“I just like jiu jitsu – REAL jiu jitsu. It scares me that we have to make a distinction between real jiu jitsu and sport jiu jitsu, which I guess is kind of the talking point” – Tim Kennedy
As a Green Beret and Special Forces Ranger, UFC and Strikeforce veteran and lifelong martial artist, you could say Tim Kennedy is the definitive SAVAGE. Though now retired from the realm of the 40z glove, he’s still competing in grappling events, showcasing his pure jiu jitsu skills and expressing his love for the gentle art.
We caught up with Tim to discuss why he believes the combative elements of jiu jitsu must be preserved, how the art has helped keep him grounded as a soldier, and how taking on Jacare Souza and Roger Gracie reaffirmed his love for grappling.
People may not realise that you’ve been training jiu jitsu – in the gi – for quite some time.
I’ve been training under Royler for like ten years; we’ve got a Gracie Humaita academy here in Austin, Texas – under Paulo Brandao. So, yeah, it’s been a long journey.
So you’ve hung up your MMA gloves, but is that now it for you in terms of martial arts competition?
No. I’m not going to be getting hit in the head anymore competing for the UFC, but I have competed a few time already this year in grappling. I guess in a sense I’m not retired as an athlete – I’ve just retired from the getting punched in the face part.
For someone who’s used to fighting in the UFC, the top levels of MMA, it must be a very different experience when you compete in grappling?
It’s really fun (laughs). I’ve never really liked fighting. Fighting has just been a way for me to test myself as a martial artist. I never considered myself a career fighter, which is one of many reasons why – post career – I’m better off than when I was actually fighting. Like I say, in the sense of being a competitor, I 100% want to continue, just not in the UFC and with MMA.
Obviously your career away from martial arts with the military offers a very different form of competition for you as well?
Everyday I show up to train – whether it’s grappling, shooting, or whatever – I’m surrounded by a bunch of killers; literally and figuratively.
At what stage in your preparation for MMA did jiu jitsu come in to play? Was it something you trained before MMA?
Jiu jitsu was something I started really, really young – before I was fighting. My third martial art I ever did was traditional Japanese ju jitsu with my coaches Terry Kelly and Barry Smith. I trained with them for about five years when I was around 11 or 12. There wasn’t much Brazilian jiu jitsu when you go back to 1995 in the United States. Back then I had to travel around two and a half hours just to train with a purple belt – and I would do that. I’d drive down to Santa Barbara or San Francisco to get sessions in with purple and brown belts.
By the time I left high school we were still in the dark ages of mixed martial arts, and the distinction between amateur and professional MMA still wasn’t clear. I had 30 or 35 fights as an amateur, some of which I got paid for, and my record included half of the wins by KO and half by submission. If the guy walked in and he had cauliflower ears I’d try to knock him out. If he came in and was shadow boxing in the corner I was going to run a double leg and pound him out on the ground. It was quite easy to figure out how you were going to fight back then.
So did you always train in the gi?
I love both gi and nogi. For me there’s no real preference between them, but I love them differently. In fact, I don’t think people realise just how different gi and nogi can be. You know, when Rafael Lovato is getting ready for a fight like (Gegard) Mousasi, he comes here and we train for a few days, but obviously we wont be in the gi. If we then have a bunch of guys getting ready for the worlds, then we’re all going to be in a gi. I really do feel like they’re almost different sports.
You have said previously that your fight with Roger Gracie in the UFC was something that helped you reignite your passion for jiu jitsu?
If you look at when I fought Jacare, I think that’s a really good example of what I didn’t do right. What I did was look at this great grappler, but decided he isn’t going to be able to take me down, so I’ll just strike with him. Instead, with Roger, I said to myself ‘screw it, let’s put him on his back and pound him into oblivion’. I decided to believe in my jiu jitsu, and I’m not sure if that turning point came off the back of that close split decision loss to Jacare, or knowing that I was about to fight Roger. I knew there weren’t many guys who could hang with me on the ground, so why don’t I just fight that way? That was kind of the genesis of ‘I fucking love jiu jitsu’.
The jiu jitsu landscape is constantly shifting, and you’ve spoken out about the sport jiu jitsu scene a little in recent times. What are your general views on the sport jiu jitsu scene right now?
I just like jiu jitsu – REAL jiu jitsu. It scares me that we have to make a distinction between real jiu jitsu and sport jiu jitsu, which I guess is kind of the talking point. Look at taekwondo in the 60s – that’s a scary ass thing. You’d see spinning kick KOs – the stuff we love in the UFC – in the 60s with taekwondo. Fast forward to now, with Olympic taekwondo, and you can’t watch ten seconds without trying to tear your eyeballs out. That’s the abomination of what sport can do to a beautiful martial art.
You go back to when Royce Gracie was beating guys who weighed 200lbs more than him; grabbing their hair, pulling them down into his guard and rendering them unconscious. Or Rorion on the streets of Brazil, taking on two or three thugs at one time. These guys were notorious and built the allure of jiu jitsu. Fast forward 20 years and guys do the nerdiest things in sport jiu jitsu. I mean, bitch, come out here and try to give that a roll – see if that works. That’s what scares me: I don’t want what happened to taekwondo to happen to jiu jitsu.
So how would a class you that teach look, Tim? What would your blueprint for a class look like?
There is a place for a lot of sport technique to be built into classes, and by no means do I think a jiu jitsu class should all be about self-defence. I think the fundamentals of jiu jitsu translate into combat, they translate into self-defence AND can be tested in sport. But, if the focus is always on sport, the combat and self-defence aspects will always be deluded. The distinction is all about getting really good at the basics; the fundamentals.
So, in a Tim Kennedy class, you’re going to see takedowns, solid guard passing, fighting for dominance. You’re not always going to be taught that you should choose position over submission, but at the same time that you’re not going to roll to your back, give up position to maybe get a tap. You’re going to learn to either know you’re going to tear someone’s arm off or stay on top and beat them into oblivion. These shouldn’t be surprising things because they’re quintessential things that are part of jiu jitsu. Go back to the times of Carlos Gracie or Gustavo Gracie or Helio Gracie – they said these things, too. Helio would say ‘if they can touch your face when you’re grappling, you’re doing it wrong’. When you wrap your head round that he means that if someone can take their hands and grab your face, they can gauge your eyes, they can fish hook, they can punch you. So, applying some of the principals established by the masters of jiu jitsu, you get an idea of how the rebirth of the combative element of the art is important.
Let’s not forget that the Gracie’s were not big physical guys. They weren’t built like me: I’m a 200lb muscled-up troll. They were almost effeminate in the way they were built, but their martial art skills enabled them to beat the piss out of everybody.
Your passion for jiu jitsu is very clear Tim, which is awesome given your exposure to mixed martial arts and your high-pressure role in the military.
I do love jiu jitsu, 100%. As a Green Beret, Special Forces Ranger – a guy who still deploys overseas – it’s something I find helps all aspects of my life. You’ve seen me fight; I’m a savage, and I believe jiu jitsu is a cornerstone to becoming a savage.
When I deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa, then return home, I’m not jacked up, but I’m not 100% whole. I think I may be one of the rare instances in the special operations community actually. With people who deploy overseas multiple times, you see a lot of post-traumatic stress and all sorts of troubled times. With me, I’m pretty much the same all the time; cracking jokes and loving life, and I think jiu jitsu has a lot to do with that. It’s very regenerative and healing for me.
The fast majority of guys in the special forces now do jiu jitsu. When you get to the tip of the spear, everybody wrestles, everybody boxes and everybody grapples.
That’s amazing to hear that jiu jitsu gives you so much off the mats as well as on them. Thanks so much for your time, Tim!