"I know Aldo’s going to be the toughest fight of my career, but I’m a completely different fighter than I was back then." - Kenny Florian
As meticulous as they come, Kenny Florian will never be described as reckless or haphazard in anything he does, especially when it comes to his day job as a professional fighter. So it’s no surprise that Florian would spend hours breaking down tape, watching prospective opponents and studying their every move. It’s a habit that served him well when he became an analyst for ESPN’s MMA Live, but then it got to the point where it was hurting him in the Octagon.
“I used to do a lot of video watching, and I used to spend a lot of time doing it,” he said. “But analysts analyze and fighters fight and I needed to be able to separate the two. So now I leave the coaching to my coaches and I just try to fight. I listen to what they want me to do and what they want me to work on, and my job every single day is to get Kenny Florian better.”
It may sound like a simple solution to the problem of getting the longtime contender over the hump and into the winner’s circle in a championship bout, but it was far from that for Florian, because despite having world-class coaches and strategists in his brother Keith, and Firas Zahabi, letting go of some of the control he had over his career wasn’t an easy decision.
“It was tough in the beginning, and I think that’s where I’ve had my problems with either my brother or Firas as far as giving them that trust and that control,” admitted Florian. “But when you realize and you see how right they are and the kind of advice that they have and the wisdom that these guys have at such a young age, I do feel comfortable now. We’ve gone to war a few times now and they really do know what they’re talking about and I see the results in my training and in my fights, and that’s one thing over time I’ve learned to do.”
Now left in the position where the “only” things he has to do are train and fight, Florian has a new lease on his fighting life, and a new attitude that will serve him well as he approaches the third championship fight of his career, a Saturday date with UFC featherweight boss Jose Aldo. He sounds more relaxed and confident than ever leading into the UFC 136 co-main event, and while most of that is due to a solid training camp and the belief that the third time will be the charm when it comes to title shots, you can’t underestimate the power of having a weight cut that’s a lot more manageable than the one the former lightweight standout endured on the way to his featherweight debut against Diego Nunes in June.
“This one (weight cut) is much, much easier,” he said. “I’m coming down from a normal weight, and my body is now accustomed to getting down there and knows it can get down there. It’s seen the worst and I’m in a much better spot than I was last time out.”
Not to bring up bad memories, but how bad was the last weight cut?
“I was a couple pounds past 180,” Florian begins, and you know right then and there that the cut was a torturous effort of mammoth proportions. “So getting down to 145 is a tough, tough thing to do, especially when you haven’t done it. I haven’t been 145 since college, so it was a difficult cut, and physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it took me to a different place mentally. Honestly, it was so difficult to the point where I really feel I can do anything now. The fight wasn’t even an issue for me. I wasn’t even concerned with it because my biggest concern was making that weight. I was very nervous about it and it was one of those things where I really feel like I went to a higher level mentally and physically.”
But do you ever want to pack it in while in the midst of it and say ‘I’m done?’
“The word ‘can’t’ never crossed my mind at all, but I absolutely started asking questions of why the hell am I doing this,” he laughs. “But now I’m in such a better place and in such a better position to be right where I want to be, and it’s awesome. It’s funny, because now I look around at some of the other 155 pounders because my body has changed so much and I was like ‘how the hell was I fighting these guys?’ (Laughs) These guys are walking around past 180 and they’re pretty big.”
The fact that Florian can laugh about the worst weight cut of his life is evidence that his second trip to 145 is going a lot smoother. Now the only bad part is that he has to face Brazilian bomber Aldo at the end of the whole process. Florian enjoys that part of it though, calling it “figuring out a puzzle.” And the key element of finding a solution to the dynamic champion’s attack is knowing what you bring to the table.
“Do you have the tools in the toolbox, first of all, to be able to beat Aldo?” asked Florian. “It’s one thing to create all these great strategies and have this and that, but if you don’t have the bullets and don’t have the right guns, then why even talk about strategy? And I feel that I’m doing all the hard work necessary and I have all the tools because I am working all the time, to get the job done here against Aldo.”
He does have the tools, and wins over Sam Stout, Din Thomas, Joe Lauzon, Roger Huerta, Joe Stevenson, Clay Guida, and Takanori Gomi prove it. But those victories came at lightweight, making the UFC 131 bout with Nunes a pivotal one, not just because it was a test run at 145, but because a win put him right in line for a shot at the champion. But Florian survived a couple visits to the canvas to pound out a unanimous decision win over Aldo’s Nova Uniao teammate, and he liked how he felt in his fourth weight class.
“The speed at 145 is different – it’s much faster, and Jose Aldo’s gonna be faster,” said Florian. “That’s one thing I have to be able to adjust to when I’m out there. But I felt phenomenal on fight night against Nunes. I felt I could have done another five rounds if I needed to. I’ve never had a problem with cardio, and that’s one of the strongest points of my game, being able to go and go and go and not get tired. I was prepared and I had it mentally in my head that maybe I’m not gonna be at a hundred percent for this fight (against Nunes). Maybe I’m gonna be hurting in the final round (because of the weight cut). But I wasn’t. I knew pretty much when I woke up that day that I felt phenomenal thanks to my nutrition program and the way that I trained, and it paid off. I never trained harder for a fight than I did for Nunes.”
When it was over, the featherweight division had a new contender, and even though he lobbied UFC President Dana White for a title shot before UFC 131, after it was over, it was a lock.
“I knew I was ready to jump right in, based on the level that I faced at 155, and based on what I know I’m capable of doing as far as my fights and my training,” said Florian. “I was facing a guy in Nunes who was one of the top five featherweights in the world. And besides (fellow contender) Chad Mendes, I knew that a win over Nunes was gonna put me up there as one of the top featherweights out there, and the timing with Mendes didn’t work out, so based on what I did at ’55 and my win over Nunes, I was gonna be a frontrunner to face Aldo. I don’t think there’s a fight at 145 that you can market more than myself and Aldo.”
He’s right, and there are plenty of intriguing angles to look at this fight from. Can Aldo continue his amazing run? Did the last round against his last opponent, Mark Hominick, provide a blueprint for Florian to take advantage of? Can Florian finally get the belt he has sought for so long? And maybe most telling, how long can the 35-year old “KenFlo” keep doing this?
“It’s crazy when I even think about how long I’ve been fighting in the UFC,” said the affable New Englander. “I do think about that (age) and I think I’m still in the best shape and feeling the best I’ve ever felt at 35. I feel better now than I did when I was 21, so it’s how I’ve been eating and how I’ve been taking care of my body. I’ve never been a big partier, I’ve always been a guy who tries to train year-round, and I think that’s been the difference. I don’t want to be fighting into my 40’s and I don’t know how many years I have left, but physically it’s the best I’ve ever felt.”
It sounds like all the stars are aligned for Kenny Florian, and he would probably agree. Yeah, there’s still a fight to be fought, but when it comes to being prepared for battle, he’s ready. And when it comes down to it, after all the ups and downs, the starts and the stops, if he can put a championship belt around his waist on Saturday night, it may be sweeter now than it would have been before.
“It absolutely means a lot more,” he said. “I’ve done some good things in my career, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and it’s those mistakes that have brought me to where I am today. I feel completely different heading into this fight, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and I feel great. It’s been all those experiences, all those things good and bad, and I think this is my time to get it done. I know Aldo’s going to be the toughest fight of my career, but I’m a completely different fighter than I was back then, and I’m extremely hungry to compete. I want to go out there, compete hard, and earn a victory. I almost want to go a disgustingly tiring 25 minutes. (Laughs) I want to make my money the old fashioned way on October 8th.”