,” affirms Kennedy. “I don't care about the title. I just want to fight the best guys and Luke is the best guy in Strikeforce. It's an honor to step in the cage against the best guy in my division and the best guy in my promotion. The belt is just a symbol that you have fought the best. I care more about who I'm fighting and not what I'm fighting for. I'm excited because I'm fighting Luke.”
At 32 years old with an overall record of 14-3, Kennedy has reached the Strikeforce mountaintop yet again to tangle with the number one fighter of his weight class. In August of 2010, Kennedy battled for the full 25 minutes with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza to a regrettable decision loss. Two years later, Kennedy has scored back-to-back wins over Melvin Manhoef and Robbie Lawler, which earned Kennedy a second shot at a belt, but, more importantly, a sanctioned mixed martial arts struggle with the toughest guy the company can put in front of him. For Kennedy, the test of beating a game opponent is the drive for all of his outings, including his most recent decision victory over UFC and Strikeforce veteran Lawler in July 2011.
“He's a one punch knockout artist,” affirms Kennedy. “If you give him time and the opportunity, he'll blast you. I tried to stay out of that the entire fight, tried to stay out of his ‘brawler range’. I tried to close the distance quickly to a range I felt comfortable with - that was the gameplan. Get through his punching power area and get in and hurt him. I think I was successful in almost every one of my efforts. He caught me one time coming in with an uppercut on my nose in the middle of the second round and it cut me and it bled. Quite a bit of blood on us, the cage, and the judges and anything else within 20 feet. It was a tough fight, but I'm happy with it.”
It’s been nearly a year since Kennedy last took to the cage and defeated Lawler, which punched his title shot ticket, but that span of time has been marked by improvement and not inactivity. For the past 11 months, he has trained tirelessly for this eventual showdown with Rockhold in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas with Muay Thai striking coach Jason Webster, and in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a member of the Jackson’s fight team under the supervision of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. A specific focus of Kennedy’s was to better the accuracy and timing of his takedowns, as he only scored about a third of his 16 takedown attempts on the underrated wrestler Lawler. Beyond that, the bigger picture for his improvement has been to increase the range of where he can inflict damage on his adversary to make him an attacking menace everywhere.
“I've had 11 months to make myself dangerous in all other areas,” states Kennedy. “The areas I wasn't as good at I tried to improve on and the areas I was already good at I tried to make myself absolutely amazing at. Once guys are scared of my takedowns I'm able to hurt them standing like I did to Robbie. Going to the body, overhands, even with kicks and knees. Once he was so apprehensive with the takedowns, I was able to do a lot more. I tried to crispen up where and when I can hurt people. I've improved my defense, my head movement, my footwork. I got to spend a lot of time with a lot of people I respect in jiu-jitsu to try and sharpen up my submission game. I was a bit of a positional fighter where if you give me side control, then you're never going to get me out of side control and I'm going to hurt you as much as I can with as much time is left in that round. Now, I'm been exposed to more offensive threats in more offensive positions.”
Up next for Kennedy is a July 14th main event in Portland, Oregon against the Strikeforce middleweight champion Rockhold. The 9-1 product of the heralded American Kickboxing Academy is a Dave Camarillo jiu-jitsu brown belt with several submission grappling tournament gold medals on his mantle as well as the Strikeforce belt, which he won off “Jacare” via unanimous decision last September. In short, Rockhold is a 6’3”, 185 pound terror who is undefeated in the Strikeforce cage and is proving to be as much as a potential finisher on the feet as he is on the ground. As mentioned earlier, Kennedy isn’t interested in the belt as much as he is to clash with Rockhold because of how highly he thinks of the current champ, so there’s no trash-talk to be found on Kennedy’s end.
“I have a lot of respect for Luke,” tells Kennedy. “I think he's a talented, gifted athlete. I think he's a developing mixed martial artist. He's definitely risen quickly and blossomed fast. He's dangerous in many different ways. His jiu-jitsu in underrated, his grappling/wrestling is good, and his striking is good. He's good at dictating the range that he likes. He's a problem in every single area. I'm really excited to fight the best fighter in Strikeforce. I have a lot of respect for him as a fighter and athlete.”
Although Kennedy and Rockhold have zero experience fighting each other, both have spent nearly a half hour rumbling with the former Strikeforce king “Jacare” Souza. On the surface, both bouts were extremely contentious, with opposite endings for Kennedy and Rockhold, and they truly demonstrated why these two middleweights need to meet in a cage for five rounds. But if one - Kennedy - looks deeper into the fights, one will see not only the mistakes one needs to rectify to win in the past, but the possible vulnerabilities in the other to win in the future. For Kennedy, the lesson is to worry less about having a metaphorical stranglehold on his expectations and worry more about having a literal stranglehold on his foe.
“It definitely wasn't the best version of myself in the cage that night,” admits Kennedy. “He surprised me in the sense that he didn't try to grapple with me. He only tried to take me down twice. And both times, I stuffed him. With me being surprised about him not wanting to shoot or take me down, I wasn't prepared for the type of fight it ended up being, but I still thought I won the fight in every way it ended being. I landed more punches, I landed more kicks, I dropped him in the first round, I slammed him. I have looked back at that fight and I'm frustrated of course. The first, I had nothing to fear from him and should have pushed the pace and been much more aggressive. The second, regardless of how a guy fights, I should have understood that if he didn't want to take me down then I should have destroyed him on his feet, but I never got there. It's another thing I tried to improve on.”
On the flip-side, the lesson about Rockhold is to be better where Souza wasn’t and to be best where “Jacare” had his most success. The Achilles heel for the Brazilian was his lack of cardio against a challenger who appeared to get better, faster, stronger as the fight wore on. Early on, Souza’s stereotypical pedal-to-the-metal style was effective, but soon enough he was running on fumes and couldn’t continue at the speed he had set. Meanwhile, Rockhold drove strong for all five rounds, consistently pressing the action until the belt was his.
“I thought Luke fought a brilliant fight against ‘Jacare’,” tells Kennedy. “‘Jacare’ looked great and then he slowed down and gassed. He spent so much energy on that first takedown. ‘Jacare’ fights with a lot of muscle and is not relaxed and fluid. I think that was a problem because he was never able to recover as Luke kept picking up the pace and ‘Jacare’ couldn't keep up. It was a very close fight. I think ‘Jacare’ was throwing a one or two punch combination and one punch would land like a big overhand, but he wouldn't follow up. In the first round, he would land something and then follow-up with a takedown, which he scored and did damage. I really think that first round was a recipe of how to beat Luke, but you need to have the gas tank to do it for five rounds.”
On Saturday, from “The City of Roses”, the two best middleweights Strikeforce proudly has to offer will collide in the cage for the division’s championship belt. “I think Luke is young, tough, confident, durable, long, rangy, and hard to hit, but I plan to be in his face for 25 minutes,” asserts Kennedy, who has no magic trick to beat Rockhold except for five rounds of hardnosed, punishing effort, which will be a more satisfying prize than any glittery belt. “That's what I've prepared for. I plan on being in his face 25 minutes. If I can go out there and demonstrate that I always fight hard, I always train hard, and I always put on a show, then I'm happy.”
Whether he walks out of Portland with the title or not, both Kennedy and Strikeforce fans will have gotten what they have eagerly wanted: a fist fight with Rockhold.