Florian easing into transition from MMA fighter to broadcaster
Ex-contender Kenny Florian is making the transition from fighter to broadcaster
Florian, 35, has made a six-month commitment to the news show 'UFC Tonight'
While he's not offically retired, Florian is not training and focused on broadcasting
Kenny Florian doesn't fight against his career path these days.
Like his occasional nickname "Ken Flo," this UFC fighter prefers to move with the current, which has carried him gently into a second career in sports broadcasting.
In January, the 35-year-old Boston native left his beloved Beantown for Los Angeles, where he's taken a co-hosting position with Fox's Fuel TV news show, UFC Tonight.
He's made a six-month commitment to the new series, which premiered on Jan. 3 as a part of the seven-year, $90 million a year deal reached between UFC owners Zuffa and the Fox Sports Media Group.
Florian, who has graced the octagon since 2005 and is the only fighter to compete in four of the UFC's weight divisions, has also been hired by Zuffa to provide play-by-play analysis for live UFC events on Fuel and FX, another cable network owned by Fox.
This sudden flood of opportunity has come at a good time for Florian, and he knows it. Since November, when a steady tingling started in his right leg while he was sitting on an Aerodyne bike in his Brookline, Mass., gym, Florian hasn't been able to think about another fight, let alone train for one.
Florian has had injuries before -- no professional fighter goes without them -- but this time was different. "This time I had a few doctors say I should stop fighting for good," said Florian, who was diagnosed with a herniated disk.
The doctors, an orthopedic surgeon and a neurologist, also encouraged Florian to undergo surgery, but when no one could guarantee the procedure wouldn't cause spinal-cord damage, Florian opted out, hoping his body would recover on its own. "My greatest fear is not being able to walk," he said.
So, for the next few months, Florian will stop chasing titles and focus on sharpening a different weapon: his rhetorical skills.
It's not an unfamiliar role for Florian, who holds a communications degree from Boston College. Since 2007, when UFC matchmaker Joe Silva suggested that he sit alongside Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan to provide color for the Roger Huerta-Clay Guida classic at The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale, Florian has been earmarked as the promotion's alternate analyst when either regular is unavailable.
In 2008, Florian called his first pay-per-view event with Goldberg at UFC 83 in Montreal. He's juggled more assignments between his fights ever since, and Florian's pragmatic, mature delivery hasn't gone unnoticed.
Seeing his general appeal with MMA fans, ESPN hired Florian in May 2008 for its MMA Live news show alongside host Jon Anik and another rotating analyst. Florian manned the desk with Anik for three-and-a-half years until Zuffa poached both in December to make another two-man broadcasting team for its FX and Fuel broadcasts.
Florian isn't the first fighter to fill a commentary position with the world's No. 1 promotion. Former UFC champions Randy Couture, Frank Mir, Jens Pulver and Frank Shamrock have all called the action from cageside, to name a few. But with Florian, it's always felt like he was being groomed for the role.
Not that Florian minds that. There are unique challenges in keeping engaging dialogue flowing during live play-by-play events or in delivering condensed, concise and on-point opinions in the taped studio setting.
Florian's greatest test, though, has been the aspects that make him feel like he's drifting further away from his identity as a fighter.
"I hated it when I got critiqued as a fighter," he said. "So much goes into a fight that people never see, the countless hours of training, the diet, dealing with injuries. The worst feeling in the world, for me anyway, is to lose. Knowing how I felt, it's been hard for me to rip apart a guy after his fight."
Still, it's part of the job description, and Florian's gotten encouragement to call it as he sees it from a surprising source.
After UFC Tonight's first episode, the promotion's president, Dana White, visited the set in Burbank, Calif., and pulled Florian aside.
"He said if I needed to rip into guys or how they fought, I should do it," Florian said. "It's what I needed to hear. [The talk] gave me more confidence and motivation to take on the job completely."
He's no Skip Bayless yet (and hopes he'll never be), but Florian said he'd settle happily for fair, balanced and unbiased.
The latter label has already been a struggle.
During the UFC's first live event on Fuel TV last week, Florian found himself holding his tongue. He wanted to mention that he'd trained briefly with Jake Ellenberger, who fought in the night's welterweight main event against Diego Sanchez, a few weeks prior. Florian also wanted to share that he'd shown Ellenberger the very move the Nebraskan fighter used to escape Sanchez in the fight's final seconds. Right or wrong, Florian questioned if revealing these details would show a conflict of interest in his analysis.
Fighters have used their training experiences with other fighters to flesh out their commentary before; the 48-year-old Couture often uses it expertly to great effect. However, Couture has trained with other fighters less and less as his own career winded down to retirement last year. Florian still has designs to train with and coach other fighters, possibly starting with a candidate from scratch.
"I love seeing guys do well," Florian said. "It's like giving someone a recipe and having them call you up later and say, 'Man, that's so good and I made it all by myself.' I'd like to share some recipes now."
Of course, concerns of conflicting interests can be tabled, at least temporarily, if Florian returns to active duty. By May or June, depending on if the pain has subsided or not, Florian will make the final decision about his fighting career.
If he comes back, he will fight at lightweight, hands down the division where he felt the best as a competitor. Florian's excursions in the other three weight divisions have all come out of necessity: He fought at middleweight to get on season one of The Ultimate Fighter and moved to welterweight when Zuffa suspended its lightweight division from 2003-05 because it didn't have enough pay-per-view slots to satisfy the contracts.
After two unsuccessful attempts at the lightweight championship (against Sean Sherk in 2006 and B.J. Penn in 2009), Florian squeezed out every last drop of body fat to fight at featherweight.
When he started his drop to 145 pounds, Florian's sports psychologist told him to get used to the fact that he wouldn't be at his best no matter how hard he tried.
"You never do feel your best, but this was a hard thing for me to get my mind around," Florian said. "This was my sports psychologist telling me this, and all I wanted to do was go out there and win the title."
Florian got a shot at UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo at UFC 136 last October. The day before the fight, Florian climbed into the hotel's sauna to lose his final seven pounds. He lost track of the time, but knew he was overdoing it when he counted four fighters from Greg Jackson's camp enter and leave without him.
"I'd never felt pain in a weight cut until then," Florian said. "My liver hurt; my kidneys hurt. I'd never wish that feeling on anyone."
Florian forced Aldo into the championship rounds, but couldn't score enough on the multi-talented Brazilian to earn the decision. It was his third loss in a title fight.
Is someone trying to tell Florian something? The pragmatist in him understands why people would come to this conclusion.
But the fighter in Florian is still resisting.
"The worst thing has been moving away from the schedule of training two or three times a day," Florian said. "I wouldn't know what day it was, but I always knew what time I was training, like clockwork. I loved the routine. I fell in love with this way of life. It was my identity."
Being a fighter consumed very aspect of Florian's life, he said. If he were told that ladies had stopped by his apartment, he'd still choose the gym every time.
"I wouldn't walk, I'd run. I wouldn't even think a second about it," he said. "It wasn't a contest."
During his free time, Florian devoured one war-related book after another to get into the killer mindset. There was no other reading for him.
"I had this cold place in my heart," Florian said, "but I'm slowly starting to reconnect with people and the world outside fighting. I just have to stay moving. My dad's a surgeon and he retired a year ago, but somehow he's still performing surgeries."
In three short months, Florian knows there's a possibility that he'll continue on as a commentator only. He gets sad for a moment, but then he looks back to where he started and to the fighters who'll retire with no other recourse than to walk away. The future doesn't seem that bad without fighting in it, Florian admits.
"I started in this sport making $1,000 a month teaching private Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons. I'd spend it all to go to a tournament or travel to Brazil and I couldn't have been happier," said Florian, who wanted to be like David Carradine, with his backpack.
"When I look back at the fight game, my goal was to train in the martial arts, to be involved in it," he added. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be a champion, but I can continue to stay involved. I don't have to fight. I'm one of the lucky ones."