It wasn't supposed to happen this way for Kenny Florian
. Back when he took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a hobby in the late '90s, it wasn't because he was hoping to find himself here, just a few days from a UFC
featherweight title fight. It was because he wanted to do jiu-jitsu, and not much else.
Things changed after one of his teammates at a Gracie Barra gym in Watertown, Mass., took an MMA
bout against local fighter Nuri Shakir, who, as Florian remembers it now, was "pretty well known in the New England area for fighting very often."
The bout ended in some controversy after Shakir was disqualified for an illegal knee, and soon after a rivalry was born, if only in Florian's mind.
"I kind of had that old school mentality of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu versus everybody else," said Florian. "That was my mentality at the time, so it was kind of a revenge match for my school and my buddy John Frankl. That was what was going on in my head, anyway, and that's why I wanted to do it so badly."
Shakir was game, and so was Florian, and in February of 2002 they met at an event entitled Xtreme Fighting: Battle in Taunton 1
, which took place inside a nightclub in Taunton, Mass.There was this kind of machismo thing about it, like kind of entering into manhood.
-- Kenny Florian on his first MMA fight
Not that the venue mattered much to Florian, for whom the bout was both a matter of honor and a rite of passage. He'd been doing jiu-jitsu for about four years by then and had earned his brown belt. Taking an MMA fight -- even if he only did it once -- seemed like something he almost had to do in order to prove his tough guy bona fides.
"There was this kind of machismo thing about it, like kind of entering into manhood," he said. "I thought I just had to try it once. There was something inside me that wanted to be able to say, I really did apply my martial art at least once against another man who was training to beat me up."
Florian's training, however, wasn't exactly all-inclusive.
"My striking training consisted of people trying to punch me during practice, and that was about it," he said. "I think I did that for two weeks and then fought. ...I didn't know how to go about preparing for a mixed martial arts bout at all. I had no interest in it, really. I was there to prove that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was going to work. That was it. I didn't want to learn the other arts or be a pro fighter. I was just there to see if my jiu-jitsu would work against another skilled fighter."
Only this wasn't exactly the MGM Grand that Florian was fighting in. He did his warm-up in the narrow entrance of the nightclub, as did every other fighter, and in such close quarters there wasn't much privacy to go over the game plan one last time, assuming anybody had one.
"It was funny, because you could see guys getting their medicals done, guys warming up, and everybody was right there together. I didn't think much of it, because being new to fighting, I didn't have a standard for what was right or wrong. I just went with it."
Maybe that's why, as he walked to the ring, Florian wasn't even all that nervous. It may have been his first MMA bout -- and he may have been, in retrospect, woefully underprepared -- but looking back now, Florian remembers feeling "actually pretty relaxed."
Then the fight started, leaving Florian to do his best Rickson Gracie
impression as he approached Shakir in the opening seconds.Looking back, it's crazy. The way I trained, the way I ate, it was terrible. It was so far from what I do now.
-- Kenny Florian
"I just went out there with that old school Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu style, plodding and probing with my hands and kicks a little bit to get him to come forward," he said. "At one point he rushed me and hit me and I kind of got stuck under the rope. That was early on. Like, the first 30 seconds."
After the referee restarted them in the center of the ring, Florian managed to get the clinch he was looking for, then took the fight to the mat, where he was finally in his element.
"I clinched with him, took him down, got the mount position, and just started raining down punches from the mount. Then he tapped out."
Just that easy, Florian had won his first MMA bout. But he didn't necessarily consider himself a fighter afterward, nor was he in any hurry to get another fight. He'd set out to win one for his team and prove himself as a martial artist, and he'd done both. He'd even had a little bit of fun in the process.
"I have to say, it felt pretty cool to be able to hit somebody in the face without any repercussions. There was also definitely a bit of pride to know that your skills really work. There was certainly an adrenaline rush that went with it, but I didn't really know whether I'd do it again. It felt good, but a few days later I was back to just doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu."
So what happened? How did the kid who just wanted to fight once so he could say he'd done it end up in the UFC, a veteran of more than 20 pro bouts and, come Saturday, a challenger for Jose Aldo
's 145-pound title?
The answer is, gradually at first, and then all at once. Nearly a year after his first fight, Florian took another, winning by knockout in the opening seconds. A year after that he took yet another and won that one too. It was after his first loss -- a split decision against MMA veteran Drew Fickett -- that he caught the UFC's eye for a new reality show on Spike TV called The Ultimate Fighter.
Even then, Florian said, he still didn't consider himself a professional fighter. And he definitely didn't prepare like one, he would soon learn.
"Looking back, it's crazy. The way that I trained, the way I ate, it was terrible. It was so far from what I do now."
But then, maybe that's the only way he could have done it. Maybe if he'd had any idea what he was getting himself into, he wouldn't have.
"Ignorance is bliss, I guess, even when I was fighting on The Ultimate Fighter
, weighing in at a chubby 178 pounds for a [185-pound fight]," he said. "it was all kind of like I was just too dumb to know better."Check out past installments of My First Fight, including Mark Coleman, Mike Pyle, Yves Edwards, and more.