If your career involves doing something you love, it doesn’t seem like work. That sounds great in theory, but not everybody can make a living doing what they love. Or, can they? It probably depends on how bad you want it. Some people are a lot more motivated and willing to put in the work than others.
Casey Kenney started putting in the work early in life. He started training in judo when he was a young child in Indiana. Wrestling followed shortly thereafter. By the time high school rolled around, he was a multiple-time national champion in judo with a solid wrestling base. Right after high school, he took his first amateur MMA fight with no MMA training. He won and was instantly hooked. Ever since he left college in his sophomore year and moved to Arizona, fighting has been his career. He’s never felt like it was work.
“If I’m not in the gym, I’m out here enjoying the nice weather in Arizona,” Kenney told Combat Press. “I’m out here exploring the nightlife, too. I’m a normal, single guy in my 20s, so I need to get out and about. Someone asked me about my hobbies the other day, and I said I’m living my hobby. This is my hobby. I can do whatever I want, when I want, despite my schedule at the gym. But that’s what I do, and that’s what I want to be doing. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m living the dream.”
Kenney is not only living his dream, but he’s doing a damn good job of it. Since turning pro in 2014, he has gone 13-1-1. His only dings were a split draw in May 2017 and a split-decision loss three months later. Since then, he has won four fights. The first two victories came in the Legacy Fighting Alliance, where he beat top prospects Brandon Royval and Vince Cachero. He also scored back-to-back UFC wins over veterans Ray Borg and Manny Bermudez. His August win over Bermudez was the latter’s first professional loss after 14 wins in a row.
“Obviously, I got to show my grappling against Ray Borg, but he’s not a big submission specialist,” the 5-foot-7 Kenney said. “Manny’s more of a submission specialist from the grappling aspect, and I felt like I got to check that off too. Even if you got submissions, it’s going to take more than that to put me away. Also, I don’t think I’ll come across a bigger bantamweight than Manny Bermudez. For me, coming up from flyweight, that’s always been a question. Can these guys get a little too big? And I think I answered that question.”
Kenney’s win over Royval at LFA 53 was his last flyweight battle. He earned the LFA interim flyweight belt with the victory. The win over Cachero netted Kenney the LFA bantamweight strap. Both of his UFC fights ended up as catchweight affairs with his opponents coming in over the 136-pound limit. He looks forward to continuing his run on Saturday night at UFC on ESPN+ 25 in Rio Rancho, N.M.
Just before Christmas, Kenney found out his next opponent would be Merab Dvalishvili, who grew up in the country of Georgia and trains out of the Serra-Longo camp in New York. The former Ring of Combat bantamweight champ opened up his UFC career with back-to-back losses, but both fights were surrounded by controversy. First, he dropped a questionable split decision to Frankie Saenz. Then, after a wild third round with Ricky Simón in April 2018, Simón was declared winner by technical submission after the final bell of the fight. Dvalishvili bounced back with decision wins over Terrion Ware and Brad Katona to bring his UFC record to 2-2. He hasn’t fought since last May, though, and sits outside the UFC’s top 15 for the division.
“I know he’s a good opponent,” the No. 15-ranked Kenney admitted. “He’s maybe not the big name I was looking for, but it’s a big test that solidifies where I’m at in the division, and where I’m at in the top 15. It’s a good test fight to see if I belong there, and I think I do. He could easily be 4-0 in the UFC, if he doesn’t get put to sleep by Ricky Simón.”
Kenney, who splits training between Rise Combat Sports in Tucson and The MMA Lab in Phoenix, has two great camps behind his back. He’s out to make big strides in 2020. The division is currently one of the deepest in the UFC, but his sights are set on making it all the way to the top.
“I really want to work my way up that ladder in the top 15,” Kenney said. “That’s my only goal. I’m doubtful to get a title shot in one year, especially [with] how hot the bantamweight division is, but that’s my goal, and I’ll just keep chipping away.”
The 28-year-old Kenney has come a long way in a short time. Five years ago, he was just getting started as an aspiring flyweight. Now, he is one of the best bantamweights in the world riding a ton of momentum into the Octagon. This hobby sure is paying off.
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