On Kenny Florian, Greatness, and the Varying Definitions of Success in MMA

Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Kenny Florian’s MMA career started in a nightclub in Taunton, Mass., in 2002 and ended ten years later, after 12 wins in the UFC and several failed title bids. He never won the big one, never became a champion, though he did come close to starving himself in the pursuit of a belt there at the end. Either the pressure was too much or he just couldn’t get it done against the best in any division. Depends who you ask.

But now that he’s called it quits (or says he has, which is the best you can ask for in a sport riddled with short-lived retirements), what are we supposed to make of Florian’s decade-long career across four different weight classes? Was he a great fighter? Was he just pretty good, or very good, or not quite good enough when it mattered most? Does it even matter?

Thinking about these questions, I keep coming back to the conversation I had with Drew Fickett about the ups and downs of his own crazy career. When I asked about his split decision win over Florian in 2004, Fickett said he wished he’d gotten a chance to fight Florian later on, "when [Florian] was better and had some experience." The difference between the fighter Florian was and the fighter he would become was so vast, Fickett explained, that it was almost as if he had transformed himself into a brand new person.

The fight with Florian was Fickett’s 25th MMA bout. It was Florian’s fourth. Fickett got his hand raised at the end, but Florian got the spot on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Fickett would become known as the fighter with so much talent and so little self-control. Florian would become the guy who squeezed every last ounce of success out of what talent he did have.

That was the perception, at least. Though Florian was obviously a gifted athlete, never did he seem to be coasting on natural ability alone. He never showed up for a fight in poor condition, never seemed unprepared. He made the most of what he had to work with, and it brought him right to the brink of more than one world title but never all the way to the top.

Contrast that with Fickett, whose career is often held up as a sort of cautionary tale about squandered potential. Contrast it even with the career of B.J. Penn, who was brilliant when he was motivated and interested, and merely very good when he wasn’t.

With Florian, there was never any doubt about whether he had trained hard, whether he really wanted it. Inside the cage, you could depend on Florian to be a driven professional at all times. Outside of it, he was the kind of ambassador for the sport that we were all glad to have when MMA detractors painted fighters as brain-dead thugs trading steroid-infused groin kicks. Florian -- the bilingual Boston College soccer player who’d dedicated his life to the martial arts after a near-death experience in Brazil -- was the guy you could point to and ask, ‘Does he look like some glorified bar bouncer to you?’

All that makes Florian a likable and sympathetic character, but does it make him a great fighter? Can we look back on his career and call it a success? He made some money, had some big wins, and set himself up for a promising future in broadcasting. He’s so far from the stereotype of the broke and broken down ex-fighter that he almost makes professional cagefighting seem like a sound career choice.

He's also one of the very few people in this business about whom no one seems to have anything bad to say. No salacious gossip about his personal life. No whispered accusations behind his back. He competed at the highest level of his sport for years, made himself into a household name among fight fans, and did it without leaving a trail of envy and resentment in his wake. Surely, any man who can lay claim to all that by his 36th birthday is doing something right. He could never call himself the best in the world, but so what? Didn’t he achieve a certain kind of excellence, even if his career was more of a testament to the power of will than pure athleticism?

But that doesn’t seem to be how we do it in MMA. 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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