UFC 221’s Jeremy Kennedy could become new face of UFC in Canada

Jeremy Kennedy, left, holds UFC wins over fellow Canadian Alessandro Ricci, right, Brazilian Rony Jason and American Kyle Bochniak. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

With Rory MacDonald now in Bellator and Georges St-Pierre’s future once again a mystery, there’s a vacancy atop the UFC roster in terms of who could become the next face of the promotion in Canada.

Rising featherweight Jeremy Kennedy might just be that fighter.

The Surrey, B.C., native is looking to improve to 12-0 as a professional and 4-0 in the UFC when he faces Alexander Volkanovski Saturday on the preliminary card at UFC 221 at Perth Arena in Australia.

The interim UFC middleweight championship is on the line as Luke Rockhold battles Yoel Romero in the main event of UFC 221. Saturday, Feb. 10 live on Sportsnet Pay-Per-View from Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.

Kennedy and Volkanovski were scheduled to meet at a UFC Fight Night event in November but an injury to one of the discs in Kennedy’s neck forced him to withdraw from the event in October.

“It was a weird one because any type of grappling or weird contortion of my neck would give shocks down my arm and pretty much shut my arm off,” Kennedy told Sportsnet. “It was untrainable but I could hit pads, I could throw a punch, I could do any conditioning stuff and I could run for days. It was just certain movements, key components to MMA, that I couldn’t do that made it hard. I was in great shape and I felt sharp everywhere but I hadn’t grappled in a few months.

“I just had to take a step back and cool it and really focus on my recovery and I made a good return [to training].”

Volkanovski (16-1 in MMA, 3-0 in the UFC) remained on that November card and defeated replacement opponent Shane Young via unanimous decision. Kennedy, meanwhile, hasn’t fought since a July victory over Kyle Bochniak.

“Oh I’m excited, man. It’s been a long time,” Kennedy said. “I haven’t really taken time off. Even with the injury I was training around it, which made pulling out so hard, but I can’t wait.”

No fighter ever wants to withdraw from an event, even if they’re legitimately injured, and there can be immense pressure on these athletes when informing the UFC they’re unable to compete. Not only do they lose out on a paycheque but mixed martial arts can be a “what have you done for me lately?” kind of sport so being on the sidelines for an extended period of time can halt the momentum of a burgeoning 25-year-old like Kennedy.

“It sucks,” Kennedy said. “It was annoying but at the same time there was nothing I could do about it. … It’s not something I want to make a habit out of for sure.”

The UFC decided to set Kennedy up with Volkanovski again, and for good reason. This is a fine slice of matchmaking from Sean Shelby. The two 145-pounders are pressure fighters with an uncanny ability to wear down their opponents. In fact, it’s rare for either fighter to lose a round let alone a fight. Neither fighter is ranked in the top 15 in the deep featherweight division yet one fighter will make his case Saturday for inclusion.

“Both of us have been able to manhandle all of our opponents in the UFC with our wrestling credentials so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when we nullify each other,” Kennedy said. “Who can press more? The war of attrition. It’s going to be really exciting and I think that’s what the UFC was looking for. To see which one of us is going to be able to move onto the next level to that upper echelon being able to beat a guy who poses very similar threats, just different body types.”

Volkanovski, a former rugby player, is a powerful and stocky featherweight who’s five inches shorter than Kennedy. To prepare for that, in addition to his usual training in B.C. with the likes of ONE Championship bantamweight titleholder Bibiano Fernandes, Kennedy spent part of his camp in Las Vegas at both Xtreme Couture and at the UFC Performance Institute with 20-year-old prospect out of Windsor, Ont., TJ “The Truth” Laramie, whose body type is similar to Volkanovski’s.

Kennedy will be entering enemy territory as Volkanovski resides in New South Wales, Australia, although that scenario is becoming old hat for Kennedy.

The former Battlefield Fight League champion made his UFC debut fighting a fellow Canadian (Alessandro Ricci) in Canada then followed that up by taking on on a Brazilian (Rony Jason) in Brazil and an American (Bochniak) in New York and now an Aussie down under.

Volkanovski, 29, prides himself on being “one of the good guys” and called out the “bad boys” of the division. You’d be hard pressed to find Kennedy without a giant smile on his face, though, so Volkanovski didn’t get his wish in that sense yet the young Canadian, who began training in MMA at age 13, has done a bit of trolling on social media throughout his preparation.

The bad guy

282 Likes, 9 Comments – JBC (@jeremykennedy145) on Instagram: “The bad guy”

“I reckon he looks too nice,” Volkanovski recently told ESPN’s Same Bruce. “He’s a good kid, but if he wants to play the bad guy, I’ll be happy to punch him in the face.”

To that, Kennedy responded: “We’re fighting so I would imagine we’re going to be punching each other in the face. … It excites me. I’ve heard it before. I’m glad to prove him wrong. When he’s in there and he’s tired and he’s sucking wind and I’m still coming forward it’s going to be a nice little added bonus when I see that look on his face.”

UFC 221 will be the first numbered UFC event Kennedy has competed on and he’s thrilled about it. Outside of a main event between former champ Luke Rockhold and top contender Yoel Romero, it’s a rather thin card top to bottom. A standout performance from Kennedy can earn him plenty of airtime on various highlight shows and endear him to a wider fan base.

“Going in, this is the best I’ve ever felt,” Kennedy said. “I can’t wait. A big pay-per-view event always has more attention.”

With the Winter Olympics having just begun, patriotism in sport is top of mind. There’s nothing winter-sporty about UFC 221 but Kennedy will be displaying the red and white Maple Leaf proudly and one day he hopes to have his named mentioned in the same breath as GSP, MacDonald and other Canadian MMA greats.

“I’m just going to keep winning these fights and hope that the Canadian fans really appreciate that and attach themselves to me and see that with my age and the way I’m improving that I’m somebody they can back and get behind,” Kennedy added. “For the most part, I’ve got to win these fights for Canada by going to these other countries and representing Canada with the big Canadian flag and being that guy, being Canada’s guy.”

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