When UFC President Dana White attended a local event in Revere, Massachusetts to watch Drew Fickett notch his 23rd professional victory little did he know that he was going to be chasing down his opponent, a 2-1 jiu-jitsu stylist named Kenny Florian to join their upcoming reality television series The Ultimate Fighter.
Fast forward almost seven years and that unknown entity is hanging up his gloves after a four-divisional run that saw him challenge for three UFC titles and make a large impact on the sport of mixed martial arts as we know it.
Florian had an athletic career in soccer behind him as a Division-1 midfielder for Boston College and had been training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under 3rd degree black belt Roberto Maia for several years but diving head first into the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s is a tall order.
The Ultimate Fighter was an unheard of concept in mixed martial arts at the time – Place sixteen aspiring fighters into a house, have them undertake rigorous training under their star coaches and fight their way to a six-figure contract with the UFC.
Despite competing well outside of his natural weight-class at middleweight his deadly combination of courage, skill and razor sharp elbows got him to the finals where he lost to his Team Liddell team-mate Diego Sanchez as over 3 million people watched on Spike TV.
“Ken Flo” has been slimming down ever since, serving as a welterweight for a period before finding a home at lightweight where he spent most of his career but he ever tested the waters at 145-pounds as well.
Finishing three opponents in as many fights since his exile from the reality series he got the chance to step up his game when he challenged ex-welterweight title-challenger Sean Sherk for the top crown in the newly revamped lightweight division.
Although he failed to get his hand raised and fulfill his ultimate goal for his spoils of war, winning a UFC title, he did cement his place as a top lightweight with his blood-soaked war with the two-divisional star.
The powerful wrestling game of Sherk proved to be too much for Florian but the unsuccessful challenger cut him open with a series of elbows – When their 25 minute bout came to a close both men as well as the canvas were soaked in the forehead juice of “The Muscle Shark”.
Most men in this industry fight their whole lives and fail to get a single shot at being a world champion, let alone two but the Peruvian-American star was determined to climb back up the 155-pound ladder.
In his next six fights he would get his hand raised, finishing five of them – When Florian snapped the 17-bout unbeaten streak of Sports Illustrated cover-boy Roger Huerta he was considered the top-contender once again but the champ, BJ Penn was pursuing a welterweight rematch with George St-Pierre putting the division on hold.
When he stepped into the eight-sided cage against Penn, arguably the best lightweight of all-time in the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania he was clearly the top contender but when a well-conditioned champion took the fight to Florian for four rounds he was just too good, submitting him in the fourth frame.
While he remained an interesting factor at 155-pounds Florian failed to break through the mold as a challenger for the title for a third time going 3-1 before he chose to shed another ten pounds and try his luck in the newly formed UFC featherweight division.
With a lone victory under his belt at 145-pounds he got the chance to challenge the seemingly unstoppable Brazilian bomber Jose Aldo for the featherweight title, little did we know this would be the final time we saw him in the cage.
While it would be a fairytale ending for him to capture the UFC title and ride out of the sport on top of the world, the third time wasn’t the charm for Florian – The champ chopped away with leg kicks and power-shots on the feet but the workmanlike performance of Florian continued as he looked to impose his game and force it to the floor but it wasn’t enough with the Brazilian retaining his title on points.
In hindsight, the 35-year-old four-divisional fighter might look like a fighter who was never able to overcome the final hurdle and validate his life’s work with a UFC title but he has a career that comes down to more than wins, losses and statistics.
Florian became a must-see entity for the UFC when it was rough waters starting out – Inside the cage he was a savage finishing nine opponents in the famed octagon but outside of it he was a role model and ambassador for the sport.
While ultimately his greater contributions might be in the UFC commentary booth or at his gym grooming the next crop of stars Florian will always be an important part of the Zuffa-era of MMA.