Kenny Florian has come a long way from fighting in “The Gravel Pit” at Club Lido in Revere, Massachusetts, but as he approaches what he hopes is a triumphant homecoming to Boston against Gray Maynard this Saturday night, it’s the lessons he learned in those early years that helped make him the fighter he is today.
Not that he knew it at the time.
“To be honest, I didn’t even see the UFC in the distance,” said Florian, who last fought in his home state against Drew Fickett on July 10, 2004. “I had no intention of fighting in the UFC one day or anything like that. Still at that point it was just one of those things that I was kind of giving a try. I saw it as a test of my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu more than this is a step in my career. It wasn’t even on the radar.”
A black belt in Jiu-Jitsu under Roberto Maia, Florian was the epitome of someone who didn’t “need” fighting. A graduate of Boston College working as a Senior Project Manager for a Harvard-based Translation Services Company, the man soon to be known as “KenFlo” was in his second year as a pro MMA fighter with a handful of fights to his name, but no real “name” in the fight world.
The bout against Fickett would change that, and not just because he fought well in a three round split decision loss, but because of who was in the crowd of less than a thousand people.
“Before the fight I had heard from the promoter that Dana White was gonna be there, and I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not,” recalled Florian. “I think I knew it was more to check out my opponent, Drew Fickett. I knew it was a step up in competition for me because I was really just a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy at the time, but I was still confident in myself and confident that I was gonna be able to get the win.”
He didn’t, but he did get the call to participate in a televised experiment called ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ The rest is history. No more Gravel Pit.
“I never thought it would be bigger than that.”
It got bigger – a lot bigger. This Saturday night, not only is Florian returning to fight in front of a partisan crowd packing his hometown arena, he will do so with a chance to earn a shot at the lightweight championship. If that’s not coming full circle, what is?
“It’s cool because it really is a dream come true to be able to fight in the biggest promotion in the world here in your hometown,” he said. “But for me on that night, it’s gonna be about my performance. It’s gonna be me, my opponent, and the cage. I’m more excited for my family, friends, and fans here, who get to see me fight in my hometown, something they’ve been asking about for a long time. But if you make it bigger than it is, then it will be, and you’re gonna feel that pressure, so I’m just excited to go out there and compete again.”
In the days since his fight against Fickett, the 34-year old Florian’s list of victims reads like a Who’s Who of lightweight standouts – Sam Stout, Din Thomas, Joe Lauzon, Roger Huerta, Joe Stevenson, Clay Guida, and Takanori Gomi. But it’s the two losses he’s taken at 155 pounds – against Sean Sherk and BJ Penn in lightweight title bouts – that have kept him from the top rung of the ladder, and what still push him today. And though some fighters will suffer a defeat in a championship match and never be the same again, Florian has actually gotten better after his two losses, and he owes his success to taking his ego out of the equation.
“A lot of people get down on themselves, and mentally, those are the roadblocks that are the most difficult things to overcome and what we usually end up creating in our mind after losses,” he said. “We say we’re not good enough, we can’t do it, or maybe I don’t have it. And for me, I always look on the technical side or on the physical side of what things I should have done or could have done better. I just try to take my ego out of it, and that’s very, very tough after a loss. I hate losing at anything, but at the same time, I have to go back and say ‘where did I go wrong?’ I love this too much to give it up. I still have passion for it, I still have energy to go out there and train every single day, so now there’s only one question: what do I need to do to get better? And the answer is going back and looking at the way that you train and looking at the mistakes you made during the fight and kinda taking the ego out of it and saying ‘what do I need to do to get better?’ You analyze yourself as honestly as you can, and have your coaches do the same, and you go back and drill and get better. That’s been critical, along with evolving and getting the right style to be the best fighter. I think that’s where my coaches have really helped, especially with the addition of Firas Zahabi.”
In March, Florian engaged in his second bout since being submitted by Penn in August of 2009. His opponent? Japanese superstar and former PRIDE lightweight boss Takanori Gomi. Expected to be a stiff test for Florian, the New Englander instead put on a clinic, shutting Gomi down with a crisp standup attack before finishing matters in the third round via rear naked choke. It was as perfect a performance as you could get against a world-class foe, but Florian begs to differ, and maybe that’s the secret of his continued evolution as a fighter.
“I went back and watched that fight, and my coaches did the same, and there are still a lot of things that I didn’t do that I wanted to do,” said Florian of the Gomi bout. “There’s a lot of things that I’ve added into my striking and into my training, wrestling, and all that stuff, that I didn’t do in the Gomi fight that I would have liked to have done. For me, there’s no such thing as a flawless performance; there were a lot of mistakes that I made in that fight and I still see the little technical details that I should have done weren’t all the way there. I went back and improved those things, I’m the sharpest I’ve ever been, and people will definitely see a much better fighter than I was against Gomi, and that’s been the most important thing – going back and looking at those mistakes. I’ve definitely done a lot to improve those things, and I’m sure in this fight against Gray I’ll still have a lot to work on.”
So the question should be, is the championship the be all, end all, or is it fighting the perfect fight? Florian goes a step further.
“It’s more than just the perfect fight,” he said. “I would go as far as saying the perfect fighter, and that’s probably impossible, but that’s my goal. Every single day is to get better to the point where it’s perfection. I know it’s an impossibility, but that’s my goal every single day, to have flawless technique, and in everything I do, I want it to be perfect. If I have that in my mind but never get down because it’s not perfect, then I’ll have the perfect mindset.”
And giving credit where credit is due, Florian quickly refers to his father, Agustin, as the source of his work ethic and pursuit of perfection in whatever he chooses to do.
“My dad was a very hard worker and he wanted to be the best and he always had the feeling that he had to better than everybody and try his best coming from another country to the United States, and it’s that work ethic, optimism, and confidence that I got from him,” said Florian of his father, a doctor who came to the United States from Peru. “If you love something, you’re always gonna give a hundred percent and do whatever it takes to make it work. I love this and it’s all I think about, all I do, all I want to do, and for me it’s probably more than a passion – it’s probably an obsession. And when it’s going through your head all the time and you’re working on it all the time and you’re just immersed in it, it’s easy. It’s not even a question of whether I’m gonna try to be better; I have to, and there’s no other way. I love this way too much to not be good at it or not give a hundred percent to it.”
This adds even more intrigue to the compelling bout between Florian and Maynard, with Florian continually adding new wrinkles to his game and Maynard living up to his nickname of “The Bully” as he looks to steamroll his way to a title shot. To win, one fighter will have to break the will of the other eventually, and Florian expects to make a statement on Saturday.
“Every fight is important in the UFC, and for me, I think a win over Gray Maynard, in the fashion that I hope to do it, would be a big statement of saying ‘here’s a guy in Gray Maynard who’s undefeated, he’s beaten top guys, he was considered one of the top contenders to face BJ Penn at the time (in April) along with Frankie Edgar, I beat him, outclassed him, and Kenny Florian’s back and he’s a different fighter.’ Hopefully, we’ll see that I outwrestled him, outstruck him, and that this is a different Kenny Florian from the one we saw before his run at BJ Penn. So I hope to prove that and I think a win over Gray Maynard alone proves that you’re the top contender in the world.”
Florian and The Pursuit of Perfection
"Every single day is to get better to the point where it’s perfection. I know it’s an impossibility, but that’s my goal every single day, to have flawless technique, and in everything I do, I want it to be perfect. If I have that in my mind but never get down because it’s not perfect, then I’ll have the perfect mindset.”