1 on 1 with UFC Star Kenny Florian: Violence, Choking, and the Ultimate Fighter

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 23, 2012

For many fighters, the path into the cage is predictable. A hard life, early struggles with abuse or neglect, an all-consuming desire, from a very young age, to command respect with five knuckles. Ten if they learn to throw a solid left.

Without an outlet for whatever is burning inside of them, these young men would still find themselves drawn to violence, proverbial moths to the flame. The violence, for some, is inevitable. The cage isn't necessarily their destination. It's a convenient and life-saving exit off a toll road that leads to prison or the morgue. It's salvation.

With others, fighting is an elaborate science experiment, a violent one perhaps, with human lab rats. This subset of fighter sees the mat as a laboratory. The question that consumes them is not who is the toughest guy on the block or who can beat up whom. It's a simpler one, a more elegant one: what works? When two human beings collide, what strategies and techniques are the most effective?

"Finding these techniques that would work in a fight...for me it was kind of just formulas," UFC announcer Kenny Florian, sporting the hottest of hot pink pants, told Bleacher Report in a career-spanning interview. "I didn't see it as 'I'm this tough guy. I want to fight. I want to get hit in the head. Punch the guy back and bleed.' I came to actually like that stuff, but that wasn't my initial impression.

"For me it was always about the method and finding the way to beat guys. That was what was so interesting to me...I don't think I was ever a fighter.  I think I was a martial artist. And I think there is a difference."

Florian, for the better part of a decade, was a leading scientist of fistic violence, a professor of pain. The son of a surgeon, a professional on his way to a career that involved absolutely no face-punching, a soccer player in college, for God's sake, Florian was one of the least likely candidates in UFC history to become a championship level fighter.

"I had no intentions of being an actual MMA fighter," Florian said. "I just wanted to do martial arts full time. At the time I was really in love with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That's all I could think about. That's all that I wanted to do. I just wanted to dedicate myself to the martial arts. So I stopped working—I said 'If I can put a gi on every single day, I'll be a happy man.'"

Even today, 10years later, with a career of incredible accomplishments in his rearview mirror and the future ahead of him on the horizon, that sounds a little silly.

"I stopped working."

He tells the story with a laugh, as if recognizing the absurdity. In our consumer-driven culture, the very idea of quitting a solid job, of abandoning his hard won college degree and his parents' dreams for his future, for what was at the time a very dicey proposition, was preposterous. 

"There's no money in that. That's the first thing my parents are thinking," Florian said. "You went to Boston College, you graduated...we thought you were going to law school. All this stuff...how are you going to survive? How are you going to pay the bills?

"And it was a good question. I didn't know."

The answer came just a year into his nascent fighting career, in the same form it has come from many young fighters in the short history of the UFC—the bombastic Dana White and his consigliere, Joe Silva. Looking for talent to fill the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, White found Florian on the losing end of a fight with another athlete the UFC was scouting, named Drew Fickett.

While Fickett captured the judges in a close fight, it was Florian who captured the attention of the UFC. Impressed with his moxie and heart, White offered Florian a spot on reality television. Suddenly, the idea of putting on a gi and going to practice for a living looked a little less ridiculous.

"Maybe 15 minutes after the fight he showed up and said 'Listen, I thought you won the fight. You showed a lot of heart. I thought you were going to get your ass kicked. Listen, we're doing this show called The Ultimate Fighter. Have your brother interview you on camera. Send it in to us,'" Florian remembered.

He also recalled being so upset he almost blew the entire thing off. Reality television may have been a staple of cable television by then, but it wasn't yet an automatic ticket into the Octagon. Florian considered passing.

"...I was so pissed that I lost," Florian said. "I didn't even end up doing the interview. I sent in a seminar tape where I'm teaching MMA techniques. The producers called me a couple of weeks later and said they wanted to invite me out to Vegas for an interview...They said the fights will be at 185 pounds. You're probably 170 pounds, if that. Do you want to do the show? I said 'Yeah, why not?'"

For Florian, weight was a constant obstacle. During his career he bridged an incredible range of 40 pounds, starting in the UFC as a middleweight and eventually cutting all the way down to 145 pounds for a featherweight title fight against Jose Aldo.

As his career progressed, Florian understood the need to gain, or at least not yield, every advantage. But in those early days he was still a believer in technique conquering all. His role model, as has been the case with so many other young martial artists, was Royce Gracie. The jiu-jitsu ace had run the table against behemoths in the UFC's formative days, and Florian wasn't quite ready to write him off as a relic of the past. Kenny might have been undersized, but that wasn't, in his mind, something that would stop him from making his mark.

"I couldn't pass it up," Florian said, explaining why he took fights at middleweight when he never even approached the 185 pound weight limit, even after eating a full breakfast and lunch the day of the weigh-ins. "You had the other guys, Diego (Sanchez) and (Josh) Koscheck who were fighting up in weight too. There were a couple of us who really shouldn't have been fighting at 185, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up....we had a nice crop of talented fighters mixed with very interesting  personalities. That's what made the show."

Florian was David in a house full of Goliaths. Yes, there were other smaller fighters in the fighter house. But what they lacked in heft, they made up in stature and pedigree. Koscheck was an NCAA champion. Sanchez was arguably the top unsigned prospect in the whole sport, an obvious future star who was ready to step into the UFC immediately.

Kenny was just a soccer player from Boston, an afterthought who was expected to lose quickly and brutally to Chris Leben, the loudmouthed street fighter from Team Quest in Portland who was a natural middleweight and an immediate fan favorite, a trash talking anti-hero who was rarely at a loss for words.

Leben had all the advantages. He trained with one of the best teams in the world, soaking up knowledge from the likes of Matt Lindland, Dan Henderson and coach Randy Couture. He had more experience and a seemingly unlimited supply of confidence. And he was the bigger and stronger man.

None of that saved him from Florian. Instead of a rock and a slingshot, Florian carried just his own razor-sharp elbows into the fight. It was all over by the second round, with a gaping cut on Leben's eye leading to a stoppage. The result placed Florian one fight away from the dream that propelled every fighter on the show—the title of The Ultimate Fighter and a six-figure UFC contract.

It was the first of many disappointments for Florian. Late in his career, White labelled him a choke artist, a sentiment that was perhaps unkind to voice but not entirely unsupported by the record. After all, Florian had five losses in the UFC, all five when it mattered most with either a championship or title fight on the line.

But of all his setbacks, it is his first, at The Ultimate Fighter Finale in 2005, that Florian wishes he had back.

"That really was the only time I choked in an MMA fight," Florian admits. "I didn't even get a chance to compete. I succumbed to the pressure and the nervousness and the inexperience. Coming off that show, people would be like 'Hey man, aren't you from The Ultimate Fighter?' And I'd kind of have my head down. 'Yeah.' People would recognize me, but for me, it was the worst experience ever. Because I lost.

"Not even that I lost. It was that I didn't even get a chance to compete, in my opinion. Maybe I would have lost anyway. But I didn't even get a chance to show my skills, and that's really what hurt the most...It was bittersweet, but more bitter...Not the greatest feeling."

Luckily for Florian, the television show was not the end of his UFC journey. Although the fighters were allegedly competing for a UFC contract, in reality almost every competitor got several opportunities in the Octagon.

While that became the case after every season of The Ultimate Fighter, at the time it was unclear exactly what would happen next. In Florian's case, it was the birth of a star. Spike TV identified him as a potential headliner right away, thanks to a combination of name recognition and an exciting fighting style.

His first three fights after TUF were all on Spike, with the third showcasing Florian in the main event against striker Sam Stout.

"They probably wanted to build me up. And saw potential in me, I hope," Florian said. "I'm very grateful. You know what's crazy—I am so lucky because every single one of my fights have been featured on TV or pay-per-view. Which is extremely rare for a fighter. Literally every fight I've ever had has been seen by the public on like a main network or pay-per-view card. I've been on a main card every single fight of my life...I'm blessed. Very, very lucky."

For Florian, the high-profile bouts led to a rising profile in the sport. Less than two years after fighting to simply secure a UFC contract, he'd find himself battling for UFC gold. Stay tuned tomorrow as the Kenny Florian story continues here at Bleacher Report.


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