Kenny Florian: 'There's winning and there's learning'

Tetsuya Ohara

Kenny Florian recently visited Pepperdine University to share the story of finding his passion, overcoming setbacks and the mindset needed to succeed at the highest level. Paul Gift was there and shares his message.

Former UFC fighter, three-time title contender and current FOX commentator, Kenny Florian, is a man of many interests and talents. A quick look at his website reveals his thoughts on entertainment, food, health, observation, style, technology and travel. "The Hair," as we’ve come to know him, is a weekly staple of an MMA fans diet as the co-host of UFC Tonight and color commentator for many of the UFC events on FOX Sports 1.

But it hasn’t always been rainbows and lollipops for Florian. His career contained a number of setbacks, forcing him to face brutally honest truths and make tough decisions. Would he make excuses and stagnate or learn from his failures and improve? This is the story of Kenny Florian’s transition from a life of financials to a life of passion, and the lessons from his failures along the way.

"Follow your passion."

Growing up, Florian was always athletic. As the son of Peruvian parents, he fell in love with soccer and eventually landed a spot on the team at Boston College. His martial arts journey began in 1996 in between his sophomore and junior seasons. Years earlier, his brother Keith had introduced him to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. "The summer of 1996, my brother and I saved up and we went to a Royce Gracie seminar in Westchester, New York," Florian said. "That’s how it all started, from that moment. Meeting Royce and learning those moves. We were just hooked."

Keith and Kenny trained every single day in their parent’s basement. "We had this ugly, green, thick rug that we used to slam each other on." Brazilian jiu-jitsu quickly started taking over Florian’s life and mind. He’d be in the shower daydreaming of BJJ moves. "I just could not get Brazilian jiu-jitsu out of my brain," he said.

After graduation, Kenny took a job translating financial documents into foreign languages with a plan to work a few years and then apply to law school. He’d work during the day and pursue his true passion at night with Roberto Maia at Boston Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

The brothers traveled on the weekends to compete in BJJ tournaments, and one particular event changed the course of Kenny’s life. While in Brazil for a tournament, Florian and some friends went to Pedra da Gavea near Rio.

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"We used to go there for workouts where we’d sprint up the mountain," Florian said. After working out for the day, he and his friends took a walk off the beaten path. "It wasn’t very smart. We didn’t really know where we were going."

They were heading down the mountain when his friend slipped. He was fine and everyone laughed it off. But then Kenny slipped…and he wasn’t fine. He was sliding feet-first down the mountain. A friend tried to grab him but only succeeded in rotating him face-first down the mountain.

"There was a ledge, and all the sudden I feel nothing underneath me. I’m just falling. I had my near-death experience where I see my whole life flash before my eyes and I remember just being very sad. I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue all the things I wanted to pursue…Here I am, I’m going to die on a mountain in Brazil."

He fell around 15 feet and landed on a rock. Had he missed that particular rock, the fall would have been hundreds of feet to certain death. The experience set his priorities straight. He came home and changed his job to part-time status so he could pursue his true passion full-time. The money didn’t matter; that would work itself out. He just knew he had to do what he loved.

Florian taught private BJJ lessons during the week and put all the money he made towards travel and entry fees for weekend tournaments. He wasn’t rich, but he was happy.

"There's winning and there's learning."

Florian decided to try MMA mostly as a way of testing his Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills. He handled his first two opponents with relative ease. Then comes the story many MMA fans know. UFC President Dana White attended a Combat Zone event to scout Drew Fickett for a possible spot on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). The opponent: Kenny Florian. The two men waged war and Florian lost a tough split decision.

The gutsy performance ultimately earned Florian a spot on the first season of TUF, but it also provided the first setback of his MMA career.

"I remember that experience was a positive one because that’s when I really learned about myself and how I would respond to adversity and getting hit in the face for the very first time. I didn’t know how I would react if I was hurt. I didn’t know how I would react if things weren’t going my way because for the first few fights I really didn’t have to deal with any kind of adversity. I learned a lot about myself. It was fight instead of flight."

The loss taught Florian a valuable lesson about his MMA game. "I remember just saying how I really need to train in the other martial arts. I was just a Brazilian jiu-jitsu guy fighting in mixed martial arts. I was not a mixed martial artist. I remember the importance of me having to learn my striking game and my wrestling game and everything else in between. That [fight] really opened up the door to explore other martial arts."

Florian immediately began training Muay Thai and boxing. He made it onto The Ultimate Fighter as 185er even though the show’s producers knew his natural weight class was 155. Nine months after the loss to Fickett, Florian was knocked out by Diego Sanchez at the TUF 1 Finale in Las Vegas. It was a devastating loss because he knew he was physically prepared, but his emotions let him down.

"After Diego Sanchez, that’s when the reality of understanding your own emotions and controlling your emotions really hit me hard…literally. It was after that experience that I said, ‘What can I do to really train my mind to be prepared for this intense event?’ Most of my athletic experience was with team sports, in things like soccer, and I had some experience playing tennis. But obviously there’s very different emotional preparation going into a tennis match than there is for a fight so I knew I had to understand that whole process much, much better."

Florian’s nerves were so out of control, he gassed in the locker room during warm-ups. It was the worst performance of his career. But as he puts it, "There’s winning and there’s learning." So he got busy with the learning.

"I used to read a lot about elite special operations soldiers. I read a lot about samurai culture and how they prepared their mind and body for battle. I was always fascinated with the idea of ‘mushin’ which is the concept of ‘no mind’ and deleting any emotional attachment that you have to the world and just allowing your body to do the work and not your mind."

"Fighting reveals the truth."

After a two-fight pit stop at 170 lbs. on the way down to 155, Florian dispatched Sam Stout by submission and then fought Sean Sherk for the vacant UFC lightweight title. He lost a unanimous decision – the first of three championship defeats.

"People see results so much that they don’t address the problem," Florian said. Would he obsess over what happened or accept it and immediately work to improve? He chose the latter.

"Physically, I needed to be better. I needed to be bigger, stronger. At that time I was training when I had a fight. I was only working out when I had a fight. I was not approaching it like a true professional. A true professional, a true samurai, a true fighter stays ready all the time. I was working hard when I needed to, but I wasn’t working hard all the time. That really was the difference…I needed to have my body ready all the time, and that meant day-in and day-out, whether I had a fight or not, I had to be training. That’s what really stepped up the game for me. I hired a strength and conditioning coach and really started training seriously and it was an approach I did every day."

And the changes helped. He rattled off six wins in a row, setting up a date with B.J. Penn for the UFC lightweight strap. Adversity reared its ugly head once again as Penn put on a strong performance, choking out Florian in the fourth round. But there’s winning and there’s learning.

"Every time it became more specific. I was starting to fill in those gaps and holes in my game. I realized it was just little aspects I need to add-in to make myself go from good to great and get into that elite status. Obviously, I was just miserable after the B.J. fight. I was not as good with my wrestling as I needed to be, but also the boxing. The boxing really was the big difference that I saw in the B.J. Penn fight. My Muay Thai was good but the way that B.J. Penn struck with me, his hands were far superior to mine and my range was off. And the style that I had, I was over committing on my strikes. My footwork was off."

In addition to technical improvements, there was the issue of fighting for a UFC title while having his brother as his primary training partner.

"I also need to change things up because my main training partners were guys that weren’t pushing me as much as I needed. My main training partners were my brother and my Muay Thai coach at the time, Mark DellaGrotte. Those were my best training partners and that was just not acceptable. I needed a team that would push me and take me to another level. Firas Zahabi reached out to me after the fight and he was very honest in his assessment, he said, ‘Hey, anything you need. This is what I would suggest you do to take your training to the next level. We’re here in Montreal. Anything you need, come up and train with us.’ When I did that, I was pushed every single day in training."

"I was training with guys that were trying to take it to me, guys would challenge me all the time, guys with various styles, guys who were excellent boxers, guys with great wrestling, great jiu-jitsu. I really had to push myself in all areas…It was an amazing learning environment. I was not the alpha dog or if I was perceived as this UFC fighter, I was not given that respect. It was a good thing. Guys were going after me and my level really went up after that."

Does he regret not making the change earlier?

"Without a doubt. I had this amazing resource a five hour drive away and I wasn’t taking advantage of it. I think part of it was out of loyalty to some of my coaches and thinking that they had all the answers. The reality is no one does. And I was in this comfortable zone that made me feel good. I would get the better of all my training partners. But that wasn’t the case at Tri-Star. You had Georges St-Pierre, you had Rory MacDonald, you had guys that you didn’t know who they were and they’d still get the better of you every once in a while. All those things got me to realize I needed to become comfortable with the uncomfortable."

The change ushered in two submission victories over tough opponents, leading to a matchup with Gray "The Bully" Maynard.

"The Gray Maynard fight, now I look back and I’m like, ‘God, I was such an idiot.’ The wrestling I was doing on a part-time basis. I think I was tricking myself into thinking that my wrestling was getting better, and it was, but not at the level that it should have."

Following the Maynard loss, Florian’s brother hooked him up with some of the wrestling coaches at Boston University. He had never had a private wrestling coach before.

"I also hired a sports psychologist after that fight because I remember very specifically hearing the boos during the fight. It was a slow moving fight. I kind of rocked him in the first round, saw him stumble, and I got impatient. I didn’t stick to the game plan. I remember hearing the boos and that motivated me to get a little over aggressive. He ended up taking me down at the end of the round and it was basically repeat in the second, repeat in the third. I remember just feeling super frustrated during that fight, and I realized I needed more mental work. It wasn’t enough. So I went and hired a sports psychologist and I went and hired a wrestling coach and those two things really helped me take it up a few notches."

"As far as the wrestling goes, that’s my biggest regret. I wish I did that from day one – hire a wrestling coach. Wrestling’s such a hard thing. I remember walking into the Boston University wrestling room for the very first time. It seemed like it was 100 degrees in there. The coaches were waiting for me in full sweats and I walked in with shorts and a t-shirt on and I was already sweating. And I was looking at them and going, ‘How the hell are they training with full sweats on right now?’ And they looked at me with smiles and went, ‘Alright, let’s start drilling.’ They start teaching me a system of drilling for wrestling, and in 10 or 15 minutes I was dead tired."

"I remember just being hunched over and thinking, ‘I don’t even know if I’m going to get through an hour of practice.’ And after an hour and a half of training I was just spent. I mean spent. As hard as it was, I said this is what I’ve needed my whole life. This is what I’ve been looking for. I remember eventually working up to a pace where I could start to put on sweats and train with them and not take all these breaks every 10 minutes. It just built up my mental conditioning, my physical conditioning. It changed everything completely."

Perhaps the intense new training made Florian more comfortable with the idea of dropping to 145 with hopes of challenging Jose Aldo, the dominant champ whose camp had famously declined a fight with Florian a few months earlier. He took out Diego Nunes by unanimous decision, setting up a date with "Junior." Florian performed admirably against the beast of the featherweight division, but failure reared its ugly head for the final time.

"I had no idea that was going to be my last fight," Florian says. "I was fully expecting to win that fight."

"Both weight cuts at 145 lbs. were miserable and it felt even worse against Aldo. I was already gearing up to say, ‘Hey, 145 lbs. isn’t for me. I’m gonna go back to 155 and do my thing there." I was doing some strength and conditioning on my legs. I was on the last repetition of the last set and injured my back. That changed everything. I was never physically able to get back to where I was, so that’s what retired me."

What impressed the most about Florian was his dedication to mastery and honest assessments in the face of adversity. "Fighting reveals the truth," as he puts it. It’s impossible to hide from but easy to ignore. Whether we’ve just had our guard passed in jiu-jitsu, got beat in a fight or are having problems getting customers in the door at work, will we make excuses or be painfully honest to ourselves and work hard to get better?

Florian’s message of finding passion, working hard, learning from every setback and being brutally honest resonated with attendees, all of whom were managers or executives who spend most of their days solving problems and dealing with setbacks. Those tools took Florian from translating financials to one of the top lightweights in MMA history, traveling the world, starting new businesses and dropping knowledge on us every Wednesday and sometimes on Saturday.

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