MINNEAPOLIS – Popular UFC lightweight Roger Huerta goes by the moniker "El Matador." But Saturday night, the nickname was more fitting for his opponent.
Kenny Florian played a brilliant strategic game against Huerta in their UFC 87 matchup at the Target Center. Knowing Huerta is at his best when he gets into a down-and-dirty brawl, the jiu-jitsu black belt from Boston masterfully stuck and moved en route to a unanimous decision in a highly anticipated showdown. Each of the three judges scored the bout 30-27 for Florian.
"You can't get into a brawl with him," said Florian (10-3). "He's like a bull. You can't just go straight at him and expect to beat him. You have to go in and frustrate him."
Florian has dubbed himself "The Finisher" for his ability to take out his opponents. But Saturday, he channeled the notoriously patient Lyoto Machida in his approach. Huerta (20-2-1) had the hometown crowd of 15,082 on his side, but Florian flustered his foe, keeping his head and feet moving and effectively countering most of Huerta's attempts at offense.
"That was something I worked on a lot with my coaches," Florian said. "They kept yelling at me to circle, circle, circle. That was the best Roger ever looked. He hits really hard, and I was just smart enough to not go straight at him."
When Florian did press the attack, he made his shots count, keeping Huerta guessing with a wide variety of strikes.
"That was by design," said Florian's trainer, Mark DellaGrotte. "Kenny mixed in a lot of kicks, kept going high and going low, we didn't want to let Roger get into his comfort zone. I'll tell you what, I'm glad he fought Roger now and not a year from now."
"I gotta give props to Kenny," said Huerta, who suffered his first UFC defeat. "He had a good game plan and fought a very technical fight. I was doing good things in the first round, but then I went back to my old habits and tried to chase him down, being the stubborn kid that I am."
The victory was Florian's fifth in a row since he lost a unanimous decision against Sean Sherk in a match for the vacant lightweight title at UFC 64 on Oct. 14, 2006. Each of the previous wins in his current run were finishes, with three submissions and a TKO.
By beating better and better opponents each step along the way and finishing four of five, Florian has moved his way to the top of the lightweight contenders ladder and seems ready for his second crack at the title.
But the 155-pound crown could be on the back-burner for a bit, as current champion B.J. Penn is bent on challenging welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre in a rematch of St. Pierre's 2006 split-decision victory.
During the post-fight news conference at the Target Center, UFC president Dana White indicated that St. Pierre-Penn is in the works, but Penn would not be vacating the lightweight title in the interim.
"I don't know," White said, "B.J. was here tonight all fired up cheering for GSP; they both really want that fight. I'm gonna let that fight happen. After that, I'll figure out what will happen at 155."
Florian is fine with that.
"I just want to keep fighting top guys," he said. "I'm in the top company, and I'm in the top division. I've just got to keep winning. I don't want to wait around (while Penn fights St. Pierre); I want to keep fighting."
The loss puts the 25-year old Huerta in an interesting career spot. Huerta was groomed by the UFC from his 2006 company debut, as the UFC finally had a good-looking, media-friendly Latino fighter it could build into a star. Huerta held up his end by delivering exciting performances inside the cage and doing whatever the UFC asked outside.
But a controversy brewed in the buildup to the fight when Huerta, who has one fight remaining on his UFC contract, made comments construed as anti-UFC in a magazine interview.
"I never bashed the UFC," Huerta said. "I was never saying the UFC is bad. If it wasn't them, if it wasn't for their 40 million in the hole, we wouldn't be there. We wouldn't be looked at as professional athletes.
"All I can say, as a retirement plan, we can only do this so long. As a business decision, if someone offered you something better, you would do that. Anyone would. That's that. I have nothing bad to say about the UFC."