From Contender To Criticism: A Retrospective On Kenny Florian Part 3

Florian shakes Aldo's hand, unaware Jose would be his last opponent. Photo by Esther Lin at MMA Fighting.

Part 1 took a look at Kenny's stint in TUF, and yesterday we covered Florian's run at LW in Part 2. Today we'll reflect on the criticism, and his last hurrah.

Instead of retreading history you already know, I'd like to start the final installment of our Bloody Elbow retrospective on Kenny Florian with a lab story. As Jonah Lehrer recounted in the New Yorker on Tuesday:

"A new study in Neuron, by a team of neuroscientists at Caltech and University College of London, begins to solve this mystery. The experiment featured a simple arcade game, in which subjects attempted to move a virtual ball into a square target within two seconds. To make the task more difficult, the ball appeared to be weighted and connected to a spring, which flexed and bent as if it were real.

After a short training period, the subjects were put into an fMRI machine and offered a range of rewards, from nothing to a hundred dollars, if they could successfully place the ball into the square. (The subjects were later given an actual reward based on their score.) At first, their performance steadily improved as the incentives increased; the extra money was motivating.

However, this effect only lasted for a little while. Once the rewards passed a certain threshold-and the particular tipping point depended on the individual-the scientists observed a surprising decrease in success. The extra cash hurt performance; the subjects began to choke. "

Being a Lehrer fanboy and only capable of merely imitating, I used my old stomping grounds to reflect on the same topic using Florian as a subject at Head Kick Legend (may it rest in peace).

This is the narrative fans (and Dana White himself) like to use against Florian: that he was just a big choker. A lot is made of Florian's loss to B.J. Penn. "What a terrible strategy!", they say. I don't take issue with this criticism, but I do think Penn was simply the better fighter.

Against Jose Aldo at UFC 136, he couldn't compete against Aldo's speed, but at least early, the fight was interesting because Kenny did a good job of taking away Aldo's leg kicks with perfectly timed takedown attempts. He couldn't score the takedowns, but it made Aldo hesitate, at least for a moment.

It's possible Florian "choked" in his two title fights, and that as Lehrer suggests, the fear of losing trumped the pleasure of competition in his mind. If so, there's an interesting implication there: that Florian was too mindful in the cage, too aware of how to fight in each circumstance, and so analytical in the octagon that inaction became his sin.

But I wouldn't say these characterizations are set in stone. I think it's unfair in some respects; it presumes Florian had the natural ability to take some alternate path to victory. But what would an alternate path look like, given Florian's ability and the ability of his opponents? I say ‘unfair' because I also think it fails to emphasize what a splendid overachiever Kenny was.

A few comments into this retrospective, and I get the impression from readers that they're bored by this history. Kenny was "just another fighter". Why write about some dude who couldn't win gold? He folded under the pressure each time he was presented with real opportunity.

If nothing else, I think this represents MMA fans and their inability to think in gray scales. As if what makes a fighter memorable is only whether or not they became champion. The gold may have eluded him, like Dan Marino, but what about (also like Dan) the numbers?

Fight Metric put up some interesting stats on Florian the other day:

-Florian was the first, and remains the only man to compete in four different weight classes: middleweight, welterweight, lightweight, and featherweight.
-He retires with eight wins in the UFC by submissions, currently tied for the most among fighters in the modern era. Only Royce Gracie has more all-time submission wins.
-Florian got seven tapouts on 13 submission attempts, for a submission accuracy of 54%. He is the only fighter in the modern era with a submission accuracy greater than 40% (min. 10 sub. attempts).
-He was flawless with rear-naked chokes, going a perfect 7-for-7 on RNC attempts.
-Florian landed more significant strikes than his opponent in every one of his UFC victories. He got stoppages in 10 of his 12 wins.
-He retires with 3:07:38 of fight time, the 13th highest career length in UFC history, right behind Chuck Liddell.

One of our diligent readers in the Bloody Elbow Fanpost section has taken the time to add to Fight Metric's numbers, attempting to quantify Kenny's 'Strength of Record'.

What makes all of this analysis unique is that we begin to see the numbers. MMA isn't a stick and ball sport, but that's not to say the numbers don't speak. So was Kenny Florian 'great'? Instead of writing some more, and I'd prefer to let Ben Fowlkes set the record straight:

For better or worse, we think of championship belts as the only metric that matters. After all, how great can you be if there was never a time when you could fairly call yourself the greatest? There's a certain logic in that, but it still seems a little dumb, or maybe just depressing. Nobody aspires to be the Florian of their division -- the guy who's better than everyone but the very best -- but you could still do a whole lot worse. When we look back on the career of a fighter who always handled himself with dignity and professionalism, who avoided so many of the cliched pitfalls that snagged his contemporaries, how can we call him anything other than a smashing success? How can we say that he wasn't great at what he did?

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