When The Ultimate Fighter debuted on January of 2005, it was difficult to know what to expect. Would we get blue chip prospects coming from an enterprise looking to expand the quality of the sport's athletes? Or would we get meathead rejects from an episode of MTV's Real World spawned by an enterprise looking to merely expand the exposure of the sport itself?
To the show's credit, we got a little of both, but with an emphasis on quality. Now, you might snicker in response to the term "quality", but I use that term in relation to the show's contestants. TUF came late to the reality TV show craze, and added nothing to the format other than human cockfighting. Who knew we would end up with quality human cockfighting?
And who knew said quality would be in such abundance? That quality came from some unlikely sources. Kenny Florian, fighting at 185 and in no way pretending to even look the part, was one such unlikely source.
The campfire story for Florian's chance opportunity was as follows: Dana White caught Kenny's fight with Drew Fickett at Combat Zone 7 in 2004, and was so impressed, he offered Florian a spot on TUF.
People don't think of Florian as a blood and guts type fighter, but that description seemed appropriate in his fight against Chris Leben in Episode 10. Severely outsized, Florian was getting pushed around as Chris continued punishing him with left hands.
To the surprise of many, Florian took each shot until landing a nasty elbow above Leben's eye. The cut forced a stoppage, and put Florian into the Finale against Diego Sanchez, who beat Josh Kosheck in an utter war in Episode 11.
And so the stage was set...
...only for the curtain came down just as quickly.
For all of his gameness, Florian was decimated by Sanchez. Despite his grappling pedigree, Sanchez made quick work of Kenny, quickly scoring mount, and then just brutalizing Florian from the top with punches.
Nowadays, we think of Kenny as a technician: in every sense of the word he embodies a fighter as much at war with his opponent as with his own faculties. He's a fighter unique in his ability to contemplate during conflict. But looking back, TUF didn't tell us much.
His win over Leben earned him criticism from the underground: diehard fans loathed his ability to win fights off cut stoppages. Which is odd because he only ever won by cut stoppage twice in his career (he didn't need the cut stoppage against Alex Karalexis, which leaves the unofficial Leben fight). Nonetheless, the elbow that stopped Leben seemed "miraculous", and getting steamrolled by Sanchez seemed to confirm his status as the unlikely underdog.
Florian will likely go into the Hall of Fame: a point of contention that will be up for debate in the future, but which we'll table for now.
In the meantime, Florian's presence serves as a reminder of what TUF used to be. That's not personal nostalgia yearning for "better days". In the lesser of two evils sweepstakes, sure I prefer Chris Leben pissing on Jason Thacker's pillow over Kyle Kingsbury's attempt at impregnating Dave Kaplan's sushi plate, but that isn't saying much. To be honest, I'm not sure what's being said at all, but the point remains...
It's clear that the original TUF was a lottery that just so happened to hit the jackpot in its infancy. It hasn't hit that jackpot since, barring a few exceptions, but I don't mind a stale format where the tradeoff manifests itself with fighters like Florian.
Maybe that's the answer to the riddle Dana and Co. currently have to contend with when it comes to TUF. Sure, a new channel, and a different time slot are reasonable explanations for why the show falls below one million viewers nowadays, versus averaging 1.7 million in years past. But selling a show about men fighting other men with fists isn't rocket science, and it's not even a multiplication table whose numbers only reach as high as 144. The better the fighters, the better the fights. A fighter like Junie Browning might seem appealing to executives, but any escapade hatched out of the mind of a delinquent can only foster short term interest.
Kenny Florian is the polar opposite: a stoic, fierce competitor who came close to calling himself 'the best'. He never did, but he was anything but a failure.
Tomorrow we'll look at Florian's post-TUF career.