Florian outshines Japanese legend at UFN 21

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Kenny Florian knows he is at a point in his career that few mixed martial artists reach.

The Boston-based fighter came up short in two cracks at the UFC lightweight title. He’s still in his prime and he may well be the second-best fighter in the division behind champion B.J. Penn. But it might take a while before the general public is ready to buy Florian in what would be a rare third attempt at the championship.

So with the title situation out of his hands, Florian is going to go out and seek the fights that most appeal to his sensibilities as a mixed martial artist. Such an opportunity presented itself Wednesday night, as Florian faced one of the game’s legends in Takanori Gomi. The former PRIDE lightweight champion was considered by many to be the world’s best in his weight class through the middle of the past decade. But Wednesday, Florian (13-4) notched one of the biggest victories of his career, as he finished Gomi with a rear-naked choke in the third round of the Ultimate Fight Night 21 main event at the Bojangles Coliseum.

“It’s an honor to be able to fight [Gomi],” said Florian, who earned a $30,000 submission of the night bonus for his efforts. “I wanted to fight him for a long time because I was a fan of his and if you want to be a legend in this sport you have to beat the legends.”

Florian has developed a reputation as a fearless finisher. He’s won eight of his past nine fights, the only loss in a challenge to Penn last summer, and seven of those wins have come by way of TKO or submission. But Florian, who ran through such UFC lightweight standouts as Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida, clearly respected the hands of Gomi, who earned the nickname “The Fireball Kid” due to his freakish knockout power for a lightweight.

So Florian picked his spots over the first two rounds, moving enough to keep Gomi out of rhythm and relentlessly pecking at his foe with jabs and the occasional kick. Florian won both rounds, but his corner didn’t want to leave anything in the hands of the judges.

“We told him, you’ve got to go out and make something happen,” said Keith Florian, Kenny’s brother and jiu-jitsu coach. “You can’t leave it to the judges. He had to turn it up and take some chances.”

Florian didn’t take long to heed his brother’s advice. Gomi stunned Florian with a left hand that landed flush, but Florian responded by scoring the first takedown of the fight, bringing the rowdy crowd of 7,700 to its feet. Florian outmaneuvered Gomi on the ground, got his back and sunk in the choke to finish the fight at 2:52.

“He had power, no doubt about it,” Florian said. “During that fight, I had to be in that firefight a bit. He’s knocked out some of the best. … You have to respect that, he’s the type of guy, you could be winning the whole fight and he has the power where he could end it just like that.”

Though Gomi lost his UFC debut, he felt no regrets over his decision to fight in America. Gomi (31-6, 1 no-contest) remains wildly popular in Japan because of his legendary battles. American fans got a taste of Gomi’s style in his previous stateside fight, in which he and Nick Diaz put on a classic brawl on a PRIDE card in Las Vegas that many consider to be the 2007 fight of the year.

Gomi, 31, could have cruised for the rest of his career, cashing in on his name in Japan for easy paychecks. Instead, he moved out of his element to better test himself.

“I don’t have any regrets about coming over to fight in the UFC,” Gomi said through an interpreter. “The best fighters are in the UFC and I want to challenge myself. I did not fight my best tonight, but Kenny did and it was his night.”

Adding Gomi to a résumé that already includes wins over a who’s who of the UFC lightweight division is a big notch on Florian’s belt, but it likely isn’t the road to an immediate title rematch with Penn. And though Florian isn’t sure who he wants to fight next, he knows where he wants to next step into the Octagon. The UFC is expected to debut at the Garden in Boston in late August, and the thought of fighting in his hometown for the first time since he broke into the business on small shows is enough to catch his interest.

“I’ve been trying to focus on this fight,” Florian said. “But now that it’s over, yeah, I can admit it, I’m definitely looking forward to getting to fight in my hometown. That would be an amazing step in this journey. I’m just not excited about all the phone calls for tickets.”

Dave Doyle is the boxing/MMA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Thursday, Apr 1, 2010