LAS VEGAS — Tim Kennedy greets me in the lobby of the massive Sands Expo Convention Center at The Venetian casino resort. He is wearing a gray suit and white shirt. He is not wearing a tie, but there is a chance he took it off after finishing an early afternoon meeting with UFC president Dana White.
Kennedy strolled into White's palatial office on Sahara Avenue. He had 30 minutes of White's time blocked out for what White assumed was a contract negotiation session. Instead, Kennedy walked into the office and immediately agreed to the UFC's offer. No negotiating. No offers and counteroffers and no demands. No wasting time.
Kennedy had spent the morning preparing for the meeting. He had things he wanted to discuss with White, and he wanted to maximize his time with his boss, who is at all times famously busy. He walked into the office prepared and ready, and after his new contract was verbally agreed to, Kennedy used the rest of his scheduled time (and roughly 60 minutes more) to pitch his other ideas to White.
"I had eight things I wanted," Kennedy says. "I got all eight of them."
One of these eight things Kennedy got is a fight with Michael Bisping. It will headline The Ultimate Fighter Nations finale in April, so long as Bisping is medically cleared from an eye injury that has plagued him for the last six months.
Kennedy tells me I am not allowed to reveal this information under paean of death. Specifically, Kennedy threatens to gut me if I publish the news. I decide I will not reveal the news. I will wait until someone else publishes the story, which eventually happens a few days later.
I decide to wait, because lots of men may threaten to kill you, but very few can actually deliver on the promise with ease. Kennedy is one of those men. He is an Army Ranger, a Special Forces soldier, a sniper with multiple deployments who holds many Army sniper records, a sniper instructor, an Army Combatives Champion at light heavyweight, a Bronze Star award winner and a mixed martial artist. Needless to say, this is not a man to take lightly.
Kennedy introduces me to a group of men. There is Leo Khorolinsky, Kennedy's manager of more than seven years. Khorolinsky used to own the Chicago Red Bears of the International Fight League. Kennedy was a Red Bears member, and they've been together ever since.
Then, a man in a red shirt walks up. He kneels on the ground, sifting through a small bag. He hands me a plastic-covered pass; this is my credential for SHOT Show.
SHOT Show was founded in 1979 as a trade event for the firearms, shooting and hunting industry. It is the largest show of its kind in the world, and it is not a close race. Public relations staff tells me 75 percent of all weapons sold to dealers in the domestic United States are expected to be sold during this week in Las Vegas. A total of 67,000 will attend, pumping $73 million into the Las Vegas economy through the 1,600 exhibitors taking up 13 acres of space.
This is a city filled to overflowing with big industry events. SHOT is one of the largest. It is also one of the wildest.
"You'll notice everybody dragging today," Kennedy says. "Last night was the big party night, and today is recovery day. So everybody here is a little slow."
Each year, the major vendors at SHOT Show join forces and attempt to throw a bigger party than the one they threw the previous year. These parties are held on Wednesday night, which means Thursday at the Sands is just a little bit less crowded than others.
"They brought snow into the Aria," Kennedy says. "And they had midgets riding snowmobiles on the snow. They were racing."
The others nod in agreement, and I am filled with regret for missing such a thing.
Resigned, I place my guest pass around my neck. Tim asks the group if we are ready to go in, and we respond that we are. And so Kennedy turns and leads the way, as he has done so many times before.
Our first stop is Gerber's giant orange and black booth. The knife and tools maker is one of Kennedy's major sponsors. This might mystify Ultimate Fighting Championship fans who have never seen Gerber branding on Kennedy's shorts or in-cage banner. That's because Gerber, as a maker of knives and other sharp objects, is not allowed to act as a UFC sponsor. It is a side effect of the FOX era, where men in suits attempt to dress up cage fighting and present it as a palatable thing.
Fun for the whole family.
UFC or no, Gerber stands by Kennedy. Splashed across their booth are large posters bearing his dirt-smeared face. The posters are slightly desaturated so as to offer just a hint of color, and Kennedy is holding a fearsome knife. His eyes are cold, and there is something that resembles the beginning of a smirk on his lips. It is a stark reminder that Kennedy is, in addition to being a great fighter, one of the deadliest and most terrifying men walking the planet.
Kennedy speaks with Gerber employees. He is due back here in less than an hour for a door-breaching demonstration. This would explain why Gerber has a door and frame (with the Kennedy poster pasted to the middle) standing randomly in their booth. I don't know what to expect from Kennedy's door-breaching demonstration, but I do know there will likely be no happy ending for this lonely door.
Kennedy firms up a few details with Gerber, and then we're off.
Mike Kennedy is a former lawman, a police officer of 25 years. He is also Tim's father.
The elder Kennedy is retired now, but he is so gregarious and outgoing that his buddies from Active Tactical have asked him to help man their booth and interact with customers. ActiveTac, from what I can tell, takes regular Mossberg shotguns and turns them into terrifying weapons of destruction. This is simplified, to be sure, but one glimpse at the pump-action beast of a weapon Mike is holding in his hands will lead you to the same conclusion.
Both Kennedy men are well at home in this world. Mike tells me that Tim actually served as something of a shotgun model for ActiveTac when he was 17 years old. Tim would aim at something imaginary, way off in the distance, and the photographer would snap a photo.
Tim Kennedy, shotgun model.
Back then, Mike was still breaching doors the old-fashioned way: with a swift foot to the edge of the frame. He isn't breaching doors these days, but he still has the look of a man who could absolutely hurt you. The Kennedy men are alike in this way.
Soon, it is time for Tim to make his way back to the Gerber booth. There is a door waiting to be destroyed, and Tim doesn't want to be late. I understand the feeling; as a former military man myself, there are few things I abhor more than being late.
Tim discusses dinner plans with Mike, who confirms that he intends to eat with his son and friends. Before we depart, Mike has a very important question for Tim:
"Are you going to come get your sweaty undies off our balcony?" he asks.
Tim tells me that, after completing a training session at the Syndicate gym here in town, he hung his sweaty underwear on the hotel-room balcony. Better that, he says, than subject his father to sweaty underwear hanging in the shower. I agree. The balcony was a much better idea.
Tim hugs his father, and then we are off to Gerber. It is time to breach a door.
A Gerber representative hands Tim something he calls the DingDong.
Think back to every cop or war movie you've seen. When a lawman or soldier needs to breach a door, what do they use? It's typically something called a battering ram, a solid piece of metal that takes two or more people to utilize. It blasts through doors in violent fashion.
The DingDong looks nothing like a battering ram.
It is a small tool that appears, at first glance, to be a distant cousin of a sledgehammer. Combining a sledgehammer, a battering ram and a pry bar, the DingDong is a one-stop tool for law enforcement and military personnel seeking to bust through doors and seek out the bad guys. It is only sold to those with the proper credentials; a Gerber spokesman will not even tell me how much it costs.
It is a small tool with the potential for big damage. I am about to witness this potential for myself.
Kennedy stands by the demo door and poses for a few photographs. He makes his infamous war face. I snap a few photos using my iPhone, and I am struck by the notion that I will probably want a video of this moment in the days to come. I fumble with my phone in one of those technologically deficient moments that occurs only when a UFC star is about to make a door explode by hitting it with something that looks like a sledgehammer.
Thankfully, I am not the person Tim is relying on to record this grand event on video, and so he is ready to go. He does not take off his jacket because, as he says, "It would be ungentlemanly."
Tim steps back. He takes a single breath, then lunges forward. The DingDong strikes the door, and then everything goes to hell.
The doorknob is the first thing I notice. When the DingDong hits the door, the knob flies approximately 15 feet. This is not an exaggeration. The doorknob launches in the air, whizzing past a startled Gerber public relations officer. I imagine the doorknob hitting the employee, and I know it would not be a pretty thing. There are worse ways to go, I'd assume, but this would have a very messy and public death.
The doorknob hits a dividing curtain that separates Gerber from their neighbors. Shards of door are everywhere. When I tell you that this door exploded, friend, let me assure you I am not using the word lightly. The door, for all intents and purposes, is completely gone. There are pieces hanging from the frame, but not much else.
Kennedy smiles. There is adrenaline in his eyes. I know it does not compare to the things he has seen in the past, but it is adrenaline all the same. He surveys the damage he has done, and the damage is considerable. My feeling that Tim is one of the scariest man on this planet is cemented.
After Kennedy makes the door explode into a million pieces, he takes a few minutes to converse with a few people standing around the booth. They are big fans, as they always are.
We are standing by the National Rifle Association booth. It is the largest booth I have ever seen at any type of trade show. I am struck not just by the size of the booth, but also by the eager nature of the NRA members working it. They want to talk to you, no matter who you are, about guns and rights and life and America.
Standing by this booth, Tim notices Dan Henderson walking by. Dan is with his father, a man who resembles Dan in nearly every way. Dan's father looks like Dan, only without the cauliflower ears and the muscle and with a few extra years packed in. He looks as Dan will probably look in 20 years if Dan eventually stops fighting and sits on the porch and spends his time sipping beers or Long Island Iced Teas.
Tim walks up to Dan. They make conversation. I cannot hear the conversation, but it appears to be friendly. I imagine they are talking of tactics to employ against Bisping and rivalries and big fights, though I have no idea if I am correct. They speak for a few minutes, and then a man wearing a corduroy jacket walks up to our group.
"Would you like to meet the governor?" the man says. I don't know which governor we are referring to, though for some unknown reason I find myself hoping it is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Tim wants to meet the governor. Off we go.
We follow the man in the corduroy jacket for a few minutes, and then we happen upon another man wearing jeans, a green shirt and a hat. He has the chin stubble that comes with a day of not shaving. He is completely incognito.
This is Rick Perry, the governor of Texas since 2000, when he was promoted from lieutenant governor after George W. Bush decided to run for president of the United States. Perry is also a former presidential candidate himself, having lost his bid in 2012. Last summer, he announced that he would not seek a fourth term as Texas governor because he wanted to retire. Still, rumors are circulating in Texas that Perry is gearing up for another shot at the White House. It is a good time to be a Republican, after all.
Introductions are made. Perry first shakes Kennedy's hand, then makes his way down the line. He has a handshake for everyone.
He gets to me.
"I'm Rick," he says. I know who he is, for I have resided in the state of Texas for nearly my entire life.
"I've met you before," I say. He looks at me quizzically. "You spoke at my sister's high school in Katy."
"Faith West?" Perry says. I tell him yes, this is correct. Perry says he remembers it vividly. We have a mutual friend named Chip. For a man who likely meets untold thousands of people per year, Perry has a remarkable memory.
He turns back to Kennedy.
"I have only seen three fights," Perry says. "And I only watched them because you were fighting."
I do not know if Perry is being a superb politician or if he's genuine. It does not matter.
Perry is joined by Tilman Fertitta, the cousin of Frank and Lorenzo. Though it is hard to imagine, Tilman is more successful and wealthy than either the UFC or Station Casino owners. He owns many restaraunt chains; his extensive portfolio includes Joe's Crab Shack, Morton's, Rainforest Cafe, Claim Jumper and Landry's, which opened its first location in my hometown in 1980. He also owns the Golden Nugget brand, and is in the process of expanding it from Fremont Street in Las Vegas to Louisiana and beyond. In 2013, his net worth was estimated at $2.4 billion.
"Tell Dana I said hello," Tilman says. Kennedy says he will.
Small talk is made. Kennedy tells Perry that he is available for anything the governor of Texas may need. UFC tickets? Done. Charity work? Absolutely. Anything the governor needs, Kennedy is willing to provide. This is not a surprise; Kennedy is an Austin resident and Perry's office is just up the road. Though Kennedy was born in California, he is something of an adopted Texan with a deep and abiding love for barbecue and tacos.
There is more small talk. We meet Perry's secretary of state, Nandita Berry, a former Houston lawyer who is pleasant and energetic and outgoing. Another member of Perry's staff collects Kennedy's information, and business cards are exchanged. A group photo is taken. All parties promise to stay in touch, and then Perry and his entourage are off.
"I need to sit down for a few minutes," Kennedy says. He wants to tweet and Instagram photos from the door-breaching demonstration and his meeting with Perry. He finds a quiet place and focuses intently on his iPhone; within minutes the photos we've taken today are digitally distributed across the world.
We walk back to the front of the convention center. Kennedy stops by a booth to talk to a few disabled veterans, and it is clear he is still very much in love with the military. He is no longer on active duty, but the military will always define who he is and who he will become. Mixed martial arts is fun, but I get the feeling that Kennedy would drop his fighting career in a heartbeat and go back overseas if the optimal situation presented itself.
But no optimal situations currently exist. He said as much when I spoke to him for a story in November, shortly before his Fight for the Troops main event against Rafael Natal.
"Unless a war kicked off, I just don't know. I don't want to go back into an Army where everything is being cut back," he said. "They have no funds to train. No ammo to do real combat training. No HALO or HAHO jumps. Good schools are closing everywhere. Peacetime Special Forces are different than wartime Special Forces. And I'm just not sure I was born to be in peace time."
When he is done speaking to the veterans, Kennedy walks up to me.
"At this point, I am going to a charity fundraising dinner," he says. Our time has come to an end. I shake his hand and thank him for giving so generously of his time. He once again threatens bodily harm if I reveal anything about the Bisping fight, and I promise once again that I do not like bodily harm and thus will not report the news.
Before I leave, Kennedy has one last piece of advice.
"You should check out the lower convention hall. Up here is where all the big companies are located, and they are mostly safe," he says. "But down there? That's where all the truly nefarious and evil things are shown."
I promise to check out the nefarious and evil things. We part ways, and as I leave the Sands Expo Convention Center, I think back to the things I saw.
But mostly, I think about how Kennedy is one of the most multifaceted people I have ever met. He is a soldier. He is a martial artist. He is a businessman. He is an asset to the UFC who, if used properly, can bridge the world of fighting and the military, much like retired Marine Brian Stann. He is a man the promotion can point to when people say all fighters are meatheads and psychopaths.
The immediate future is bright for Kennedy. There is Bisping and then, if he is able to defeat the British star and win another fight or two, there is the possibility of a world title shot.
But first, there is a charity dinner with veterans. There are people to meet and potential sponsors and state governors. There is his father and his wife and his friends and former battle buddies.
There is a full and richly rewarding life, straddling two worlds that are so very different and yet share a common trait: a love for all things combat.
And so he continues ever onward, a soldier made for war but forced to live in peace.