In mixed martial arts, one bad night can change a fighter's path. Jeremy Kennedy believes his worst night in the cage changed his life -- but not necessarily in a bad way.
The Canadian grappler was 11-0 and in the UFC last year when he faced Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 221 in a meeting of rising prospects. Volkanovski was 16-1 at the time and on a 13-fight win streak. He beat Kennedy that night via TKO after his vicious ground-and-pound attack forced a stoppage.
Kennedy headed out of the UFC after the defeat, while Volkanovski has become the top contender in the UFC's featherweight division after his dominant victory over Jose Aldo earlier this month.
That loss ultimately led Kennedy to the Professional Fighters League, where the promising featherweight will face Luis Rafael Laurentino at PFL 2 on Thursday night at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Along with offering him a shot at the $1 million prize that will go to Season 2's featherweight champ, this PFL debut represents for Kennedy a second chance.
"I had a lot of growing up to do," Kennedy said about his run in the UFC. "I wasn't mature enough. I had a lot of growing to do mentally. I had to go through that process in the UFC. But I still got to gain enough experience, which led me to the PFL."
After leaving the UFC, Kennedy moved his training to Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas and competed in a pair of fights in the Middle Eastern promotion Brave Combat Federation, going 2-0, with victories in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Kennedy said he learned to love the sport again with Brave. He'd get nervous before fights in the UFC, but the bouts overseas helped him learn to control his emotions and strengthen his psyche before he steps into the cage.
With a change in focus and mental toughness, Kennedy now looks at the PFL as not only a chance to win a lot of money, but as an opportunity to return to the American spotlight.
"Everything is coming together perfectly for this PFL fight. This is my coming-out party." Jeremy Kennedy
"I was able to showcase my striking in my two knockouts in Brave," Kennedy said. "Now, mentally, I'm at an all-time high confidencewise. I have a ton of experience behind me and I'm only 26. I feel like I've been led to be here."
Kennedy's travels offered him a reminder about the significant talent all over the world, scattered across organizations that have closed the gap between the UFC and the other MMA brands. Bellator, One Championship and the PFL have all created avenues for talented fighters to pursue their crafts, while making enough cash to thrive.
"I look at my main training partners: They're UFC guys," Kennedy said. "It doesn't really matter what organization you're in. In the gym, you know who's a killer and who's not and who's on the come-up. With the location of Xtreme [in Las Vegas], you get to test yourself against a lot of UFC fighters that are always coming through. It puts an exclamation point that I'm here to win this tournament. I believe I'm one of the best in the world."
Last year, one of Kennedy's training partners at Xtreme Couture was his friend Lance Palmer, who won the $1 million and featherweight crown in the first season of the PFL. Today, Kennedy remains in Las Vegas while Palmer has moved his training to New Jersey, where he works with renowned coach Mark Henry.
With Palmer back for Season 2, there's the possibility he and Kennedy will meet in the cage in the next few months. As Palmer sees it, a potential fight against a friend is a just a reality within a sport that continues to elevate its collective talent pool.
"All last year, we trained together and we helped each other a lot throughout the year," Palmer said. "We were good partners for each other. Now, I look at it as he's competition if we have to fight."
Kennedy agrees. He talked to Palmer before the season, and they discussed the variables that could lead to a fight between them. If they had their preference, it'd be the final fight of the season.
"In a perfect world, I'm 1, he's 2 heading into the playoffs and we meet at the end of the bracket, in the finals, for a million dollars," Kennedy said. "[And if we fight], I can't sacrifice my well-being, my future, for somebody else's."
For Kennedy, this potential scenario signifies the six degrees of separation within the sport.
A year ago, he was a young, ambitious and undefeated fighter in the UFC. Today, he's seeking a new path in the PFL after a loss to one of the best fighters in the world altered his journey. That new path might demand a fight against a friend.
Even if he doesn't face Palmer, however, Kennedy recognizes that he faces a series of challenges in order to win the $1 million prize. But he believes he's ready.
After all, he knows better than most that a few good performances in the cage could change his life.
"Every fight, you're going to see a new and better version of me," Kennedy said. "Everything is coming together perfectly for this PFL fight. This is my coming-out party. After this fight, the PFL is really going to want to promote me. Everything is right where I need it to be right now."