For this week’s SI.com column I spoke with Kenny Florian about his upcoming title fight against B.J. Penn at UFC 101, and of course we also had to discuss exactly what role he played in the whole Greasegate saga. As always, Florian proves to be one of MMA’s most articulate and self-aware fighters, and he also knows he’s got one hell of a challenge in front of him on August 8. Check out what Florian had to say about Penn’s strengths and weaknesses, what it means to fight for a UFC title, and more below.
I think every fighter I’ve talked to before a fight with B.J. Penn always mentions something about wearing him down and making him quit. Is that in your gameplan? Do you think you have to make B.J. quit before you can beat him?
I’m not sure. I’m not sure I really believe that you have to break B.J. mentally or make him quit. I think the key is challenging every aspect of his game and making him make those little mistakes, those little errors. People tend to look at B.J. like he’s this god and he doesn’t make mistakes, like you just can’t beat him on the technical level. I feel you can beat him at the technical level.
In doing that, if he happens to fail physically or slow down, that’s going to be worse for him. But I’m not expecting that. If that happens then it will be a tough fight for him, for sure, but I’m expecting him to be ready to go hard for all five rounds.
How do you see yourself beating him?
I think my overall game is going to be better than his. I’m a more complete fighter. I incorporate more of a complete striking game, whereas B.J.’s more of just a boxer. But I have to go out and prove it on August 8. I truly believe that I’m better everywhere and I’m a better conditioned athlete. I feel like it’s going to be a tough fight, but I’m ready. I’m ready for five rounds of hell.
People are going to make comparisons between the Kenny Florian who fought Sean Sherk for the title and the one who’s fighting B.J. Penn. What are the similarities, if there are any?
Oh, I’m a completely different fighter. I think that Kenny Florian was really ill-equipped for the high levels of mixed martial arts, both physically and technically, and also mentally. I’m a much better conditioned athlete, my technical skills are far superior now, and I really don’t think you can even compare me now with who I was then.
Being different mentally, is that a result of the experience you’ve gained over the years? How do you prepare mentally for a fight of this magnitude?
Every fight was important for me. I’ve been in a title fight before, I’ve been in main events. Having that experience, having the fight of the night, and having all eyes watch you is crucial for performing under the pressure that comes with a title fight like this. I do a lot of mental training as well, a lot of visualization and meditation, just to make sure that I’m always at my best. I’ve said it before, there are probably better 155-pounders out there, but not on fight night. Everything I do, from my training to my mental preparation is geared toward fight night. That’s what it’s about.
There’s this sort of perception that Penn is that naturally gifted fighter with tons of talent, and you’re the guy who’s pretty average but has forcibly made himself better over the years with sheer hard work and discipline. Is that accurate?
I would love to perpetuate that notion, but I’m not sure it’s exactly accurate. I’ve played Division I soccer, stuff like that, and I actually recently had my genetic profile tested. It tests kind of your potential for different athletic feats, and I tested pretty high in pretty much 90% of the tests, so I have natural talent, too.
Of course, B.J. has certain things that I don’t have. I don’t have his flexibility, and I don’t have joints like he does. I don’t think I have natural punching power like does. I think we’re both talented but in very different ways. I think I surprise people sometimes, though. When they lock up with me they don’t expect me to be as strong as I am, or they don’t think my footwork will be that good. So I believe I have talent, too, but talent’s not everything. Hard work beats talent when talent refuses to work hard.
Who did this DNA testing? And what, specifically, did you learn from it?
It was Warrior Roots, they did it. They did a few different fighters – Georges St. Pierre, Rich Franklin, and some others. I was intrigued by it and I met one of the founders of it and they offered to do the test for me. They scratch a little on the inside of your mouth and then send it in. Then they look for certain indicators about your potential for muscle efficiency, V02 max, your ability to get rid of lactic acid, a bunch of things.
It lets you know a couple things. It lets you know what your strengths are as an athlete and what your potential is. But it also lets you know what your weaknesses are and then you can target your strength and conditioning programs to improve that. For example, my muscle efficiency was very, very high. I think it was the highest. That means that someone who was normal couldn’t get to where I could if we were both working our hardest. So it could be somewhat discouraging but it also gives you that information to let you know what you need to focus on.
Do you think it helped you mentally to know those things?
Yeah, it did. It helps you mentally. Like when I found out about my muscle efficiency, I guess I didn’t really know that. I always knew that I had good lungs. But muscle efficiency I had no clue about, and it gives you just that much more fuel in your training and that much more confidence going into the fight, knowing that it if it becomes a battle to see who will give out first, it probably won’t be you.
Let’s talk about the greasing text. You originally said that you didn’t send any text at all, but recently you admitted that you did send a text to someone in Penn’s camp about Roger Huerta being greased. Was that meant to indicate that if this guy who’s trained at Greg Jackson’s does it, others, like GSP, might be doing it too?
No, I never alluded to that. One of the reasons I didn’t want to get into explaining that was because I don’t want to be the guy who starts accusing people of greasing. I don’t want to be the guy making excuses or anything like that. But since B.J. keeps pressuring that issue and talking about it, fine, [Roger] Huerta is who I was talking about if they want the story. It wasn’t about Georges.
I don’t have a clue about what he does or what guys at Greg Jackson’s do. I have a lot of respect for those guys. They’re all phenomenal fighters and I don’t think they need to do anything like that to win. Greg Jackson is someone who I have never worked with, but I have a lot of respect for what he’s done to raise the level of mixed martial arts and I’d never cast doubt on him like that.
What do you think of how far and how aggressively B.J. has pursued the greasing allegations since his fight with GSP?
It was a little overkill on his part. He’s a proud champion, and no one likes to lose, myself included. It must have hurt to work so hard and then lose to a guy who he probably considers his nemesis. But one of the worst things I think you can do in that situation is try and take away from a man’s credit. What it does is create doubt around Georges St. Pierre and I don’t think that’s fair.
Georges is such a talented athlete and I think if people saw the way he trains they’d know that. The way he works and things he does in training are even more impressive than what he does in his fights.
Do you feel like it’s necessary, in order for you to feel like you were a success as a fighter, to win a UFC title?
You know, on a personal level it isn’t. I feel like I’m a success because of how much I put into my training and how much I’ve dedicated myself to the art. My goal, really, is to be a better mixed martial artist. And I think I’ve done that. I think I’ve gotten better with each one of my fights. That’s my goal. I want to be better and I want to be one with mixed martial arts, as cheesy as that sounds. That’s my goal beyond belts and anything else.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to leave a legacy behind when I die. I’d love to leave here a champion and know that I got to the top of the mixed martial arts world. You know, that I faced the best and I beat the best. That is part of what drives me. But really what keeps me going in the gym every day is just to get better every single day. Beyond that, belts will be forgotten and people will forget you, but at least I’ll know what I put into this.
Thanks, Kenny. Anything else you want to add?