If it were up to him, Tim Kennedy would already be gone. He'd have hung up gloves, put his Army uniform back on, and put the world of professional mixed martial arts fighting in his rearview mirror. It's not that he doesn't love it anymore, he said. It's just that lately, he's found himself wondering if it's ever going to love him back.
As Kennedy explained it in a recent interview with SI.com: "I left the military so I could be a professional athlete, and this doesn't feel very professional."
By this, he mostly means Strikeforce, the organization that, on July 14, will grant the 32-year-old Kennedy his second shot at its middleweight title. The last time he got such a chance was in August 2010, when he lost a unanimous decision to then-champion Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. Now, two fights and two years later, he's getting a crack at current champ Luke Rockhold, the man who took that title from Souza. If you're thinking two title shots in two years doesn't sound like such a bad deal, Kennedy mostly agrees with you. It's what that title means -- and doesn't -- that has him wondering if he wouldn't be better off back in a combat zone.
For instance, Kennedy said, say he beats Rockhold, whom he regards as a top middleweight, but whom most MMA fans see as little more than the obscure belt-holder in a second-tier organization.
"Even then, nothing changes," he said. "I feel like it's a very murky, unclear future for me professionally. I love Strikeforce, love [Strikeforce CEO] Scott [Coker], and I've had some great fights there, but it feels kind of meaningless. The people in [the media] won't look at me any differently if I beat Luke. The fans certainly won't. I won't garner any new ones. It'll just be like, oh, he beat some Strikeforce guy. Even though Luke is amazing, and one of the most underrated fighters around."
If this were just a temporary situation, Kennedy said, he could handle it. He could tell himself it was a means to an end. But because of the structure of the deal between Zuffa -- the UFC's parent company, which bought Strikeforce in March 2011 -- and the Showtime cable network, he fears he may never get to move over to the UFC. And if that's the case, how long can he keep swimming around in this small pool, fighting the same three or four opponents over and over, before the whole thing starts to feel like an exercise in futility?
It's a familiar concern among Strikeforce fighters, who know that, at least in the eyes of most fight fans, the UFC is the big show. There are even some people who still think 'UFC' is the name of the sport itself. If the parent company to both organizations is intent on keeping Strikeforce fighters in Strikeforce and UFC fighters in the UFC, then guys like Kennedy might be right to wonder if they're wasting their time. They still make a decent paycheck in the lesser-known promotion -- that is, when they can get a fight. Strikeforce puts on only a handful of events each year, which is why Kennedy said he's fought just twice in the past two years, a schedule he described as "financially ridiculous."
"It would make more sense for me to go back into the military and make just as much money," he said. Plus, he added, it's not easy to walk away from a career in the Special Forces at a time like this. "In the past 24 months that I've been away from the military, some pretty gigantic things have happened, things I might possibly have been part of. That eats me up."
So why doesn't he go back to active duty, if he truly misses it so much? In short, because his wife won't let him. She's been through it enough, he said, and would rather have him dodging punches than bullets.
"She says I've been to too many wars, too many other countries, been gone too long, and it's time for me to be here," Kennedy said.
And so he is. At least for now. If things go his way in Portland, Ore., on July 14, he'll return home as the new Strikeforce middleweight champion, for whatever that's worth. The problem is, he's not sure where he's supposed to go from there. Even if he has that Strikeforce belt for his trophy case, it's not as if anyone's going to call him the world's best middleweight because of it. Unless some major changes take place very, very soon, it probably won't even earn him a shot at a bigger name and a move up the ranks.
"Leaving active duty was so I could become the best fighter in the world at my weight class. That just couldn't happen here in the next 12 months. It probably couldn't happen in the next 20 months, just because of the way things are," he said.
For the next couple weeks at least, the way forward is clear. He has Rockhold to worry about, which is plenty. After that, who knows?
"I've either got to talk my wife into letting me [return to active duty], or talk [UFC middleweight champion] Anderson Silva into fighting me."
In either conversation he'll be making his case to someone who has every reason to turn him down.