The Green Beret in-training was smart. After deftly collecting intel, he buried MREs before the evasion phase at SERE training.
Instead of scrambling for food in the remote North Carolina terrain, he could figure out how to engineer a hammock while others wrestled with thoughts of hunger. There were 11 Special Forces trainees and an airman.
The plan seemed epic. There was enough food for all. Heck, they could all construct hammocks. But the airman tossed a spanner in the works. He wanted no part of the MREs, questioning their origin.
“How did they get buried here?”
The Green Beret trainee replied, “I don’t know, somebody buried them. Would you like some food? There’s 2,000 calories here.”
The airman declined. “No, this is cheating.”
The trainee disagreed, “It’s not cheating. This is us eating. This is surviving.”
And then came the concentration camp phase.
Fighting the Taliban
I rolled up to Tim Kennedy’s well-appointed sprawling home in Cedar Park — one of many affluent suburbs north of Austin, Texas — during a vision-impaired rainstorm. The autogate allowed me to pass through. I had a mask around my neck just in case, but Kennedy and his young children greeted me at the door and informed me a mask policy wasn’t in effect at the Kennedy home.
Dressed in workout shorts, a People’s Republic of Pineland T-shirt (a fictitious country used for staged invasions in Green Beret training) and a baseball cap turned backward, he appeared ready for come-what-may. We partook in some sparkling water from a can and dove into the interview.
“If you’re not supporting somebody’s right — their constitutional right — how are you going to feel when they don’t support your constitutional right?” Kennedy said. “That’s the idea of freedom, is that you’re free … I want them to be able to do things that make my blood boil. That angers me so much, and philosophically, emotionally, spiritually, I’m the antithesis of that. I look at that and I’m like, ’That’s wrong in every way, shape and form. But man, it’s cool that you can do that.’”
Surviving life while embracing it could be a mantra for this Green Beret and once-top-ranked MMA Strikeforce and UFC fighter. His collection of experiences sounds like a towering love song to life.
Kennedy is currently assigned to the Texas National Guard’s Special Operations Detachment, but his armed forces foray began nearly two decades ago in the wake of 9/11.
“I enlisted while I was in grad school after 9/11,” he said, “and then went to Fort Benning for basic and then went to infantry school … and then it was like, Benning, Bragg, deployment, Bragg, Benning, deployment. Just going to different schools.”
Kennedy has been to South America, the Caribbean — JSATs (Joint Security Assistance Training) and FIDs (Foreign Internal Defense) — Afghanistan and Iraq. The master sergeant has logged more than 20 deployments, from advising and counter-human-trafficking operations to counter-drug and counter-poaching missions. He has also combated piracy in Africa and performed human intelligence work in Eastern Europe.
But the essence of the man, and his zest for life, were put to the test during one particular deployment.
Somewhere in a valley in Afghanistan, Kennedy faced death. The fighter found himself in a treacherous and vulnerable firefight with the Taliban.
But it wasn’t a high or low point for Kennedy. Rather, he said, it was a transitional one.
He had been a part of numerous task forces. In a prior combat deployment, his ranger regiment was assigned to a Delta task force that killed the al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He had seen the terrorist’s indignation expressed through violence many times.
“There’s never a fair fight,” he said. “We just murdered everyone. When you’re at that level, there’s nobody on the planet that can compete or hang with us.”
Thankfully, he didn’t become Walter Kurtz.
“It was a different thing when a year and a half later, I go to Afghanistan, and I’m by myself with a Czech special forces unit, and we’re getting ambushed in a valley,” said Kennedy, who was a United States Army Special Operations Command liaison to the Czech special forces and helped establish them in the infamous Firebase Anaconda.
“Firebase Anaconda no longer exists because it was overrun by the Taliban so many times, and they ultimately took it … and I was escorting the Czech into this firebase when we were ambushed,” he said.
The ambush initiated a near-death, days-long gunfight with waves of surging Taliban fighters.
“For the first time, I kinda put on big-boy pants as a Special Forces guy,” he said. “Everything else up to that point was like, ‘America,’ and this was fighting. This was like looking out over bodies and like, ‘Where can I find some ammo because we’re out of ammo.’ It’s a different thing … It was definitely a culminating moment.”
‘I want to create my own options’
Throughout active duty, Kennedy also maintained a successful professional MMA career. But the Army’s tepid response to his two-pronged career and prowess in the octagon resulted in an ultimatum.
“So they went the route of you kinda have to decide between the two,” Kennedy said. “And so I went to the National Guard to SF (Special Forces)… and then came to Texas.”
The Army’s dictate didn’t suit the former top-ranked middleweight. He wanted to consume the whole cake, call the shots. His insistence seems more of a necessity than hollow arrogance. A need to feed a passionate and convicted machine to ensure it’s operating at full capacity. The Army’s options weren’t an option.
“Are those my options? I want to create my own options,” he said.
When Kennedy departed U.S. Army Special Forces to pursue fighting, the Army ironically saw the benefit of sponsorship, paying him six figures to wear “Go Army,” he said.
“This is the irony of bureaucracy,” he said, “and this is the irony of large organizations, and we have been the worst at this … We forget about the individual, but we’re a collective of the individual.”
Preparation for fighting and warfare has, “a lot of bleed-over in the practices,” according to Kennedy, such as regimentation, discipline, organization and strategizing. These characteristics certainly helped Kennedy achieve an 18-6 fight record in Strikeforce and UFC.
“The skill development leading into the PMT (pre-mission train up), we’re working on breaching, I’m working on my sniper skill, or I’m working on my free fall … When you look at the fight thing, you have my fight camp, pre-fight camp. I’m working on my Brazilian jiu jitsu. I’m working on my wrestling … I’m building the individual capabilities … and then we go and execute in the arena,” Kennedy said.
And of course, both require battle. But that’s where commonality departs.
“Walking into the octagon compared to throwing a flash-bang through a window and shooting someone in the face, those are pretty different things,” Kennedy said.
On Sept. 27, 2014, in Las Vegas, Kennedy didn’t toss a flash-bang but fought his most famous – and infamous – bout. Some might argue it was the lowest point of a career or a blessing in disguise.
In a fight now dubbed “Stoolgate,” Kennedy squared off against Cuban Yoel Romero. Romero was a UFC rising star who competed under the appellation, “Soldier of God.” He had won a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“I fought for two world titles … and I lost two world titles,” Kennedy said. “When Michael Bisping was the UFC middleweight champion, Yoel Romero and I were the two contenders. So we fought a contender fight — and I already fought Michael Bisbing and decimated Michael Bisbing — I beat Yoel Romero, I’m fighting for the UFC middleweight title.”
The fight was close for two rounds. Then controversy ensued. Romero didn’t come out for the third round, as Vaseline was applied to a cut and removed per the referee’s instruction. Kennedy had severely stunned Romero at the end of the preceding round. The Cuban fighter ultimately rested for 30 seconds longer on a stool.
“He doesn’t answer the bell, and I get destroyed in the third round,” Kennedy said.
UFC President Dana White told Bleacher Report in 2014, “That’s an old dirty trick.”
“The thing that throws a kink in the thing is that it was our guy that put the Vaseline on…They called his guy in to wipe the Vaseline off,” White said. “He didn’t understand what they were saying. It’s very unfortunate.”
Though the Romero fight wasn’t exactly a highlight for Kennedy, he said a fighter is one punch from drinking out of a straw.
“That’s a pretty low moment,” he said. “But also probably the best thing because had I won that, then I would have fought Michael Bisping, become champion and then I would have fought another three to four years… I’m not an anomaly, but compared to most fighters that fought 17 years, from concussions and TBIs, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), it’s a different thing talking to them than it is talking to me.”
Tim Kennedy shifts from bouts to business ventures
Kennedy retired from the sport in January 2017 and reenlisted later that year as a Green Beret. He is now a serial entrepreneur involved in 24 entities and the owner of 11 multimillion dollar companies.
And he is solidifying the businesses for longevity instead of building and then exiting.
“These are businesses that have headquarters, that have physical brick-and-mortar retail spaces. All of those things have legs now that will be generational. I think I’m going to continue to shore up the businesses I have and not build any more than what I currently am doing … I launched five businesses this year,” he said.
He also has a book, “About Failure,” slated for release in 2022.
“The overarch is this too-dumb-to-quit mentality,” Kennedy said. “Stories in that book are so really unbelievable.”
I believe it.
And what did Kennedy learn back at SERE training where he had stashed a trove of MREs?
“So you’re incentivized to not get caught during the evasion week because the earlier you get caught, the longer you’re in the concentration camp,” he said. “Most people end up in the resistance phase starved to death because they haven’t eaten in 10 days.”
He said the 11 Special Forces soldiers helped him secure the sustenance, but the airman was the lone wolf who stood his ground.
“All of us kind of respected him for that … we all supported him in that,” Kennedy said. “But then when we got to indoc … as you’re being processed into concentration camps, you have a black bag on your head, and they tear the black bag off, and they start hitting you. Like, ‘What’s your name? What’s your social security number, or what is your unit? What do you do?’”
He said they were instructed to use proper techniques to deflect any form of betrayal. In SF vernacular, it’s referred to as “staying in your circle.”
“And his bag came off, and he just started screaming, ‘They buried food! They cheated!’ And all of us were in a line, and we could hear his voice like a bell in the middle of the night ringing as he’s screaming, ‘They cheated, they cheated, they cheated! They had food buried.’ And they immediately separated all of us.”
Kennedy said this was the first time a SERE training interrogation went from role-playing to real — as far as he knows.
“If the 11 of us break, I’m kicked out of Special Forces. I don’t get my green beret. I never go to a Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha). And from that moment on … for the duration of our time in the concentration camp they were legitimately interrogating all of us.”
No one broke, but the airman was dismissed from the school.
“He was lying. He had 11 people that were disagreeing with him,” Kennedy said.
In this time of COVID-19, Kennedy holds God, family, and country most sacred. God is the how and why of what Kennedy does. But at the end of a workout or a mission, know this – Kennedy selects his song, his dance.
“I’m gonna go and take what you’re giving me, and I’m gonna, like, smash that against the wall. I’m gonna go do my own thing … That’s just how I roll,” he said.