Like all of you, I don’t know whether Kenny Florian will retire in the near future. But despite not being able to read his mind, there seems to be little left to prove for the 35-year-old southpaw. To fight fans. Or himself.
If Saturday’s night’s setback to Jose Aldo was indeed the curtain call on Florian’s storied 8-year career, some will best remember the lanky Bostonian as the only man in UFC history to thrice compete for a world title belt, only to come away empty-handed each time. Others will appreciate him for being the only UFC fighter to compete in four different weight classes (astonishing, when you think about it).
I, on the other hand, will foremost remember Kenny Florian as a fighter who literally squeezed every ounce of potential that he could out of his mind, body and soul toward a goal that most wouldn’t come close to reaching. In my mind, this is one of the highest compliments that I can give a person. And I can make that statement about relatively few professional fighters (though I could provide a lengthy list of more physically gifted fighters who underachieved throughout their careers and never came close to fulfilling their peak potential).
When a fighter goes 0-3 in championship contests, as KenFlo did, it’s easy to point the finger at him and yell, “He choked!!” It’s the classic label, the knee-jerk reaction. Let me go on record as saying I don’t believe for a second that Kenny Florian CHOKED in any of his title fights. In fact, I believe Kenny Florian is rock solid mentally.
To my point: lightweight kingpin Sean Sherk sported a 33-2-1 record back when he relied upon takedowns and superior wrestling en route to a unanimous decision victory over Florian back in 2006. Florian had entered the bout with an official 7-2 slate and simply lacked the experience and wrestling pedigree back then to pull the upset. In 2009, a motivated BJ Penn was simply the better man when he faced Florian – and the immensely talented Penn doubly benefited because he could hear many of the instructions being yelled from Florian’s cornermen.
And the Aldo loss? Well, for starters, Aldo is 10 years younger than Florian and blessed with all the physical advantages that come with youth. So you can’t condemn Kenny Florian’s effort or psyche in big fights. They’re beyond reproach. But his ceiling just isn’t as high as Aldo’s and that, in my mind, was the difference between who had their hand raised Saturday and who hung their head when the decision was announced. Not determination. Not confidence. Not cage smarts. It’s why every one of us could go to a track, sprint as hard as we can for five years, 365 days a year, read as many books as we can on sprinting, and never come close to beating Usain Bolt in a 100 meter race. Not gonna happen folks. In other words, if you are an average athlete fighting a great athlete, you had best hope that the great athlete doesn’t train as hard as you do, or know as much as you do about technique, or have the same will to win or mental toughness that you do. Because if he does possess those ingredients, the less physically gifted fighter is probably in trouble.
But Kenny Florian has earned my respect – and probably the respect of most fans. And there is no question that, at age 35, he could definitely keep competing another few years at a high level and perhaps remain a top 10 featherweight in the process. But one of the fundamental questions facing him is, “Do you want to wait around another two years to try and earn a title shot?” And, if you lose one fight along the way, do you want to wait maybe three more years for a potential title shot?
As fast as the sport of MMA is evolving, with young fighters growing in leaps and bounds by the month, what is the likelihood that a 37 or 38-year-old Kenny Florian is excellent enough to beat the world champ in 2013 or 2014? Because, in my mind, by 2013 and 2014, we’re going to see champions with even greater skill sets than we’ve seen to date. We’re going to see Jose Aldo 3.0’s, Georges St-Pierre 3.0’s and Jon Jones 3.0’s. There is so much suffering, and borderline torturous work and deprivation required in the quest for a UFC world championship, and I honestly don’t think that any other sport comes close in what they demand of their athletes. Mind, body and soul. An avalanche of sacrifices. In baseball, a bad day is when you strike out three times in a game. In the fight game, a bad day is when you lose, get your butt kicked and make a visit to the hospital and find out you’re medically suspended for the next two months. MMA is the ultimate sport and anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant and/or delusional.
Kenny Florian, son of a thoracic surgeon, is a very intelligent young man. And he can follow in the footsteps of 40-somethings Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and George Foreman if he wants to. But there is a key difference. Florian competes at a lighter weight, and in the lighter weights speed is paramount (135 kingpin: Dominick Cruz. 145-pound champ: Jose Aldo. 155 pounds: Frankie Edgar. All blazing quick). And when a fighter starts to age, speed is the first thing to go. Strength stays, cardio might too, but the middle-aged athlete’s reflexes start to slow down – and that is even more dastardly when you’re sharing cage space with speedsters like Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes or a Dominick Cruz.
It’s Kenny’s decision, obviously. He could take another fight or two – one of those “fights that interest me” that vets like Couture, Matt Hughes and Matt Serra look for when retirement dialogue starts creeping more and more into their psyche. But that approach gets risky, because, as we know, most top fighters don’t leave the cage under idyllic, fairy-tale endings (Chris Lytle being the exception). Most of the time top fighters leave on their backs, with the ref waking them up. Most of the time accomplished veterans become gatekeepers or steppingstones who help fans delineate between the pretenders and the contenders. It’s an unfortunate fact.
Kenny Florian fought competitively Saturday night against a fighter who has looked invincible and hasn’t lost in nearly six years. I personally believe that, if you throw out what a fighter has accomplished in his career, and just look at their recent body of work and rate their skill sets – if you just judge them based on the skill set that they possess today -- I would peg Aldo as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world. So Kenny Florian’s performance was impressive, if not victorious.
Now the waiting game has begun. We know that Florian is a talented UFC commentator and ESPN MMA analyst and a great ambassador for the sport. So if we have indeed seen the last of Kenny Florian as pro fighter, I hope fans remember him as a ridiculously good fighter and first-rate finisher who gave everything he had in the gym and in the Octagon. It is a quality that is worth admiring. Because you can’t ask anything more of a fighter, or a person, than that.