The Grind, Presented by Bank of Clarendon: Kennedy uses Team Robinson to grow on and off the mat


Noah Kennedy's journey to mixed martial arts is familiar, if not cliché.

The rising senior at Wilson Hall was bullied growing up, particularly by the friends of his older brother. Seeking an avenue for change, Noah started working out, but that wasn't quite enough. Everything changed when he stepped into Team Robinson MMA and Fitness.

"I really wanted to just find a way to protect myself to pretty much survive high school," Noah recalls. "I got into lifting and then I eventually I gravitated toward martial arts, and I came in here and it was a whole new eye opener.

"I'd realized that there was so much room for progression. I really just fell in love with that, and I really fell in love with coming in every single day, putting in blood, sweat and tears. I was getting something out of it. It was a noticeable gain, and I just got addicted."

Exercise runs through the Kennedy family. Noah's grandfather was an avid runner. His father, Cameron, wasn't built to run. Instead, he became a weightlifter, eventually finishing as the runner up in South Carolina's Strongest Man competition in 2004.

It made sense that Noah would follow in those footsteps, but lifting and team sports weren't helping the Baron overcome his problems.

"I inherited that love (of lifting) but that really didn't help me mentally with my issue. I still had that mindset of a small kid that was getting bullied," Noah said. "I had the worst reflexes. You could just put your hands up and I'd freak out and I'd close my eyes and I would just get scared. I realized I didn't want to have that cowardly mindset anymore."


That mindset didn't disappear overnight.

When Noah first stepped into Team Robinson, he was so nervous he could barely talk to anyone else at the gym. He was 14 years old learning mixed martial arts with people in their 20s. He could've started in the youth program but knew that wasn't the best choice for his development.

"I prefer to give myself that challenge of being the worst person in the room because I feel like it would just be a better thing for me because I would get better quicker," Noah said. "I spent the first four or five months just getting embarrassed and getting the crap beat out of me, but I really did feel like I was getting refined."

So, Noah stepped into a gym full of adults, trying to overcome some of his greatest fears.

"Easily, one of the scariest things I've ever felt," Noah said. "I just remember this big group of guys just staring me down because I was just this little pasty kid in a Wilson Hall shirt. I couldn't even talk for the first week, I would just like stare at people in wave and I was just too shy and too awkward. Over time I really did get to know them and they're some of the best friends I've ever had my life."

Eventually, Noah started sparring with coach Eric Montgomery. That was another big obstacle for the Baron to clear.

"I remember my first sparring match very vividly," Noah said. "Thankfully he did not go hard because I would probably have died, but he was really nice. I remember my first round completely because I would just freeze up and I would lock down. I couldn't even open my eyes for the majority of the fight, I was just so nervous and so timid."

That instinct to flinch stayed with Noah for a while. Over time, he slowly started to face the fear.

"That was something that just took constant repetition of leaving my comfort zone and getting into something that I'm not used to and pushing myself and actively losing in a sense," Noah said. "I had to lose to win in the long run, and eventually I was able to boost my confidence and mentally get past that block."


Time wasn't on Noah's side in the beginning, though.

Noah had been working out at Team Robinson for four months when the COVID-19 pandemic started in the spring of 2019. The gym was closed, and Noah was forced to train at home. It would've been easy to call it quits, but Noah knew he found the activity he needed.

"I wanted to stick with it because I had a mental image of how far I could see myself going and I wanted to take myself there," Noah said. "I was so fixated on that goal that I had that mental image and I had that talk with myself and I said I cannot give up on this, not yet."

The gym didn't stay closed for long, but everyone was very limited upon their return. COVID-19 restrictions meant no sparring, just training dummies and punching bags. That didn't matter much to Noah, he was back in his comfort zone.


Not long after the gym reopened, Noah booked his first fight for Aug. 22, 2020. He'd been training at Team Robinson for about a year at that point. He wasn't sure if he was ready to step into the ring, but gym owner Jerome Robinson and the crew gave Noah all the support he needed to pick up the gloves.

"Honestly, I didn't know if I was ready at all," Noah said. "I just heard my teachers, I heard my friends heard, everybody saying, 'I believe that you could go in there and win.' They had nothing but confidence in me."

Noah was nervous to step into the ring, but the actual fight wasn't even the hardest part. That was sitting in the locker room before the fight, feeling the anticipation grow until finally stepping on the mat.

"Gosh, that was scary. You're in that locker room. You're back there by yourself and, sure, you're there with your people that are also fighting, everyone is just talking and lacing up, but you are by yourself," Noah said. "I had never felt that from an upbringing of team sports and school sports. I had never really felt like all of this accountability being on myself and I think it was very good in my growth because I had nothing to blame. It was all on me. Whether I won, it was on me and if I lost it, it's on me."

There were still remnants of the nervous Noah when the bell rang. His mind went blank, and he lost the first round.

"I felt a lot of progression through that fight. Honestly, just me as a person, I grew while getting put in that situation of all of my work getting put into one moment," Noah said. "I got into this ring and I got in with him and the first round I lost and then the second round, I go in there and I just give everything I had."

When the bell rang again, Noah was locked in. He won the next two rounds for his first career victory.

"I knew that I had worked harder than him, I had worked harder than anyone around me. I knew what I had put in, and I knew all the times I would go home spitting up blood, all the times I went home, and I would pass out because I was just dead tired," Noah said. "I had all of these just running through my mind as I just kept pushing and I just started out pacing him."

Everything came full circle for Noah in the final round. That kid who grew up flinching at every movement was gone.

"I felt on top of the world because, in the last round, I remember I would get hit and I wouldn't even close my eyes, I would just keep walking forward, which was something that had never happened," Noah said. "I was so prone to running away and there was just this shift, and I was so happy."


Noah had one more night of fights since then. He fought twice on Sept. 11, 2021, going 2-0. The rising senior is thrilled to be 3-0, but his record isn't what stands out to him about his time at Team Robinson. Noah has grown there because of the friendships he built in the gym on Liberty Street.

People like Akiano Lammey, Richard, "Duce" Cason and Lonnie Hassler have made Noah a better fighter, sure, but they've also made him a better person.

"Akiano and Duce, they were there during genuine issues in my life and really, really hard times, and they were there to bring me up," Noah said. "They're more than mentors to me, they really are just some of the best friends I've ever had in my life even, though they're that much older than me."


The gym has also been a place for brothers to bond.

Noah's older brother, Logan, eventually joined the rising senior at Team Robinson. The gym has helped Logan lose roughly 60 pounds and get into shape. Noah was initially annoyed that his brother tried to steal his hobby, but the two have grown closer together through MMA.

"I was kind of annoyed at first, I kind of like having my thing, but I welcomed it with open arms," Noah said. "He came in and eventually went to kickboxing, and they don't spar a lot boxing, so I had this also moment where I was able to just beat up on my older brother.

"That got under his skin really bad, and that's when he started training like a madman, and that provoked me to train like I hadn't before. We have this really good rivalry where we're neck and neck and we just keep pushing each other."

All the while, Noah has stayed close with his father in their home gym. The two work out together at 5 a.m. every morning.

"When I was a little, I could barely walk and I just remembered running out at like five in the morning to go see my dad," Noah said. Since about eighth grade, when I've been lifting seriously and really getting into it, I've woken up at five in the morning every single day and have gone out there with him. It's always been a great experience for me.

"Having that time with him in the morning is really nice and I feel like it does help me a lot mentally."

There was one member of the family that took a little more convincing when Noah started fighting, but she eventually got on board too.

"My mom, she was very, very on edge for a long time," Noah said. "I don't remember her showing up to my first fight, I don't think she her heart could handle it, but she ended up showing up to the next two after she heard I won. She really was just nothing but excited to see me fight. She was nervous, but at the end of it, she just came up to me and she just was so happy."

While Noah loves the support of his family, joining MMA was the first thing he did for himself. Noah started playing football in elementary school and track in middle school because he felt like he was supposed to. When he started fighting, he did it because he wanted to. That unlocked a true passion he'd never felt before.

"When I first started playing sports, I really did it for other people. I didn't do it because I enjoyed it, which was a big issue," Noah said. "I realized that this year, when I really started doing things for myself, and that's the thing about MMA. I did this for myself, and I really enjoyed it. Then I saw progression like I hadn't in any sport."


Since he started MMA, Noah found passion for his other activities again. His junior track season was the most fun he'd had in the sport. He took the year off from football for the first time as a junior, but he's playing again as a senior with a newfound love.

"I took my year off football this year to really fall in love and get back into the swing of things," Noah said. "I'm hoping to bring a new sense of energy and be a new weapon for a team."


Noah doesn't know what his future holds in MMA. He's going to focus on football this fall and track next spring, but he'll continue to go to Team Robinson between sports seasons. Once he goes off to college, wherever that may be, he hopes to find another gym in town, but won't pick a school based purely on MMA.

Regardless of what comes next, he's proud of the way he's grown because of his time at Team Robinson.

"I think I've come extremely far. I've attained new heights I never thought I would. I feel like if you put 10 of me against me now, I would definitely win," Noah joked. "But no, I feel like I've grown physically, and I've grown mentally. This place is really helpful with my upbringing and my mental development."