Sunday, March 18, 2007

Soft-spoken linguist now gets his kicks from Ultimate Fighting

By Mark Pratt

Ken Florian is college-educated, multilingual, polite, soft-spoken and low-key. A doctor's son, he grew up in the affluent Boston suburb of Dover and dreamed of playing professional soccer.

He was working as a financial documents translator when he decided he was better suited to another job: Brutally and bloodily pummeling his opponents into submission as an Ultimate Fighter.

"I'm amazed at what he's doing now," said Ralph Powers, Florian's soccer coach at Dover-Sherborn High School, and now one of his most loyal fans.

"Growing up, he didn't have a mean bone in his body," said Jon Kirby, Florian's high school tennis coach.

Florian, 30, admits that he never envisioned the money, the travel, the adoring fans, the hobnobbing with celebrities that comes with being a mixed martial arts fighter.

"I always had a fascination with martial arts," said Florian, whose father, Agustin Florian, a thoracic surgeon, is a judo black belt. "But soccer always took precedence in those days. I always had aspirations of playing soccer professionally. I never intended to be a mixed martial arts fighter."

Ultimate fighting - combining multiple martial arts disciplines, boxing and wrestling - is violent. But it is also one of America's fastest growing sports, drawing 10,000 to 15,000 fans to live events as well as hundreds of thousands of television viewers and consistently posting higher ratings than just about every sport except the NFL.

Opponents who judge Florian's skills based on his background do so at their peril. "It comes down to what a competitor has inside," Florian said. "The most important thing a fighter can have, you can't see."

Florian honed his fighting skills as a youngster.

"I have four brothers, all bigger than me," said Florian, who lives and trains four to five hours a day, six days a week in Somerville and has a 7-3 record in the lightweight division, including a championship bout loss in October. "I've been competing with my brothers my whole life."

Still, the beatings he administered and took from his brothers do not compare to the ferocity and brutality of his current fights, where the competitors often end up covered in blood. Florian's easygoing personality changes as he literally tries to beat his opponent into submission.

Florian saw his first Ultimate Fighting Championship fight, involving UFC legend Royce Gracie, while still in high school. But his interest blossomed at Boston College, where he played varsity soccer and majored in communications.

"He was incredible. He was beating guys twice his size," Florian said of Gracie. "I got hooked on it. After college, I was like, I have to learn this. I never even thought about fighting. I just wanted learn Brazilian jiujitsu."

The UFC in those days was a bare-knuckle, barbaric blood sport, with virtually no rules, no weight classes, and no oversight. Most states wouldn't sanction fights. Television and advertisers shied away. It was condemned by politicians across the country, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, who called it "obscene."

Dana White, who first got involved in UFC in the early 1990s, stepped in with his partners in 2001 and bought out the previous owners and polished the sport's image.

"We actually agreed with McCain," said White, UFC's president, who saw a void in the sports landscape with the declining popularity of boxing. "Our approach was that we are going to work with the state athletic commissions to get this sanctioned."

The sport still has its critics, but the new owners drew up unified rules, put gloves on the fighters (although they still kick barefoot), and established weight classifications.

It was White, a former boxer and promoter who once ran youth boxing programs in Boston, who discovered Florian almost by accident in 2004.

White was on vacation in the Boston area when a friend persuaded him to go to a bout featuring a fighter named Drew Fickett in Revere. His opponent was Florian, who had been fighting in mixed martial arts competitions around New England.

"Fickett was like 23-2 at the time, and I took one look at Kenny and thought to myself 'This kid is gonna get killed in there,'" White said. "But the fight was an absolute war and Kenny ended up losing a split decision."

As a result of that bout, White invited Florian to participate in "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show in late 2004, where 16 aspiring fighters lived and trained together, battling it out for a UFC contract. Florian finished second.

Florian, fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, worked as a translator of financial documents before deciding to train full-time.

"It was a pretty interesting change," said Florian, whose next fight is April 5 against Dokonjonosuke Mishima in Las Vegas.

Fighters with Florian's background are part of the sport's growing appeal, White said. Many of the fighters are college educated, from middle class backgrounds, the exact demographic of the sport's fans.

"It's refreshing," he said. "One of the problems with boxing is that every boxer had the same story. 'I grew up on the mean streets of whatever city and if I hadn't found boxing I'd be either dead or in jail.' Who can relate to that?"

They can, however, relate to the suburban soccer player.


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