By CagePotato Guest Contributor Ben Fowlkes
On April 2nd, Kenny Florian headlines the next edition of Spike TV’s “UFC Fight Night,” where he’ll take on lightweight up-and-comer Joe Lauzon. While most fans know that Florian, like Lauzon, got his start in the UFC with The Ultimate Fighter, what they don’t know is that his journey really began with a near-death experience that changed his outlook on life.
Florian took a trip to Brazil in the summer of 2003 with the goal of improving his jiu-jitsu. While hiking down a mountain with some friends, Florian slipped on the wet, mossy rocks and began sliding off a precipice. Friends tried to grab him, but Florian plummeted over the edge and fell “for what seemed like an eternity.” He landed on a rounded rock that stopped his fall and ultimately saved his life. The experience was an eye-opening one for Florian, and it prompted him to abandon the safety of his white-collar life and pursue his dreams.
In this exclusive interview, Florian talks about the ramifications of that incident, about being haunted and motivated by defeat, and about his impending showdown with Lauzon and what it means for his career.
CagePotato: You came into the UFC by way of The Ultimate Fighter, and you’d only had a few professional fights at that point. What’s the major difference between that Kenny Florian and the one we see in the Octagon now?
Kenny Florian: That last Kenny Florian’s a punk. No, the Kenny Florian on The Ultimate Fighter was a guy who was trying to test his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He was a guy who really wasn’t sure if he wanted to become a fighter. It was just an opportunity that was presented to him at the time.
Now you’re seeing a guy who wants to learn it all and who wants to be a master of it all, and who sees the beauty in any technique that works. Whether it’s striking or wrestling or expanding my jiu-jitsu game for MMA, I’m trying to not only get good at the individual arts but find a circle of techniques that flow into each other and compliment each other. It’s an art in itself, just finding what works for MMA.
Now that you’re fighting at lightweight and having success, do you ever look back and wonder, “What was I thinking trying to be a middleweight?”
I was fat, that’s the main thing that comes to my mind. I had no concept of nutrition, of strength and conditioning. Not until after the Sherk fight did I have any concept of those things like the way I do now. I was definitely a work in progress, but I was crazy then. I was really a natural 155’er who was given an opportunity to compete at 185 and I thought, why not? I had nothing to lose.
I had no idea it would become this big, running show. I thought it could have been my only opportunity to fight for the UFC or fight on TV and help bring this sport to the masses. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and on top of that, week after week, I became more confident. I thought, with the skills I have now I’m doing well against all these experienced mixed martial artists, I may have a chance at winning this thing.
It was really one of my first experiences with mixed martial arts and it was a great chance to work out with great coaches like Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell and find out what it takes to get to that next level. Those are the guys that planted the seed in my head for what I’m doing now.
Reading past interviews with you, it seems like you’re really motivated by your losses. What’s it like after a big loss, when you get back to the dressing room and have to face that dark moment? How do you move past it?
It’s a terrible, terrible feeling. My loss to Sean Sherk haunts me to this day. At the same time it motivates me, and I can look at it as a positive experience. You can let things like that defeat you, or you put them behind you and learn from them and get better. That’s what I tried to do. There’s no such thing as a setback in life. There are only lessons. We’re made to evolve and get better and faster and stronger. You can do that within your own life.
It’s like pushing weights for the first time and your body’s sore and it sucks and it’s really hard, but after a while your muscles and your nervous system and everything gets stronger. Your muscle memory gets better. That’s the way it is with certain things in fighting. If you have a loss, you need to look at it and learn from it. What technical mistakes did I make? What strategic mistakes did I make? What mental mistakes did I make?
You cover all those bases and, if you need to, write it down and start working on patching those holes up. You can only look at it as a positive and live in the present day. If you live in the past, you’re dead.
Reading about your near-death experience in Brazil, it seems like that had a profound effect on the course of your life. If that incident didn’t happen, do you think you’d have become a pro fighter?
It’s funny, because I’m not sure. I think there are certain times in life where we need to be shaken up so we realize that life is short and you need to not just follow what feels good, but follow what you love. That was a fear of mine. What if I give up this full-time job to try to be a pro fighter or a jiu-jitsu teacher or whatever my plans were at the time, and what would happen? I might be a failure and my friends and family will look at me as a loser, and here I had this job and this life that I gave up.
But that experience just made me realize how much regret I would have had if I had died at the moment and never got a chance to chase my dream and do what I really loved doing. It would have been a shame. I think there are a lot of people in life who are doing that. I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad, because I think there’s something noble about trying to provide for your family and making ends meet, but at the same time if there’s something that you love and that you’re passionate about, why not try and do it?
I’m glad I made that decision. It was tough at times. I had to move out of my place. I had to live with family and friends for a while. It was tough, but I wouldn’t change anything. I went from making around forty thousand dollars a year to making just a few thousand dollars a year, but I was waking up and putting a gi on every day and I was happy as hell.
Now that you’ve realized that dream of becoming a pro fighter, is there any aspect of it that surprised you or that you think regular people don’t realize about the lifestyle?
I think the main thing is all the hard work that happens behind the scenes. I wake up every single day and I’m sore. I wake up every single day with bumps and bruises. There are the injuries that you deal with — sometimes little things and sometimes major things.
Like Muhammad Ali said, I think champions are made when no one is looking. Champions aren’t made on fight night, they’re made in training. All the hard work that we put in, that’s the main thing that people don’t realize. They might see one or two sessions, but it’s session after session after session. Then there’s the nutrition, and then you start cutting weight, all those things that nobody thinks about.
Just to step in that Octagon is a major accomplishment. I have a lot of respect for every pro fighter, whether they’re in the UFC or not. Everyone who takes it seriously and works hard, it’s a huge accomplishment just to step in there and fight.
Fighting Joe Lauzon, who trains with B.J. Penn, does this fight have implications on a possible future title bout between you and Penn? Do you think that’s part of why the UFC made this fight happen right now?
I think it’s kind of attractive as a main event for the UFC because we’re both from Boston, both fought on The Ultimate Fighter, and we have a large following from it. From a marketing standpoint that’s an advantage, to answer that part of the question.
But will I see something in Joe Lauzon to prepare me for B.J.? I don’t know. They’re definitely two different animals. I’ve had the opportunity to go over there and train with B.J. in Hawaii and I think that Joe Lauzon is not B.J. Penn. There are some instances where he seems to think he is, but B.J. does a lot of things that other guys can’t do.
A lot of fighters have come out of that camp and they haven’t done what B.J.’s done. Joe Lauzon is definitely going to be a better fighter for training with B.J., but B.J. isn’t going to be in there with him fighting me two-on-one.
How are you preparing for Joe Lauzon? Have you seen any weaknesses from him that you’re looking to capitalize on?
I think there’s certain weaknesses that he has. I believe every fighter has a weakness. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’s invincible or who is doing everything perfectly. That goes all the way from the top down. We’ve definitely seen some things that we’re looking to exploit and, God willing, that will happen.
The main thing is being as well-rounded as possible against Joe Lauzon or any fighter that comes along, so you have the ability to change it up and to take the fight wherever you need to take it and exploit those weaknesses. Sometimes you may see something on the fly in the fight, and if you don’t have a well-rounded game you won’t be able to take advantage of it.
What do you think Joe Lauzon does best?
I think he’s great in transition. His ability to move from one thing to the next on the ground very quickly and his ability to make decisions quickly makes him a dangerous fighter. I think moving from his transitions to submissions is probably his strength.
This is another appearance for you on one of the Spike TV “Fight Nights.” The UFC and the fans seem to make a distinction between “Fight Night” fighters and pay-per-view fighters, but do you make any distinction between them? Is it a different experience?
I don’t know. It’s funny. I like them both, but they definitely have a different feel. In my opinion, I think it’s great fighting on Spike TV. I can reach more people and more people get a chance to see me fight live, so in that regard it’s an advantage. On a pay-per-view, though, it seems — I don’t want to say more important — but it feels like a bigger event. There’s a lot of media responsibilities and it’s usually in a bigger arena. They just have two different feels.
A lot of UFC fighters seem to be having issues with their contracts lately. How do you feel about your contract status and your future in the UFC right now?
I’ve been lucky in that the UFC has always taken good care of me. It’s been an interesting road coming from my Ultimate Fighter contract to where I am now. I do have a new contract now, which I’m very happy with.
A lot of it, looking back now, I had to pay my dues. I came on The Ultimate Fighter with only four fights and didn’t have a lot of experience. I grew up in the UFC and it was a tough way to come up and, I’m not going to lie, it was tough at times, financially, but because of what I did now I’m in a much more advantageous position.
I get to fight in front of more people and get more money from sponsors and I’m in somewhat high demand for seminars, so I’m very appreciative of what Zuffa has done for me. They’ve been great to me and I can’t thank them enough.
You mentioned coming up in the UFC. Other guys came up in smaller organizations. Joe Lauzon, for example, had sixteen fights before appearing in the UFC. Do you think that makes a difference in terms of quality of experience?
Man, I wish I was in Joe Lauzon’s position. I wish I had sixteen fights before I got into the UFC because I really think I wouldn’t have made as many mistakes in my fights.
Mentally, I wasn’t a mature fighter when I came into the UFC. There’s no better example than my fight against Diego Sanchez. I felt like a deer in the headlights. Diego had already fought for a world title and had a bunch of pro fights and amateur fights. It was just a big step up that I wasn’t ready for mentally. That’s what killed me, because I knew technically that I had what it took to make that a great fight and mentally I lost it. I beat myself.
I tell people over and over again, there’s no rush to get into the UFC. Take your time and get some experience. It was a great learning experience and I wouldn’t take it back. I had the philosophy that I’d fight anyone. I fought Drew Fickett on nine days notice, and he had like thirty fights to my three fights. But I wish I had someone to manage me and bring me up right. It’s a blessing and a curse.
If you beat Joe Lauzon and B.J. Penn retains his title against Sean Sherk, do you think you’re next in line for a title shot?
I have no idea. I understand there’s a ton of great fighters at 155. If I have to wait in line, that’s fine. If there are other guys who people think should step up and fight for the title, that’s fine, but I just want to fight the top guys. I want to be seen as the number one contender in everyone’s eyes when I fight for the title.
You’ve got some great guys out there like Frankie Edgar and Tyson Griffin and Roger Huerta. It’s fine if I can get an opportunity to fight one of those guys before fighting for the title. If they want to put me right into a title fight, that’s great too. I’m looking forward to the future because there’s nothing but great fighters at 155. But it all starts on April 2nd. If I don’t win then, none of this matters.
For more on Ken-Flo, check out KennyFlorian.com