UFC Fight Night 31 Preview: Tim Kennedy vs. Rafael Natal

I bet Tim Kennedy is much happier now that Lyoto Machida is off this card after the Munoz fight. That Machida would’ve been a nightmare matchup for Kennedy now turns into a tough but winnable one for the one-time “Deadliest Warrior” special guest star and Special Forces operator.

Fight Breakdown – Tim Kennedy is basically a lower rent version of Rich Franklin; whatever you’re bad at in MMA he’ll expose and beat you with. Kennedy doesn’t quite have that elite gear that Franklin did, of course, but he has just enough to get past nearly anyone in MMA until he reaches the Top 10. Kennedy is the character in a video game that has every power function at 7.5 out of 10. He won’t beat you with any one thing … but whatever you’re bad at he will exploit. And that’ll be the key to the fight: Kennedy’s exploitation of where Natal is bad.

Natal has an elite ground game but it works the best when he’s on top (at a minimum) or when he doesn’t have someone with elite submission defense and a smothering top game in top position. Kennedy has had no qualms with going to the ground with Jacare and Roger Gracie, who have more grappling accolades than Natal, and thus that’ll probably his method of attack. Kennedy will grind him on the ground until Natal gasses, or the fight ends, because Kennedy’s biggest strength is that he never seems to gas.

The best fight for Kennedy to study would be for the Craig fight. Natal leaves lots of openings with his hands because he loves to brawl. Look for Kennedy to see if he’s added any head movement to his game, et al, and exploit movement on his feet if he hasn’t. He doesn’t have one touch knockout power but he can light up Natal with movement, make the Brazilian’s brawling style work against him, and then take him down and grind out the round. It won’t be pretty but Kennedy excels at exploiting holes in other’s games for victory.

The key for Natal is to find the rare opening that Kennedy provides. Kennedy hasn’t been stopped since his first fight, in 2001, and don’t expect it to happen here. Natal is a bit wild in how he strikes but can light guys up if he connects. He lit up Andrew Craig for a whole round, before his lack of head movement did him in, and Natal’s clear advantage here will be his power. Kennedy can’t finish him standing, not without it being a swarm style finish, but Natal can turn his lights off with one shot.

The other key will be to exploit space on the ground. He can’t let Kennedy smother him if/when he gets taken down. He has to fight like Carlos Condit off his back; always attacking, never letting his opponent get an edge to hold him down. He has to make Kennedy work for everything on top and be such a pain that something opens up. Natal can tap him; he probably won’t be he’s skilled enough to make life difficult for Kennedy’s top game to really work.

Why it matters – Kennedy’s ceiling is staring at him right in the face. He’s an American, slightly poor man’s version of Yushin Okami. He’ll be good enough to be in the Top 10 but never good enough to make the run from being #6 to a title shot, not without something drastic happening. Kennedy is a first rate guy, and the type of person you want in front of the media, but he’s maximized his ability to a large degree. He can’t get anything more than incrementally better at everything; he’ll never be elite in one thing, which is why he’ll never be elite period. He’s become a camouflaged gatekeeper and a subpar win, or a loss, puts him back at the end of the line.

A win here and Kennedy can sneak up a little higher on the chain. A big win here and he could find himself in a title eliminator, if only because middleweight contenders seem to be continually losing.

Natal has a high upside but needs to show improvement in his stand up game. A win here gets him into the Top 10 but he’s far from being a contender at this point.

Prediction – Kennedy

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