Rafael "Sapo" Natal has earned the biggest opportunity of his career, and he wants to make the best of it.
Originally expected to face Ed Herman on UFC’s 20th anniversary show on Nov. 16, "Sapo" will replace Lyoto Machida against Tim Kennedy in the main event of UFC Fight Night 31 in Fort Campbell, Ky. Kennedy called out most of the middleweight division on Twitter after Machida was pulled out of the card to replace Michael Bisping against Mark Muñoz, and Natal didn’t expect to get the call to replace the Brazilian star.
"I was heading to the gym when I saw three missed calls from my manager on my phone and one message that said ‘Dana White wants to talk to you’," Natal told MMAFighting.com. "I called my manager and he said they wanted me to fight Tim Kennedy in the main event.
"My legs started to shake and I remembered my whole career when he said that," he continued. "I had to decide it yesterday, so I called my coaches and took the fight. There’s a lot of fighters well ranked in my division, so I wasn’t expecting to get this fight. I was really surprised."
Natal, who has won five of his past six bouts in the UFC, looks to increase his win streak to four against Kennedy, but he has a few changes to make in his camp.
"Now I’m fighting a wrestler, but the big difference is that this is a 5-round fight," he said. "He has fought for five rounds before. He’s really tough and hasn’t been submitted before. Many fans don’t know him yet but he’s one of the best out there. I will be ready to battle for five rounds."
"Tim Kennedy was offered to fight Vitor Belfort but Vitor didn’t want to take the fight, then they matched him against Lyoto Machida," he said. "A win over him would put me at least in the Top 10 in this division, if not at the Top 5."
Natal, a high-level jiu-jitsu fighter, has submitted eight of his 22 opponents, but Kennedy has never been tapped in his 20-fight career. In fact, the special forces veteran also has eight submission victories on his MMA record.
"MMA is evolving a lot and is a very surprising sport, you don’t know what can happen, but I have what it takes to submit him or knock him out," he said. "We are going there to fight for five rounds but I won’t waste opportunities to finish him."
"I will find for openings they didn’t find," Natal said. "He fought the two best jiu-jitsu fighters in the world, Roger and Jacare, and now UFC gave me this opportunity. And I know I have what it takes to submit him."