It’s safe to say fight fans were a bit disappointed when the news came that Lyoto Machida would not appear at tonight’s UFC Fight for the Troops, which will air live at 7 pm EST/4 pm PST on Fox Sports 1 from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The cancelled bout between Machida and Tim Kennedy looked like a very interesting interplay of styles. Kennedy has proven a durable contender over the years, with strong standup and ground skills. That all-around skill set bested the wrestling attack of Trevor Prangley, the brawling of Robbie Lawler, and most recently, the jiu-jitsu of Roger Gracie at UFC 162. Kennedy’s only losses in the last five years are competitive, five-round decisions to Strikeforce titleholders Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza and Luke Rockhold. How would he fare against the elusive, karate-based style of Lyoto Machida?
Well, maybe we’ll find out another time. We shouldn’t worry for now.
The truth is, Kennedy’s new opponent, Rafael “Sapo” Natal, ain’t too bad himself.
Who is Rafael “Sapo” Natal?
He’s from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and his nickname means “Toad” in Portuguese.
Oh — you wanted to know about his skills? Natal is a 4th degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Gracie Barra icon Vinicius “Draculinho” Magalhães. (Magalhães is not to be confused with the active MMA fighter Vinicius Magalhães. Yes, there are actually two Brazilian jiu-jitsu luminaries by that name…)
He’s among the instructors at Renzo Gracie’s New York academy, where he’s noted for training alongside Rafael Dos Anjos and Marcio “Pe de Pano” Cruz. His jiu-jitsu game is predictably excellent: boasting a host of medals at major tournaments in US and Brazil.
His history? Natal’s MMA career began back in 2005. He reeled off seven straight wins before a knockout loss to fellow BJJ standout Eduardo Telles at Fury FC in 2008. Telles appeared to be losing the early standup exchanges when he threw an awkward head kick that no one expected — least of all Natal, who was knocked cold by the blow.
Natal rebounded to score some solid MMA wins, like his knockout of one-time UFC middleweight title challenger Travis Lutter in 2010. There, southpaw Natal showed improved standup, moving fluidly behind his jab and mixing in head kicks of his own. He eventually dropped Lutter to the mat, where scored the finish with a series of hammer-fists.
In his most recent bout, Natal netted “Fight of the Night” honors in a victory over Tor Troeng, back in September at UFC Fight Night. He’s only suffered only one loss in his last eight bouts, to Andrew Craig last year. Even on that night, he was painfully close to finishing Craig, only to see the Texan escape and wrangle home a victory via head kick.
Yesterday, our own Alim Lila broke down the fight and gave the edge to Kennedy. Natal, Lila noted, would likely want the bout to go to the mat, and may find himself in the same struggle that Roger Gracie had back in July.
There’s a fundamental difference between Natal and Gracie, though, as Lila acknowledges: Natal has shown some power in his hands. Maybe he can keep Kennedy guessing with those punches — enough to set up a takedown, and use those vaunted ground skills.
So it’s been an up-and-down road for the man called the Toad… but maybe here he turns a corner.
It’s not the glamorous match that Machida was, but it’s an interesting one. That’s what Natal represents at this point: an interesting opponent. We’ll see if he ends up more than that, tonight.