Photo by Esther Lin at MMA Fighting.
Yesterday we focused on Kenny's introduction to the public through TUF in Part 1 of our retrospective of Florian. Today we'll look at his introduction into the LW division.
Its tombstone had been engraved by a lackluster title match between B.J. Penn and Caol Uno at UFC 41 that ended in a draw. Penn would go on to defeat Matt Hughes (after a pit stop against Takanori Gomi who was just entering his prime) in an epic upset, and the LW division was a near literal wasteland after Penn left for random matches in Japan.
A year after Florian's run on TUF, the LW division was more or less reinstated with an innocuous fight between Yves Edwards and Mark Hominick at UFC 58 in 2006 This was meant to be a gimmie fight for Edwards, who had been the UFC's most consistent LW post-Penn.
Kenny Florian had all but one fight at LW (his fights against Karalexis and Kit Cope were at Welterweight) to his name before getting a title shot against Sean Sherk, and it was a victory over Sam Stout: a fighter who had made his UFC debut only one fight before Florian, beating Spencer Fisher in a questionable decision at UFC 58.
Perhaps this is where Florian became a modestly maligned figure in MMA. Florian has never been a hated fighter, and if he has, such people are better off in a bare-knuckle fight against Khol Drogo, but this became the source of some resentment: fans argued it was his "TUF fame" (in whatever capacity you measure that by) that earned him a shot. He has handed opportunity. He didn't earn it, observers argued.
Kenny Florian vs. Sean Sherk at UFC 64, October 14th, 2006
The history of this match deserves elaboration, so bear with me. It was a fair point to say Florian was ‘handed' a title shot, but a point undercut by the fact that the division had no one else. The real champ was ‘walking the earth', and a former contender (Edwards) lost in dubious fashion (I say ‘dubious' because oddsmakers had Hominick at +500 for their bout in Vegas). Who else was there? Kenny was the Occam's Razor of promoter logic in this scenario.
Florian had more fights at LW than Sherk did, after all. Sherk had never even fought at LW. Zero people complained about Sherk's presence, however. And for good reason. Sherk had over 30 career fights before Florian, and made a name for himself against the kings of the WW division.
He stole rounds off of Matt Hughes at a time when Hughes was considered unbeatable, had an exciting fight with Georges St. Pierre while GSP was still an upstart, and had just beaten Nick Diaz in a mostly stand-up affair.*
No one gave Florian a chance. What could a guy that got trounced by a TUF'er offer a man that could hold his own against the world's best welterweights?
Florian acquitted himself admirably. Most of the rounds were fought with Sherk's blood pouring into Kenny's eyes, as Sean controlled him from the top after having been cut with one of Florian's infamous elbows. Having watched it again recently, I forgot how grueling the fight was. Kenny threw each kick with ill intent, and even those blocked by Sherk seemed to rattle him.
Despite losing a decision, most people were impressed. Being called a TUF'er was no longer the derogatory term it used to be, especially as several fighters coming from TUF picked up big wins (Diego Sanchez over Nick Diaz being one of the bigger shocks).
Following the loss, it was clear what Kenny needed to work on: his wrestling. Sherk took him down over and over, and the proverbial blueprint had been written.
And this is where I think Kenny's legacy is truly defined. The critics can parse Florian's career all they want, but his in-ring accomplishment was so subtle it often goes unappreciated. I'm talking now about his constant improvement.
These names might be easy to pick apart now, but Stevenson was on a tear at the time, and his match with Florian was only two fights removed from fighting for the title against Penn at UFC 80. Huerta hadn't lost a fight in four years before losing to Florian. Context is everything, just like Fedor Emelianenko doesn't lose points for beating Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia just because their stock fell afterwards.
Each match revealed incremental improvement in his game. Where before his wrestling was deemed deficient, it was wrestling that earned him subsequent victories, an improvement illustrated most vividly in the Stevenson fight.
It's this quality that makes Florian unique: his ability to refine and improve with almost every bout. I'm not sure the Florian that dummied Clay Guida is the same guy that gets controlled by Sean Sherk at 64. In fact, I'm certain of it.
There's a reason Florian fought for the title twice at 155. Criticize his first shot all you want, but no one can argue his second shot at the title wasn't well earned.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at the final stage of Florian's career from the Penn fight, to his brief stint at FW, the criticisms leveled against him by Dana White (and fans) as a "choke artist", and finally, Fraser and I will debate his Hall of Fame status.
*People have weird memories of this fight, often identifying it as an example of Nick losing to wrestlers in the UFC, despite Nick being completely successful against Sherk at defending his takedowns.