Kenny Florian (9-3) has come a helluva long way since his days on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) Season 1. In fact, Florian wasn’t even initially expected to be on the show.
Back in July 2004, UFC executives were scouting for new fighters, and in particular, had their eye on a fighter named Drew Fickett. He was slated to face a young fighter by the name of Kenny Florian (who was just 2-0 at the time) at Combat Zone 7: "Gravel Pit."
Florian lost that fight via decision, but Dana White was so impressed with Florian’s toughness against the much more experienced Fickett (he was 22-2 at the time) that White approached the Boston native about an opportunity to try out for a new program centered around young fighters.
Florian would have to move up in weight to compete in the show’s Middleweight division. As one of the smallest guys on the show, he was the definitive underdog. But that didn’t stop him from going all the way to the finals, where he lost to the highly favored Diego Sanchez.
Now more than three years later, Florian has displayed remarkable improvement. Just imagine the Kenny Florian of today fighting the Kenny Florian from back then would be ridiculous. Hell, Florian today fighting Diego Sanchez today would look nothing like their first meeting.
You can take that to the bank.
Since that time, Florian was just the second TUF alum from any season to be granted a title shot (against Sean Sherk for the vacant Lightweight strap), and aside from that five-round decision loss, Florian has won all seven of his fights. And he’s finished every one of those opponents.
He’s now set to face another rising star: Roger "El Matador" Huerta (21-1-1) at UFC 87: "Seek and Destroy." It’s one of the biggest fights of his career and will determine who the true #1 Contender is and who will next face the UFC Lightweight Champion BJ Penn. It all goes down on Saturday, August 9 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn.
We caught up with "The Finisher" to get his take on his upcoming opponent, see how his game continues to improve with each fight, and find out what the future has in store for his ESPN and UFC commentating career.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): You’re slated to face Roger Huerta at UFC 87, and I’m assuming that you are still training with Mark DellaGrotte. How’s your preparation been going?
Kenny Florian: Everything’s been going real well, man. I’ve been real happy with the way things have been going. It’s been a great camp overall. I can’t wait to go in there and fight. I have about a week or 10 days left of hard training, and then after that it’s just tapering down and watching the weight.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Have you brought in any new coaches or training partners to help you prepare for the fight?
Kenny Florian: Yeah, not necessarily for this fight, per se, but we have a new guy who’s helping me out with my wrestling, and who also has MMA experience — he’s going to be fighting as well soon. Muzzafar Abdurahkmonov, he’s the assistant wrestling coach at Harvard, we brought him in a few months ago, so I’ve been working with him to improve my wrestling. He’s just been an amazing help. And I’ve been working a little extra hard on my boxing with Peter Welch.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Huerta shows some good kicks and knees in the standup, and of course your Muay Thai is excellent. How do you see the two of you measuring up on the feet?
Kenny Florian: I think I definitely have the advantage. I think I’m more technical of a fighter. I believe with just the amount of time I’ve been putting in with my striking recently, I think I’ve really improved my power. I’m looking forward to this fight, wherever it may go. I definitely feel I’ll have the advantage wherever the fight is. I just have to fight on my terms and not on his. I think that’s the most important thing.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): A lot of Huerta’s fights are battles of attrition. He wears his opponents down and ends up finishing a lot of his fights in the third round. You, on the other hand, finish a good number of your fights in the first. How do you see this fight going, and do you think that Huerta will be able to withstand your initial onslaught long enough to even reach those later rounds?
Kenny Florian: I’m not sure. I know that I’m very well prepared for three rounds plus. I pride myself on working hard on my strength and conditioning, and I know that I’m one opponent that he’s not going to be able to wear down. I believe that I can eventually wear him down. I know he’ll be coming in in great shape, and he’s not going to quit, and I’m looking forward to that. I think that I was one of the few guys who didn’t gas over in Colorado (at UFC Fight Night 13 last April). I’m excited.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Well let’s talk about Colorado. Against Joe Lauzon your leg kicks seemed to set up a few of your takedowns. Do you see them being as effective against Huerta?
Kenny Florian: Yeah, I think leg kicks are always effective against all opponents. I think it’s a good tool to slow down your opponent and certainly to work the legs to come forward. So I think it’s a good way to slow down anyone. We’ll see. It’s always part of the plan, so we’ll see how much I get to use it against him.
I haven’t seen too many guys trying to kick Roger. I don’t think he’s really had high-level strikers come at him — guys who can also keep it on the feet — so we’ll see.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Your submission defense against Joe Lauzon looked terrific. He tried a few heel hooks on you, and I think he was considering going for a knee bar at one point. He even had you in side control for a bit, but he really couldn’t do a lot with it. How has your ground game evolved over the last couple of fights that you’ve had? I know that you’ve trained in jiu-jitsu, but in the last year or so, how have you seen your ground game improving?
Kenny Florian: I think a lot of it has to do with concentrating on applying my jiu-jitsu for MMA. Coming from a Brazilian jiu-jitsu background, like I did, we’re always so concerned with positioning and the whole points game, which is not allowing to pass the guard or worrying about trying to keep control of your opponent.
In MMA, it’s not about points and securing certain positions; it’s about how much punishment you can deal out from certain positions. At the end of the day, that’s what the referee and the judges are looking for. So that’s how I’ve been adapting my game and solidifying the fundamentals and the basics of my Brazilian jiu-jitsu game and just really refining my jiu-jitsu constantly. I have my brother Keith to thank for that. He’s really been very helpful with that.
In my last fight with Joe Lauzon, I think I was able to show that, as good as his jiu-jitsu is, my jiu-jitsu was superior to his. On the ground, as far as when I was on top, passing his guard was very very easy, and solidifying the positions that I wanted I think was pretty easy.
I’ve always had a little bit of trouble off of my back, with my back injuries, but that’s not an issue for this fight. I feel real comfortable wherever this fight goes.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): It’s been widely circulated that the winner of this fight could be next in line for a title shot against BJ Penn. However, Penn has talked openly about moving up to 170 to fight the winner of GSP vs. Jon Fitch. His announcement sort of presupposes that he’s already cleared out the 155 division. Do you find this — I don’t know if "insulting" is the right word — but do you find this in any way disrespectful?
Kenny Florian: No I don’t. That’s the question I’ve gotten before. I know BJ pretty well, and I know that he has certain things he wants to accomplish. I don’t know how long he wants to stay in the game. He’s motivated by a lot of things.
His winning the Lightweight title, I think that was important for him, and then defending it once I think was important for him. But now I think he wants revenge. The revenge that he wants against GSP I think just outweighs the other priorities. I guess it’s just the number one priority, above defending his Lightweight belt again.
I think he sees the 170 pound division as another challenge. And knowing BJ, I wouldn’t be surprised if he beat GSP and wanted to go up to 185 and challenge Anderson Silva. I think BJ is one of those guys who really wants to solidify his legacy. He’s done a lot of great things at this point in his career, and I think he just wants bigger and better things.
He gets up for a challenge, and perhaps he doesn’t see the guys in the Lightweight division as a challenge right now. I can’t make that decision for him. I just want to concentrate on myself and put on the best performance that I can on August 9, and whatever happens after that happens.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): As a fan, would you be interested in watching BJ fight GSP?
Kenny Florian: Absolutely. I’ve always been a fan of the UFC for a long time, and of BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre. Both of those guys are at the top of their games right now. They had a close fight their last fight. I definitely would be one of those guys watching that fight.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): I know that there was at least some level of trash talking leading up to your fight with Joe Lauzon. The fact that he trains with BJ Penn — who you very well could be facing in the near future — does your win over Lauzon give you an added feather in your cap because of this?
Kenny Florian: I don’t know. I try not to put too much weight on what I’ve done. I don’t think I’ve accomplished that much as of right now. I try to forget about my wins and my losses and try not to worry about it and just move ahead. My next fight is the most important one. I take every fight as a championship fight, and as soon as it’s done I kind of forget about it.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): You’re famous for your elbows. Joe Rogan always talks about them, and they’re now called "Hell-bows," which is a great name for them. Often times, elbows draw cuts. Your critics — and I’d say critics of elbows from the mount in general — often cite fights being stopped due to cuts as being somehow unfair, or at least unfortunate. Even though only one of your fights has ever been stopped due to cuts (against Alex Karalexis way back in 2005 at the first Ultimate Fight Night), what’s your response to these critics?
Kenny Florian: Well, with elbows in general, it’s a technique that’s allowed for a reason. I think it makes the fight more exciting. As much as I use them, I don’t want to see a fight stopped because of a cut either.
But what it does do, it makes the sport more technical, it makes it more exciting. It’s a rule that’s used in Thailand, in Thai boxing. On the ground, especially, I think a lot of fights would be more boring if they weren’t allowed. I think it makes it a more active and more dynamic sport, because of it.
And also, anything can really cut. We’ve seen fights stopped from cuts because of gloves — obviously we’ve seen cuts in boxing very often from the gloves themselves. We’ve seen cuts from unintentional head-butts. We’ve seen it from knees. Vitor Belfort’s knee on Marvin Eastman (back at UFC 43) was probably one of the worst cuts I’ve ever seen. So it’s gonna happen.
And certainly I hope to finally get an elbow that equals a knockout instead of a cut.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): I wanted to ask you a little bit about your diet. What weight do you normally walk around at, and what types of restrictions do you have to put on yourself in order to make the 155 limit?
Kenny Florian: You know that’s changed. My weight’s definitely changed with each fight — that’s been good and bad (laughs). I’ve gotten bigger and leaner for every fight. I’ve put on about one or two pounds of muscle, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it actually is. I’ve been working with Kevin Kearns, my strength and conditioning coach, as well as my nutritionist, for almost two years now. Each fight I’ve gotten bigger, and it just means I have to be that much more specific with my dieting.
The cutting of weight has been more difficult for each fight, and it will be more difficult for this one. Right now I’m at about 172 pounds and pretty lean. I’m the leanest I’ve ever been and the biggest I’ve ever been leading up to a fight that’s this close. So it’s going to be a good cut. I’m ready for it. I’ve been eating really healthy all along. It’s just part of the fight process.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Your commentating career seems to be really taking off. You filled in for Joe Rogan as color commentator at UFC 83, and of course you’re featured on ESPN’s MMA Live program with Jon Anik and Franklin McNeil. How did this come about? Did someone from ESPN approach you about the opportunity or was this something that you’ve been pursuing?
Kenny Florian: Yeah, ESPN contacted my manager about going in for an interview to Bristol, Connecticut. I live in Boston, it’s a two-hour drive. So we went in, and I did an interview, and they showed me around the campus and told me about the opportunity about this new show and it’s potential.
I was really concerned basically with the fact that I’m a fighter first. I want to concentrate on that first. But the opportunity was so great that I really couldn’t pass it up.
I’ve been doing that once a week, and it’s been great. Obviously, the last couple of weeks I won’t be in studio. But just seeing their vision of what they wanted for the show and how long they’ve been wanting to do the show was really impressive to me. They really care a lot about the sport and want to see it grow.
Certainly having a show like that on ESPN will legitimize the sport that much more and push the sport ahead and legitimize it amongst every sports fan out there. So it’s a great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, and I have a great time over there. Those guys treat me real well.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): With your degree in Communications, this seems like something you’d fall right into and might like to pursue in the future, perhaps even after your fighting career concludes. Is that fair to say?
Kenny Florian: Yeah, definitely. I finally get to tell my parents that I didn’t go to college for no reason (laughs). I can justify going to college. The other thing that’s great is that you simply can’t get punched in the face forever. It’s always good to have a backup plan. When I’m done fighting — I take it one fight at a time, who knows how long my body is going to hold up — I do have something to fall back on.
Spending the time on the show has given me a renewed focus. I need to focus that much more on my training, I have to be that much more specific with everything that I do, and that much more organized. So it’s kind of given me a more laser-like focus I think.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): As part of your duties on MMA Live, you’re featured in a "MMA for Dummies" segment, where I’ve seen you demonstrate elbows from the clinch, as well as a few other moves. How’s the feedback from your fans been?
Kenny Florian: It’s been cool. It seems like the people who write in to the show, they love that segment, the "MMA for Dummies" segment. It’s kind of like a little free instructional for them.
We have a lot of good plans on the show for that. We have Randy Couture doing some demonstrations on the show, and Joe Stevenson, Frank Mir … so we’re constantly going to be updating that and having a lot of great fighters doing those segments for the future.
The goal eventually is to have that — you know, who knows if they’ll keep it for the T.V. portion — but we’re hoping to get on T.V. soon. And just the feedback from the first few shows has been amazing, and hopefully we can keep it going.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Well, Kenny, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. I’ve watched you since The Ultimate Fighter Season 1, and it always amazes me that I still think you fly under the radar in some respects because, in all of your wins, you’ve always finished your opponents, and these have been tough competitors. You always put on a really good show, and we’re all looking forward to the Huerta fight. Would you like to thank any sponsors, and do you have any parting words for your fans?
Kenny Florian: Great man, thanks a lot. Yeah, I really appreciate the fan support for this fight and every fight I’ve had — it’s always been amazing. I still can’t believe I’m even fighting in the UFC, and the opportunities that I’ve had, I’ve been real blessed.
I’d like to thank my sponsors who make it possible for me to train as hard as I do: TapouT, One More Round Clothing, Kershaw Knives, VersaClimber and Tourtellotte Solutions for their help. I’m a big fan of MMAmania.com, so thank you guys.