This is number ninety-six in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature TUF 1 and UFC veteran fighter, Kenny Florian. The popular and charismatic, Boston-area native, Florian, was a surprise finalist as a middleweight on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. After that, he went on to fight in the UFC for the remainder of his career, twice fighting for the lightweight championship and once for the featherweight championship. Now retired, Florian is part of the UFC and FOX’s broadcasting team. In this role, he has been able to travel the world and see the sport that he once competed in from a whole new perspective. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Kenny Florian: I started doing martial arts when I was a kid - Karate and Kung Fu and stuff like that. My dad was a black belt in Judo and he kind of wanted us all to learn martial arts and know how to defend ourselves and all that. He thought it was beneficial so everyone in my family has done martial arts at some point. My connection with the martial arts was unlike anything else. I played soccer and I played tennis very seriously, but there was a special connection with martial arts that I didn’t feel with anything else. I felt like I was truly doing something special. I think that just growing up and doing martial arts and seeing it in the movies made it special. But it wasn’t until I started training when I was in college that I began approaching it in a serious manner.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, a KO win in Taunton, MA, back in 2003, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
KF: For whatever reason, when I knew nothing, I was more confident than later on. I felt like I was pretty well prepared at the time. I was going against a wrestler that I think had a couple fights. I had one Pancrase style fight that I had against Nuri Shakir. Nuri was probably a better fighter and a way more experienced fighter than the guy I was fighting in my second fight, technically my first pro MMA fight. I was actually really pretty ill-prepared. I was just doing Jiu-jitsu. Some of the guys at the academy were kind of just showing me things like how to jab and how to punch and how to hold a clinch. But I just felt prepared for whatever reason. I didn’t train hard. I didn’t do anything special. I just went in there and ended up winning.
JB: Though your first loss came in your third professional fight, it was a split decision to veteran fighter, Drew Fickett. It is also my understanding that your performance in that fight directly led to you coming to Dana White's attention and your casting on the first season of TUF. Looking back, what stands out in your mind about your experience on that season of TUF?
KF: I was originally supposed to face Jamie Varner, and I think that was at 170 pounds or whatever. I think I was like 168. I had never cut weight. I didn’t like cutting weight. Actually, I cannot say that I did or did not like cutting weight then. I had never even cut weight for my Jiu-jitsu tournaments. I just fought at whatever weight I was at. So I was originally supposed to fight Jamie Varner, and nine days before the fight, Drew Fickett ended up replacing him. Jamie Varner dropped out for whatever reason and Fickett came in. He couldn’t make the 170 pound weight so he said that he was going to fight at 175. I said, “Okay. No problem.” I thought it was a great opportunity to face a guy with one of the best records out there in MMA at the time. Drew Fickett was on like a six-fight win streak. He was submitting guys left and right and had submitted a couple of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belts. I was fired up for the fight. I thought it was a great opportunity. I had no idea that Dana White was in Boston that night, there scouting Drew Fickett. I think that he was kind of lured into watching Fickett fight because he had this great record and people saw him as a guy who could be on The Ultimate Fighter. So we went out there and had a war. That was the first time that I had ever been hit in the face for real in an MMA fight. We just went at it, man. We had a great fight. I thought I won. He thought that he won. I ended up losing the split decision.
The Ultimate Fighter was kind of like an experiment in some ways. I didn’t really know if it was going to be on TV. I thought, “Who’s going to watch this?” I had never heard of Spike TV at the time. To me, I just saw it as another opportunity to do what I love to do. It wasn’t even until after The Ultimate Fighter that I said that I wanted to try to be an MMA fighter. I was still just kind of doing it for the experience, just looking to learn and try something new. But it was really that experience that allowed me to become a professional fighter.
JB: After TUF, you went on to have a very successful career in the UFC, winning 12 times, 10 of those by stoppages, and most of the stoppages via submissions. Of those victories what were your most satisfying performances?
KF: I always thought that I could have done things better. I didn’t really look at my wins and say, “Wow! That was such a great win!” I had some fun fights and some memorable fights. The one against Takanori Gomi was a fight that I wanted since before I was ever in the UFC. I always dreamt of fighting Takanori Gomi and I had the opportunity to do it in a main event in the UFC. That was amazing and I thought that was a pretty clean performance. The one against Clay Guida was fun. I don’t think it was a perfect performance, but it was a fun one. If there was a fight that went perfectly, where I didn’t even get hit, it was probably the Sam Stout one, my first fight at 155.
JB: You only lost in the UFC five times. Four of those losses were championship fights and the other was a number-one contender fight. Diego Sanchez, at 185 pounds, and BJ Penn, at 155 pounds, were the only two opponents to stop you. Many consider you one of the best fighters to have never won a championship. How do you regard that distinction?
KF: Some people would maybe take offense to that or whatever, but I don’t. I think it was something that was just a great experience as far as being able to fight in the UFC. A lot of people didn’t expect much of me coming off The Ultimate Fighter. So in many ways I exceeded their expectations. I still feel like I failed at trying to become a champion in the UFC, but I started fighting at 28 years old and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to waste. I gave it my best effort, man. I really did everything I could. I made mistakes along the way and I always tried to learn and evolve. I feel like maybe I failed as a fighter, but as a martial artist, I succeeded. I was learning, proving, evolving and fighting at a high level against some of the best fighters in the world. Even as a kid I always dreamt about being able to do that. I always had these old Kung Fu movies in the back of my head. That’s kind of what I envisioned – traveling the land, training with different masters, and fighting the best guys out there. I was able to do that. I didn’t have a lot of time. I didn’t start MMA and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, the real effective martial arts, when I was younger. I just kind of did it for a couple years and that was it. I started Brazilian Jiu-jitsu at 20 years old. I don’t think a lot of people expected things of me, so in the end, again, I was successful as a martial artist but failed as a UFC fighter in some ways.
JB: In May 2012, about seven months after your last fight, a decision loss to Jose Aldo for the featherweight championship at UFC 136, you announced your retirement. At the time, you indicated that you were retiring at the advice of your doctors. How have you felt about your decision to retire since then, how have you been doing physically, and what, if anything, has retirement done to change your perspective on the sport of MMA?
KF: I still miss fighting very much. I miss training. I miss everything about it, walking into the cage, everything. Retiring was something that I needed to do. I never wanted to fight for a paycheck. I always wanted to do it because I loved it. I always wanted to do it when I was healthy. When I was no longer healthy and unable to train on a consistent basis, I was not able to put in the effort. I think that was what had made me a good fighter, my ability to work hard. If I wasn’t able to work hard, or even harder than before my last fight against Aldo, then it wasn’t worth it to me. It wasn’t worth it to me to just go out there and get a paycheck. I didn’t think it would have been fair to me and it wouldn’t have been fair to the fans and the people who support me. Since then, with my back it has been a rollercoaster ride. It has been up and down, just battling and trying to get healthy. I do my best to try and train in the sport that I love, but I’m not always able to do that for physical reasons because of my back. Being outside of the sport for a while certainly has changed my perspective. I think I’ve been able to look at it with just a different set of eyes. But I think overall it has been very positive.
JB: Many fans, when they think of your fights, they also think of some of the coaches you had over the years, including your brother, Keith, Firas Zahabi, and, earlier, Mark Dellagrotte. How do you think you evolved as a martial artist over the years?
KF: Everyone I’ve worked with has supported and helped me. I always felt that if I wasn’t getting better, I was getting worse. I had to constantly evolve and improve my game and work on my weaknesses. I think that Firas Zahabi was a huge, huge help in my career, both in the way that I performed and the way that I thought about the sport. He definitely elevated me to a completely new level. I think that throughout my career I’ve always looked at myself very honestly and been my own worst critic. I looked for ways to improve in the technical aspects and the physical aspects, and I learned that you have to go where you are going to get the most amount of help. That was the key, and Firas was a huge part of that. All my coaches have helped me over the years, but I think Firas was one of those guys that kept an open mind and allowed for there to be a tremendous amount of growth. He really thinks a lot like me, and I think that’s why we got along so well and clicked so well as trainer and fighter. We always looked for ways to improve and always looked for new ways to evolve and get better.
JB: Your work on ESPN and your current role with the UFC, as a color commentator for many of their television broadcasts, have established you as a skilled broadcaster. How much do you enjoy broadcasting and what have been the challenges thus far?
KF: I love MMA, and I love the sport, so being a broadcaster and having the opportunity to educate the fans and talk about the sport that I love is a blessing, man. I love it. It’s something that I’m always trying to get better at and improve on fight night. I’m relentlessly watching the sport and all different types of martial arts, whether it’s Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling, Jiu-jitsu. I’m always trying to expand my knowledge and learning and trying my best to share that and educate the fans. I think that is what, ultimately, at the end of the day, is going to help the sport. The more knowledgeable the fans we have, the better it is for the sport and the growth of the sport.
The travel can be a bit difficult working-wise because of the time changes and being tired constantly from the travel. We’ll do a show at what is five or six in the morning back home. It gets tricky and definitely is challenging, but I don’t think that there is anything better than being there live and calling those fights. It is an awesome experience and one that I am very grateful for.
JB: Are there any current fighters that you wish you had the chance to face in the octagon and who are some of the fighters that you enjoy watching most?
KF: I don’t think that there are really one or two fighters that I have that I wish I could face. While I was around, I feel like I really faced the best guys that were around in my weight classes. And that was really what I wanted. I have no regrets in that aspect. Though I’m sure there are some fights that I’d like to take back and go back and redo.
As far as fighters that I’m looking at right now that are impressive to me, there are so many. Right off the top, Jon Jones is the most impressive to me with his game and how he’s able to blend excitement and consistency at the highest level. I think that what’s most impressive along with the variety of techniques that he uses. To me, that is what makes him the number-one, pound-for-pound, best fighter in the world. Of course, Gustafsson was right there with him and had an argument for winning that fight as well. So he’s another guy that I really see as the new breed. Rory MacDonald is a guy that’s very promising. Conor McGregor has a tremendous amount of potential. I love the way that he fights. There are just a bunch of guys that are really extremely impressive out there, like Demetrious Johnson. There are a lot of guys that I look at and say, “Those guys are really doing the right stuff and training properly.” I think that’s where a lot of the MMA fighters are lacking. They’re not approaching their training camps in the right way.
JB: Last question, Kenny, and thanks for taking the time to do this. By most standards, you are still a young man. What plans or goals, personal or professional, do you have for the near or distant future?
KF: I don’t know, man. I’m having a lot of fun working on FOX with Chael Sonnen. I’m hoping that UFC Tonight is a show I can do with him for a very long time. And the same goes for Jon Anik. I would love to be able to work with Jon Anik for a long time and call the fights for the UFC. I’m trying to get better and better at broadcasting and doing the live fights and my hosting role and analyst role for UFC Tonight on FOX Sports 1. So I’m just trying to get as good as I can and maybe venture into other things. I don’t know. Maybe I could host some other kind of show. Something other than MMA would be fun. Maybe it could be some kind of travel show where I go out and train in different martial arts and have fun going to different gyms. I’m not sure what, but just kind of enjoying the experience and having an opportunity to do a show like that would be pretty awesome. Right now, I’m enjoying myself and enjoying retirement and doing my best to get better every single day at TV work.
JB: How about Florian Martial Arts? Have you opened a place in California?
KF: I haven’t. I haven’t opened up anything here in L.A. That’s been on hold. That’s been something that I’ve wanted to do, but with my schedule it has just been ridiculous. I still have my gym back in Boston, Florian Martial Arts Center, and that has been going well. Keith has been running that and the students have been doing extremely well. We’re still a pretty new school, but things are moving along pretty well. So right now I’m just trying to do as much as I can. There are other business opportunities that I want to get into and that I will get into, but it all depends on what kind of time I can lend to those different ventures. We’ll see what the future brings.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow Kenny Florian and Jack Brown on Twitter. Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, Kevin Randleman, Dennis Hallman, Daniel Cormier, Shonie Carter, Renzo Gracie, and dozens more.
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