Rafael Natal (17-4-1, 5-2-1 UFC) vs. Tim Kennedy (16-4, 1-0 UFC), at UFC Fight for the Troops 3
Rafael Natal began his MMA career in his native Brazil in 2005. He fought his first 8 fights on the Brazilian MMA circuit racking up impressive wins over mostly local opposition going 7-0 until an Eduardo Telles head kick gave Natal his first loss. This was also Natal’s last fight in his homeland until he would come back to Brazil as a UFC fighter just this year. Natal went to work fighting in the United States primarily in the Northeast regional shows until he was picked up by the UFC in 2010. Since debuting in the UFC Natal has quietly built a nice record and with this 3 fight winning streak he is currently riding, could be poised to make a run towards the top 10. Like most Brazilian fighters, Rafael comes from a high level BJJ background and is now a legitimate black belt in the art. Aside from his stellar grappling chops, Natal has added a few extra wrinkles to his game over the years and now brings a well rounded skill set to the cage. He may not be elite level in striking, but he can be effective and is ever improving in the stand up department. He hits hard with punches, elbows, low kicks, and high kicks, and is not afraid to slug it out in the center of the cage at times. He also covers distance particularly well with his lunging straight lefts or straight rights (he fights southpaw and orthodox) and will throw in some variety in the form of spinning back fists, front kicks to the face and body, chopping leg kicks, or a combination of the above. His striking defense is not quite on par with his striking offense and he has been hittable. His chin is not terrible but 3 of his 4 losses are KO’s or TKO’s and he was dropped in another of his more recent fights. For takedowns Natal is more likely to work to the clinch, get under hooks, and drag a guy to the ground than he is to shoot a double- or single-leg. And he does the former regularly with a good degree of success. Surviving in the UFC for 3 solid years is an accomplishment in and of itself nowadays, but if Natal is going to make a run the time is now. He has looked somewhat leaner in recent fights and that is likely due to an increased emphasis on strength and conditioning and cleaning up his diet, this shows he is taking his career as serious as ever.
Military man and member of the United States Army, Tim Kennedy is another veteran fighter picked up by the UFC in its acquisition of the now defunct Strikeforce promotion. Kennedy comes from a well rounded martial arts base having trained boxing, wrestling, and Japanese Jujutsu as a youth. After an extensive run on the chaotic amateur MMA scene, Tim made his pro MMA debut in 2001. Since then he has been very consistent and effective while facing numerous MMA veterans along the way. Tim is a workhorse of a fighter, strong, conditioned, and basic. He has won with strikes as often as he has won with submissions (2 of his submission wins are due to strikes) and can win gut check decisions as well. Unfortunately for him, he can lose gut check decisions as well. And he has done just that in 2 title fights under the Strikeforce banner. His striking is basic but effective and consists mainly of boxing, with some good power in his fists. He has a good chin not having been KO’d since his pro debut in 2001. Tim’s grappling game can be particularly effective in wars of attrition as he likes to lock up in the clinch against the cage and drag guys down in the type of sequences that can really drain you if you’re not in great shape, all while throwing in enough shot takedowns to keep his foes guessing. Most of Kennedy’s time spent on the floor is spent in top position as he can be tough to muscle around and this strength has lent itself well to arm choke submission wins for Tim
As much as I’d like to see Natal continue his progression, I’m picking him to lose here. On paper these guys may be closely matched but a closer look reveals Tim Kennedy has a definitive edge in the intangibles. This event being put on in cooperation with, and for the benefit of, the United States Military is only going to get Kennedy fired up. There is no way he will want to lose in this setting and has the nerves to withstand that kind of pressure. Another factor is confidence. Rafael Natal being a BJJ black belt is impressive, but Tim Kennedy has spent a combined 70 minutes in the cage with Jacare Souza, Roger Gracie, and Jason Miller, and did not get submitted. That kind of confidence is what will allow Tim Kennedy to open up with strikes and win this by late ground n pound stoppage or a solid decision victory.