When Kenny Florian started in UFC during the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” some viewers had a hard time taking him seriously.
It was 2005 and most people’s perception of fighters were that they were supposed to be all muscled up, or have shaved heads, scowls and tattoos – the kind of guys you would run from in a dark alley. Basically, the opposite of Florian, who looked like a guy who just walked out of his college science class.
But it didn’t take long for him to prove skeptics wrong. Fighting at 185 pounds – a good two weight classes higher than he should have been – he went to the finals in the first season before losing to Diego Sanchez.
He’s since had a very good career in the cage, and made his name as an analyst on television outside it.
But one thing has been missing: The Boston-area native came up short in his biggest fights, the ones that make legacies and would establish him as a championship-level fighter.
On Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Houston for UFC 136, Florian, 15-5 and now a veteran at 35 years old, is running against the clock while working on the ultimate science project. How can one stop the UFC featherweight champion, Jose Aldo Jr. (19-1), who is both 10 years younger and seemingly has no weaknesses?
Florian’s answer is to train harder, smarter and with better people. It’s also to use his maturity to live more disciplined and rely on his experience in tough situations.
"I see a guy who hasn’t been pushed," Florian of Aldo. "He’s faced a lot of opponents who have been intimidated. I don’t think he’s faced anybody like me. He’s faced a lot of guys who haven’t done a lot of great things in the sport, the exception being Urijah Faber. But Faber didn’t match up well against him. I’m going to have tremendous reach on him (four inches), and a different set of skills and experiences."
Florian’s success, which dates back to that first season of “TUF,” includes being the only fighter in company history to have success in four different weight classes. He started as a middleweight. He quickly moved to welterweight, and from 2006-10 campaigned exclusively at lightweight.
He’s only had one fight at 145 pounds, a June 11 win over Diego Nunes, a stablemate of Aldo. Questions about whether he would drain himself too much from the weight cut were answered, as he won the second and third rounds against a fighter who had a reputation for conditioning. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing; Nunes scored knockdowns in the first and third rounds.
Florian feels the combination of being at his optimal competition weight and superior training will allow him to overcome 7-to-2 odds and an opponent who has knocked out seven of his nine opponents in World Extreme Cagefighting and UFC competition.
"I have my hands full," he said. "I have the skills, experience and size to give him a lot of problems. My goal is to push the pace, grab him by the hand and walk him through hell, and see who comes out."
Florian has had two previous title fights, both as a lightweight. On October 14, 2006, he lost a decision in a bloodbath with Sean Sherk over a title that was vacant at the time. His second title shot was losing via choke to B.J. Penn on August 8, 2009.
In the television promotion for the fight, the commercial features Florian yelling, "Who wants to see fights finished? I finish fights," seemingly as a challenge to Aldo. Those were actually edited comments made back in 2007. The actual quote was,"Who wants to see fights finished at 155? I finish fights at 155," when campaigning for a rematch with then-champion Sherk.
"The big difference is back then I was fighting guys where I had a handgun, and they had machine guns," Florian said. "I didn’t have access to the kind of coaches I have now, the kind of training partners I have now. I wasn’t training with Georges St. Pierre and Rory MacDonald. I didn’t have world-class wrestlers at my disposal, I didn’t have champions from Thailand at my disposal."
One of Florian’s biggest changes has been in the area of strength and conditioning. He’s training under Jonathan Chaimberg, one of Canada’s best-known conditioning coaches.
Chaimberg made his reputation first training members of the Canadian Olympic wrestling team, and working with St. Pierre, one of the best-conditioned athletes MMA has seen. This has enabled Florian to be stronger while weighing 145 pounds than he was at 155. His lifts prove it and he’s also got more quickness and endurance. And even though weight cutting is no fun, he said he felt better after the cut for his last fight to 145 than when he made minor cuts in the past to make 155.
"It’s taken me to a completely different level with both strength and conditioning," he said. "I’ve always had a strong heart, but I didn’t have that anaerobic capacity. My muscles would get tired. My heart wouldn’t get tired. I’ve gone from a V-6 to a V-12. I really feel that much different. I see the numbers that I put up, the circuits I go through, and I know what I’m doing is at elite level."
But actually getting to 145 wasn’t easy, at least the first time.
"It’s been much easier this time," he said. "The first time, I was coming off a knee injury, had a nine-month layoff, was coming down from a little more than 180. My leg was up on the couch for two months. I was depressed and not training. Because of that, I was eating. The cut was probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was very tough, but I felt great on fight night. This time, I’m a lot farther along at the same point. I feel like I have a ton of energy."
"I don’t think there’s many people who train like me, and I assume Aldo doesn’t train like me," Florian said. "He doesn’t have the access in Brazil to the things I have in the States and Canada. It’s not a knock on him. It’s a reality."
He’s also honest enough with himself to work on his weaknesses. After being stymied by Gray Maynard’s wrestling ability a year ago, his brother Keith impressed upon him that his wrestling, which was good enough to beat Clay Guida, Joe Stevenson and Roger Huerta at lightweight, wasn’t good enough to win him a world championship.
"Today, when people ask me what is the most important aspect of the sport, I will always say to start wrestling, that’s the glue of martial arts," Florian said. "It’s an aspect I once ignored. I dedicate myself to wrestling every single day. It’s the first thing I train and the last thing I train.
"After the Maynard fight, my brother told me, `You need to hire a professional coach and you’re going to work with him every single day.’ I’m working with Sean Gray, an assistant coach at Princeton, and he’s made an unbelievable difference in my game."
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