PHILADELPHIA – Kenny Florian stood in the middle of a pack of columnists, reporters and photographers in a hotel ballroom on Wednesday and made an admission that would have been startling had it come from the mouth of, say, an NFL quarterback or a Major League Baseball pitcher.
No one, though, was at all shocked when Florian conceded he wasn't close to being ready and had no idea what it took to be a champion when, in 2006, he first fought for the Ultimate Fighting Championship's lightweight title.
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was ridiculed and nearly run out of town after conceding he was nervous during Super Bowl XXXIX. Imagine the reaction if, like Florian, he said that physically, mentally and emotionally, he wasn't ready to be a Super Bowl champion.
That honesty, though, is part of what makes mixed martial arts fighters such a unique breed among professional athletes.
And Florian, who challenges champion B.J. Penn for the belt in the main event of UFC 101 on Saturday at the Wachovia Center, is among the sport's most unique.
The Boston native fought Sean Sherk for the vacant title on Oct. 14, 2006. He was a bloody mess by the time the bout was over and lost a unanimous decision. Nearly three years later, on the verge of a bout against what figures to be a more difficult opponent, Florian concedes he didn't have what it took back then to be a champion.
"I felt on the physical side I wasn't ready, on the technical side I certainly wasn't ready, and, in many ways, (I wasn't ready on) the mental side, too," Florian said. "I don't think I was aware of how much time and effort it takes to really be a champion. It was that experience that really taught me about that."
His brother, Keith, one of his trainers, won't let him forget. Keith Florian isn't trying to be negative about his brother's performance, but he carries a notebook with him to each training session and each fight in which he records everything, positive and negative, that his brother does.
That allows him to tailor his brother's workouts so that he is constantly evolving. The results have proven Keith Florian's method has been working. He's won six in a row and is coming off an impressive first-round submission of the dangerous Joe Stevenson at UFC 91.
The wins themselves, however, aren't what Keith Florian is using to judge his brother. He simply looks in his notebook and sees the hurdles Kenny has cleared since last he fought for the championship.
"He's a totally different fighter," Keith Florian said of his brother. "Mentally, physically, spiritually, he's a totally different person. What makes him so great is that he's always looking to take it to the next level. He's not satisfied with anything. He's not satisfied with his last win. He's not satisfied with anything. He just wants to go out there and improve and make himself better in every way.
"He's a lot more confident, there's no question about it. That's from over the years, not just necessarily from the Joe Stevenson fight."
He'll need every bit of confidence, knowledge and technical ability he can muster against Penn, who despite his one-sided loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94 in January remains sixth in the Yahoo! Sports MMA rankings.
He's well aware of Penn's place in MMA history and his many great accomplishments. He calls Penn "a revered legend" in the sport and ranks among the greatest fighters ever.
But he also knows he can only carry the respect game so far. Once the bout starts, he won't be facing B.J. Penn, the legend. He'll be fighting B.J. Penn, the man who will be looking to take his head off.
And so Florian must confront Penn on equal terms in the cage. To do that, he spent several months working with Jonathan Chaimberg, St. Pierre's suddenly hot strength and conditioning coach.
Florian said the days of getting into shape during a 60- or 90-day training camp are long over. He has made year-round training part of his routine. On Wednesday, he looked significantly better physically than he ever has, thick across the chest and back.
Working with St. Pierre and some of his camp members also helped spur much of his improvements.
"Any time you get a chance to train with people outside of your camp, it's a huge help," Florian said. "Sometimes you train with guys, and they could be the best guys in the world, but once you get on to their strengths and weaknesses, it's almost like cheating a bit. You know the answers to the test before you get out there.
"Going out to TriStar Gym, I had tremendous sparring partners and guys I had never worked with before. That was huge. And, of course, training with Georges St. Pierre, any time you get a guy who is one of the best in the world and he can push you in all aspects, it's only going to help you as a fighter. It was inspiring for me seeing him spar, as well. There were definitely technical and physical improvements I made by going there."
Now, all he has to do is put them into action under the bright lights against one of the best men in the world with the pressure of knowing that if he doesn't get it done this time, he may not get another shot.
Penn eschewed any pressure and said it's all on Florian's shoulders. Florian understands the politics of things, but he's hardly put off by it.
"As weird as it sounds, I don't really spend time now thinking of being the champion," Florian said. "I know it will be a huge milestone in my life and it's going to be something I'll never forget, but that's on the back burner now. The key thing is making myself as ready as possible for B.J. Penn and what he brings.
"I know in my heart I'm so much better today than I was when I fought Sherk. This Kenny Florian would destroy that Kenny Florian. No doubt in my mind about that. It's a learning process, and I feel like this fight is at the right place and right time in my life."
- Kenny Florian