Tim Kennedy wanted it badly. It was easy to understand why.
The opportunity to compete at the UFC's third Fight for the Troops event was a perfect fit for him, being that he spent a decade in the United States military, serving as a Green Beret and Army Ranger, including several deployments to Iraq. A war zone is a place where many precious things, including life itself, can be taken away from a man or woman. But several weeks ago, it was his prizefighting workplace that appeared to be robbing him of his treasured date with his brothers and sisters in uniform. The UFC pulled Lyoto Machida from Wednesday night's scheduled main event, putting him on a different card and leaving Kennedy without an opponent.
Not surprisingly, Kennedy didn't go down without a fight. Perhaps surprisingly, he used a sense of humor as his secret weapon. The middleweight took to Twitter and began tossing out challenges in every direction. He begged Wanderlei Silva to fight him instead of Chael Sonnen because "he has better wrestling than me and a better chin." He prodded Nick Diaz with, "I stole your pot and bicycle." He tried "Shogun" Rua and Costa Philippou and Rafael Natal. Then Kennedy reached out to his bosses. "Dear @UFC," he tweeted. "It has been 24 hrs since I learned my opponent was stolen. I will begin executing 1 unicorn a day till a replacement is found."
Apparently, Dana White & Co. had a soft spot for unicorns. They met Kennedy's ransom demand by slotting Natal into the main event at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
And Kennedy destroyed him, landing a lunging left hand in the closing seconds of the first round to put the Brazilian on his back, then finishing him with punches on the canvas for a TKO at 4:40 as the crowd -- made up entirely of uniformed soldiers -- went wild.
It was Kennedy (17-4) who showed the deepest appreciation, though. With his conquered opponent still dazed on the canvas, the 34-year-old jumped onto the cage, straddled it and began pointing out to the cheering masses, yelling, "I love you guys! My heart is yours! I love you."
The emotions only intensified after Kennedy's hand was raised and he had a microphone in his face. "I'm 100 percent overwhelmed," he told the crowd. "You guys' job is a thousand times, infinitely harder than anything I could ever do in here. I don't deserve to be here. Love you guys very much. I miss everything about ... you guys are my heroes. You guys are my idols. I'm a Christian; I give glory to God. But I worship you guys. I worship you guys. I love every one of you."
There have been bigger fights and better fighters inside the octagon. There have not been many more impassioned speeches.
Kennedy's words were perfect for the occasion. The fight card was held to raise funds and awareness for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a research facility for the diagnosis and treatment of military personnel and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and psychological health issues. Between fan donations and online auctions of UFC items, the Fight for the Troops events in 2008 and 2011 helped raise over $4 million.
The Intrepid Foundation was thrilled to have the UFC again putting on a show on a military base. "They've been passionate supporters of what we're trying to do, which is really only to repay these young men and women," said vice chairman Marty Edelman. "We ask them to go to very difficult places, fight in very difficult wars, and we have a covenant with them that if they're injured we'll repair their lives."
And you wonder why Tim Kennedy wanted so desperately to be on this card?
He had some pressure on him, though, especially after all three of the others with military backgrounds who were on the card -- Liz Carmouche (Marines), Colton Smith (Army) and Neil Magny (Army) -- lost their bouts. And Kennedy started slowly and a bit stiffly, remaining patient even after the crowd began chanting "Ranger up!" and "U-S-A!" Natal (17-5-1) landed the occasional punch or kick, and so did Kennedy, but everything was being launched from distance. It was as though both fighters were waiting for the order to attack.
Then, as the round wound down, Kennedy heard his coaches, Mike Winkeljohn and Brandon Gibson, yelling to him from his corner. "Moments before I threw that left hook, I heard Coach Wink and Coach Brandon," he recalled. "They said -- we know that hook well, we trained it and they called it. They said, 'Tim, throw it! Tim, throw it! Tim, throw it!'"
He threw it. It closed out the fight and opened the floodgates of unadulterated sentiment.