In hot pursuit

SOMERVILLE, Mass. – The thermometer read 96 degrees. The late-afternoon humidity was oppressive.

In other words, it was time for Ken Florian to pull on a warm-up jacket and go out for a run.

"You do what you gotta do," said the man known as KenFlo, as he laced up his track shoes in the basement housing trainer Mark DellaGrotte's Sityodtong USA gym.

Florian established his spot among the elite of the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division with a gutsy performance last October in losing to Sean Sherk. The Dover, Mass. native showed valiance for 25 minutes with the vacant title on the line before losing a unanimous decision in one of 2006's most gripping battles.

The loss earned Florian the respect of his peers and fans alike, and it elevated his stature in the sport.

But the plaudits alone aren't enough to stay in the mix in the UFC's deepest division. So it was time to go jogging while everyone else was seeking air conditioning in the sweltering working-class neighborhood just outside Boston's city limits.

"After I lost (to Sherk), I had to be honest myself," said Florian, who was introduced to fight fans during the premiere season of "The Ultimate Fighter." "I thought, 'You're staying comfortable and going with your strengths. You need to really get down and dirty and train every single day and make yourself do the hard stuff if you want to get another crack at the title.' "

Florian takes the next step in that journey Saturday when he faces newcomer Alvin Robinson at UFC 73 in Sacramento.

"Alvin Robinson is not a well-known name," said Florian, whose record is 5-3 and includes victories in four of his past five matches. "But by no means will I take him lightly. I'm hungry all the time. … It doesn't matter who it is, whether it is a new guy or a name guy. I consider this a dangerous fight."

It isn't unheard of for a fighter to fall off the map after being on the wrong end of a decision in a key match. One need only look at the career path of David Loiseau before and after his loss to Rich Franklin at UFC 58 for evidence. But Florian used the Sherk defeat to revisit his approach to the game and recommit himself to getting to the top.

"Since the 'Ultimate Fighter' I've been fighting with a bad back," said Florian, who is a jiu-jitsu black belt. "After the Sherk fight, it was 'OK let's figure this out once and for all, let's be proactive about it.' I hired a full-time strength and conditioning coach, got stronger literally, improved my flexibility. Before that when I was hurt, I wasn't able to train jiu-jitsu and that is a strength of mine. I couldn't train on the ground; it was way too painful.

"Me and my coaches have streamlined the training process (to) get better and better all the time. I'm training like a professional athlete now."

Key in Florian's training regimen is DellaGrotte, who served as a coach on the fourth season of "The Ultimate Fighter." Florian has become the marquee name at Sityodtong USA, which DellaGrotte says is in large part due to Florian's mental make-up.

"A whole lot of fighters, when you watch the tape after a loss, they'll look at something they did right and say, 'Hey, check out what I did there,' " said DellaGrotte, whose school is also the MMA home for UFC veterans Pete Spratt and Jorge Rivera. "Ken's not like that. He doesn't want to be patted on the back."

"I explained to Kenny after the (Sherk) fight that every fighter has a loss somewhere along the way that serves as a gut check. Sherk had (Matt) Hughes (who won a welterweight title match at UFC 42 by unanimous decision for Sherk's first career loss). Sherk didn't sit back and say, 'Hey, I went five rounds with Matt Hughes and that's good enough.' He wasn't happy with it and he re-dedicated himself and now he's the lightweight champ. (Randy) Couture had the same thing. Now Ken's in the same boat."

Florian demonstrated his newfound commitment on April 5 at the Palms in Las Vegas. The former Boston College soccer player used kicks he was never taught on the pitch in order to push the pace against Japan's Donkonjonosuke Mishima, mixing body kicks high and low. Aside from a late glitch in which he was trapped in a kneebar and escaped, Florian dominated the fight, which he won via rear naked choke late in the third round.

In Robinson, Florian will face a bit of an unknown fighter. The West Covina, Calif. native has yet to face a fighter the caliber of Florian, but he enters the UFC with an impressive pedigree.

Robinson is a fourth-degree jiu-jitsu brown belt studying under Royce Gracie. He has an 8-1 professional MMA record, with all eight victories by submission via various jiu-jitsu chokes. Robinson's one loss came in his highest profile fight, as he lost via first-round TKO to Fabio Holanda on a TKO Promotions show in Montreal last year.

"Robinson wants to be comfortable in this fight," Florian said. "In order to do that, he has to take me down. In order for me to stop that, I'll have to work on my wrestling and take him where he's not comfortable, and that's striking. I'm sure he's a decent striker and that's not his strength."

KenFlo knows that 2007 has been the year of the upset in MMA, and that Robinson likely wants to become the next Houston Alexander, the 4-to-1 underdog who beat banger Keith Jardine at his own game with a swift and brutal TKO at UFC 71. It would be just as big a notch for Robinson to beat Florian, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, at his own game.

"He's a dangerous fighter," Florian said of Robinson. "I didn't need to see fights like what happened to Jardine and (Mirko) Cro Cop to understand that I don't want to be another victim, that's for sure. … Right now I want to fight the best and fight the guys everyone is talking about. I want to beat everyone in my path so that when there's a logical choice on who should get the shot at the title, there's no question it's me."

Which means it's time for another run out in the summer heat.

Dave Doyle is the mixed martial arts and boxing editor for Yahoo! Sports.

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