Kenny Florian and hardcore MMA fans have an interesting relationship. By the end of his career we respected him—after all, his heart, courage and incredible variety of skills both standing up and on the ground were undeniable.
But it was a rocky road for a time, and it all started with UFC 64 and a bout for the newly reinstated lightweight title with Sean Sherk.
To many, it was a fight that didn't make sense. Sherk was a career welterweight, dropping to 155 for the first time after losing bouts to Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes, making it clear he was not better than third best in his division.
Sherk at least had the pedigree to make a title challenge reasonable. Florian, for better or worse, was a product of The Ultimate Fighter. Seen as a flash in the pan, an artificial creation of reality television, his single fight as a lightweight against Sam Stout didn't convince fans and critics that he deserved a spot in a fight for the gold.
And yet, there he was, face on the event poster, co-main-eventing a UFC pay-per-view in his first appearance outside the Spike TV safety net.
"It was kind of like my experience in The Ultimate Fighter when I didn't really realize how big it was. Which was kind of good for me. I just kind of fought my ass off," Florian told Bleacher Report in a career-spanning interview from the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas. "I knew I was outgunned against Sean Sherk. The guy had almost 40 fights to my, like, seven.
"Big, strong guy, lots of experience. But for me, I went in there to kill. And that's why I walked out with the samurai outfit. That was my feeling. I was going out there to die. Win or die. That's what I was prepared for. It was a great experience. Fighting for the championship, it was so early in my career...it was crazy. You don't pass up opportunities like that. I had to do it."
By the end of the second round, you could forgive forensic experts if they accidentally thought they had stumbled onto a murder scene. Florian was soaked in blood—and it wasn't his own. He opened up a bad cut with an elbow strike and Sherk looked close to exsanguination, bleeding like a faucet even after the third round began, his corner unable to stop the bleeding.
"It gave me motivation," Florian remembered. "The fans just went nuts. There was so much blood in the cage that night from him. Literally, it was the next day, and I had already taken two or three showers—the next day I still found blood in my ear, outside my ear. I found it inside, like rolled up in my eyelids.
"There was so much blood, I can't even tell you. It was ridiculous. I can still taste it to this day. Like liquid metal. It was nuts. And definitely it motivated me. And that was a war. That was a war. I remember peeing blood after that."
Sherk, to his credit, recovered his bearings and won a unanimous decision in a brutal fight. For Florian, it was back to the gym, time to reinvent himself as a fighter and an athlete. Many fighters get a single opportunity to compete for a championship. Florian was determined he would not be among their number.
"When I went back I said, 'Here's the deal.' I was kind of dealing with some injuries. I could have done some other things differently. I didn't have a strength and conditioning coach. I could have been eating a little bit better year-round. I could have been training a little bit more," Florian said. "It was a kick in the ass for me and got me to train like a true professional. I was a professional fighter fighting. After that, I became a professional who fought... A professional athlete.
"And that's the way I approached it. It really paid off. Before every fight, I always worked harder and harder, and I was able to increase my capacity to train more and more...those losses provided so much fuel for me."
What followed were six consecutive wins and a second shot at the belt. Florian walked the hard road back to contention, earning another opportunity. But it was a journey that almost went awry in his first fight post-Sherk.
Against Japanese submission ace Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Florian was caught in a tight kneebar, one that almost ended the fight.
"I was winning the whole fight and he almost catches me in this kneebar. Almost taps me, almost rips my knee off," Florian recalled. "I just said, 'Screw it.' That was my mistake. If my knee breaks it's gonna break. I'm going to try to get out of this....That was very close.
"He had locked it out. I got a little lackadaisical, a little cocky. Man, that was close. Luckily I turned the right way. I had really worked on my leg lock defense for that fight...I was so angry at myself that I hit him with one of the hardest shots I've ever thrown. As soon as I got that mount, got his back, I was just livid at myself."
Florian ended up finishing the fight with a rear-naked choke and, without meaning to, proceeded to talk a little smack in the aftermath.
"I tried to show him respect. I was learning Japanese before the fight, and I sat and bowed down to him and I said, in Japanese, 'I am a samurai,' instead of saying, 'You are a samurai.' So I beat him up and then said, 'I am a samurai.' And he looked at me with these eyes and said, 'Me too. I'm a samurai too.' And I said, 'No, no, no! You. You're a samurai.' ...It was the worst."
International incidents and foreign language shenanigans behind him, Florian continued to make a case that he deserved another shot at the lightweight title. After subsequent wins over Din Thomas and Joe Stevenson, among others, Florian would once again find his way into title contention.
His opponent for his second shot at gold wouldn't be Sean Sherk. Instead, standing across the cage was the most legendary lightweight of all, and Florian's hero, BJ Penn. We continue our interview with Florian tomorrow here at Caged In.