The way Tim Kennedy sees it, he and Michael Bisping have always been on the collision course that will lead them to Wednesday night’s TUF: Nations Finale headliner in Quebec City, Quebec.
"We’ve always been similarly positioned in our respective class at that contender level," he told FOX Sports. "It’s just been seemingly postponing the inevitable, getting through different promotions or whatever else stands in the way of me punching him in the face."
That possibility is one Kennedy has long waited for. The rivalry between them goes back more than three years, to the time when Bisping faced Kennedy’s Ranger-Up teammate Jorge Rivera. That matchup was filled with venom from the get-go, and during action, Bisping hit Rivera with an illegal knee to the head. That was before spitting at his corner after the fight was over.
The incident led to disciplinary action for Bisping, and it also cemented his role as the middleweight division’s No. 1 target, with a number of fighters publicly challenging him in its aftermath. Kennedy was one of them, even though at the time, he was still employed by competing promotion Strikeforce.
In the time since, Bisping’s image has softened a bit. He hears mostly cheers now, and coming off an eye injury that threatened his career, he is likely to be viewed as a sympathetic, returning figure by most. But when Kennedy looks at him, he still sees the same old "Count."
"I told my corner to be prepared to be spit on, because he’s done that before," he said. "I’m going to have to be conscious of his open palms when he’s punching, if he tries to poke me in the eye. I know when he gets tired, he’s going to try to kick me in groin. If I try to go for a takedown, he’ll try to grab the cage or put his arm over the top of cage. He’s done some of those things habitually. These are all things I know, so it’s eyes wide open. I have to be prepared for that. I have to move forward with the expectation he’s going to try these things."
All of this begs the question of why exactly Kennedy has been clamoring to fight him? If that is what he truly believes, wouldn’t that be the type of fighter to avoid?
To Kennedy, a former member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, there is no running away from perceived injustice; there’s only meeting it head on. To him, facing Bisping is a chance to deliver a lesson as well as an opportunity at forward mobility.
Now 34 years old, Kennedy is receiving perhaps the highest-profile opportunity of his career. Until now, he has fashioned an impressive run, going 17-4 in 21 fights including wins over notables such as Robbie Lawler, Jason "Mayhem" Miller and Melvin Manhoef. But in two shots at major gold, he’s fallen, losing decisions to both Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Luke Rockhold while still in Strikeforce.
Since the start of 2013 though, he’s gone 3-0, and last November, he stopped Rafael Natal via knockout, earning his first KO in nearly seven years. Kennedy doesn’t think that finish will change the perception of him in any real way, but to some, the starching left hook was an eye-opener. After building his reputation mostly on suffocating grappling, he reminded people of the power he flashed in the early stages of his career, when he had knockouts in four of his first six wins.
"The Count" is in someone’s crosshairs. Again.
Sudden success on the feet has been known to change some, but that doesn’t sound like it will be an issue for Kennedy. Befitting his history as a soldier, he embraces the grind.
"I always find it ironic that crowds don’t appreciate how dominant grappling can be," he said. "When guys start booing when fights go to the ground, I’m dumbfounded. There is nothing more dominant than when a guy gets on top of a dude, physically breaks him in every single way and subsequently makes him say, ‘I give up’ by tapping. There’s no question in anyone’s mind what happened there."
In some ways, that knockout was the byproduct of a compromised style anyway. Just six days before fighting Natal, Kennedy tore his quadriceps muscle. Despite deciding to go through with the match, takedowns had to be scrapped from the playbook since he couldn’t bend his leg enough to drive forward.
The injury led to three months of rehabilitation after the fight, and now at full strength, he gets the matchup he’s wanted for years.
Currently ranked No. 8, a win would give him the chance to possibly vault Bisping, who’s situated at No. 5. And then there is the silver lining of avenging a friend, and making Bisping pay for past indiscretions.
"I think he’s a very talented fighter, very skilled, but I think he fights cheap," Kennedy said. "I think he tries to cheat at every opportunity. I have mixed feelings about him as a fighter because half of it very skillful, and the other half is him being a dirtbag. It will be very sweet to beat him."