Monday, April 2, 2007

Kenny Florian – Eager for Round Six

By Thomas Gerbasi

The five round championship fight. For mixed martial artists, it’s a rite of passage, an affirmation that you truly belong in this unforgiving game. And if you make it through all 25 minutes, whether you win or lose, you will undoubtedly be changed.

Some, like current UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk, regroup, refocus, and come back stronger, like he did after his five round decision loss to Matt Hughes in their welterweight title bout in 2003.

Others though, are unable to recover from a five round war and they see their careers forever altered. Case in point is former UFC heavyweight contender Pedro Rizzo, who left it all in the Octagon in his challenge for Randy Couture’s heavyweight title in 2001, only to lose a razor-tight split decision. There would be a rematch six months later, but Rizzo wasn’t the same fighter as Couture stopped him in three rounds. Since then, Rizzo has posted a pedestrian 4-4 record – this after winning 11 of his first 12 MMA bouts leading to his first title shot.

So as Kenny Florian enters the Octagon this Thursday for his first bout since a grueling five round decision loss to Sherk for the vacant lightweight crown, many are wondering which way the New Englander’s career will go. No worries, says Florian, he expects to be better than ever.

“I’ve been in a war before with Drew Fickett – it was three rounds just non-stop, but going five rounds is something that’s completely different, especially doing it for the belt and with all that pressure on the line,” admits Florian. “But now I think I’m even more motivated. Situations like that will either make you or break you, and it made me. I didn’t think it was possible but I’m much more hungry, it’s made me a better fighter, and it’s completely changed the way that I train and the way I approach the game now. So I’m thankful for that fight.”

And while the scores may have reflected a near-shutout win for Sherk, the fight itself was competitive throughout, with Florian seemingly just a break or two away from getting momentum on his side and turning the tide. And in a lot of ways, Florian – who has fought a long battle for recognition from fans who have dismissed him for being a part of the first season cast of ‘The Ultimate Fighter – he may have picked up more respect in defeat than in his previous three UFC wins.

“Sherk is very respected and highly regarded, and I think a lot of people underestimated me in that fight and thought he was gonna walk right through me,” said Florian. “So I definitely think I earned some respect in there. Going five rounds with anybody will get you respect.”

Yet despite the positives taken from his first title bout, Florian is not about to be satisfied or happy with what went on that October night in Las Vegas. The 30-year old out of Massachusetts was coming to the Mandalay Bay Events Center to win, and he was going to bring it, as evidenced by his unforgettable entrance dressed in the uniform of a Samurai warrior while Ennio Morricone’s classic tune from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, “The Ecstasy of Gold” blared from the arena speakers.

“As a fighter coming up, you see fighters and their walkouts, and no one really does any great walkouts anymore,” said Florian of one of the UFC’s classic ringwalks. “They don’t come out with a costume, and I just envisioned me coming out with a Samurai costume. I don’t know why. Anytime I get a chance to do a big entrance like that, I’m gonna come out as a different warrior and give something back and tie it in to the old warriors and how they would go into battle.”

Of course, some of this was lost on younger fans who have never even heard of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, let alone Ennio Morricone.

“It was just two guys going out there and seeing who had the fastest draw,” said Florian of the Clint Eastwood classic. “I love the old Spaghetti Westerns, and I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood and I love that movie. It’s a moving song and it tied the new age warrior with the gunslinger and the old warrior of the past, the Samurai.”

Florian’s reverence for the warrior aspect of this sport is just one of the reasons why it’s impossible not to respect him and what he’s trying to do in the sport. Yet trying isn’t enough, as he’s well aware. You have to be able to perform on fight night, of course, but you also have to live your life as a professional athlete, another lesson he picked up from the Sherk bout.

“I basically learned about taking care of my body, being as healthy as I can, and knowing that the training doesn’t start a month before the fight,” he said. “You really have to build up a foundation of strength and that’s something I never did. I never weight trained, and from talking to doctors and physical therapists, I had a weakness in my back, and that’s why it’s been plaguing me in every fight since before the Stout fight. It’s something I’ve been avoiding, but now I’ll be training year round, building a foundation of strength, going into an explosive phase of training, and then the final training, which is the hard conditioning. I used to just do the hard conditioning and my body was never prepared for that type of rigorous exercise. It would just get broken down and my back would be injured. It exposed a lot of weaknesses and it’s taken my game to a whole new level.”

It’s also allowed him to keep up a hectic schedule of personal appearances on behalf of the UFC without stressing about any missed training. In fact, he believes his new training regimen makes life on the road easier.

“Because I’ve put in the hard work months ago, I feel comfortable traveling,” he said. “I know that I’m in good shape. If this was the Kenny Florian of the past, I wouldn’t be doing this stuff and I’d be nervous. But now I’m confident that I can do these appearances and still get back to my training routine. And I have the discipline now to do what I need to do on the road.”

The next step is putting it all into action on Thursday (Spike TV 8pm ET / PT) against Japanese standout Dokonjonosuke Mishima, a fight that could shape up to be one of the best on the UFC Fight Night card, but one that may unfortunately fall under the radar a bit after Mishima’s first round loss to Joe Stevenson last year.

“It is a little frustrating because people don’t realize how good Mishima is,” said Florian of the Osaka resident, who has been in with the likes of Takanori Gomi, Yves Edwards, Marcus Aurelio, and Din Thomas. “This guy is a superstar over in Japan, he’s as tough as they come, he’s beaten some highly regarded names in the game, and he’s got a boatload of experience. It (beating him) is gonna give me a lot personally, but as far as getting respect from fans, people are gonna say ‘Kenny was supposed to beat this guy; who’s Mishima?’ But I know in my heart that this guy is gonna be a tough fight. Any Japanese fighter who’s highly skilled, you’re gonna have to kill the guy to beat him. I’m gonna have to knock this guy out or put him to sleep – that’s the only way I can see beating him.”

Regardless of how the victory is perceived, a win would put Florian back on the winning road and in the right direction for another title shot. He knows it’s not going to be an easy trek back to the five round realm, but he’s willing to put in the time and do what he has to do to get there.

“I’m happy to fight whoever I need to fight – three fights, five fights, one fight, whatever it takes to get there,” he said. “Three fights would definitely put me back in contention for that title, but I think there are a lot of lightweights coming up and I think the UFC wants to see some other lightweights come up. I’m happy to get some more experience and some tough fights, but I’m ready whenever the UFC calls me and wants me to do that again. I want to show that I deserve the title; I don’t want there to be any question whether I should be in a title fight or not.”

It’s got to be tough waiting though, especially after having already gotten a taste of what it’s like at that level and knowing that you can hang in there and be competitive with the best in the division. But if anything, Kenny Florian will take his title fight experience and use it to push him to even greater heights. Five rounds of hell didn’t break him; it only made him stronger.

“I think wars like that defeat certain people and they feel like that’s their last chance,” said Florian. “I know that wasn’t my last chance; I just have a feeling that I’m gonna see Sherk again or I’m gonna see that title again. You don’t realize how much you want that belt until you’re actually there and it slips out of your hands. There’s nothing that’s gonna stop me from getting back there. If anything, it’s motivated me that much more.”

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