It wasn't that he wanted to leave fighting or that the UFC asked him to do something else. In fact, no one told Kenny Florian it was time to hang up the gloves and retire. No one, that is, except his body.
"The time was right," Florian told Ariel Helwani in his first interview since formally announcing his retirement at the weigh-ins for The Ultimate Fighter Live Finale. "It's something I've been thinking about since dealing with this injury. Probably a month or two after I was dealing with this injury - I injured it back in November - and it was just something I started thinking about a couple months after."
The truth is Florian was hoping for a comeback despite the initial injury in late 2011. He always wanted another fight. Maybe a couple more bouts, and why not? He still loved to train and could compete with most of the best fighters in two weight classes. The former UFC lightweight flatly admits he wasn't ready to quit the grind even if the grind forced his body into an intractable position.
It wasn't just the wear and tear over time, although that played a role. But in the process of trying to heal his body and gear it back up for competition, he recently re-aggravated the problem. That, said Florian, was the signal his time as a prizefighter was up.
"I was hoping to get back to training or some sort of regular training schedule and injured it again a few weeks ago. It was just kind of a reminder I had to take it easy for a while. Just with everything else going on, now was the time," Florian said.
What exactly is the injury that forced 'KenFlo' into retirement? A herniated disc in lower back, Florian says.
He had dealt with back pain and injury before during his UFC run. He dropped out of the first Sam Stout fight in 2006 because of a pinched nerve. But as Florian told Helwani, "this one was different."
"I was getting Sciatica. A numbness and weakness in my right leg, even to my left a little bit." At first Florian thought the numbness was the result of riding the airdyne bike too long as part of a rehabilitation routine. He ultimately realized the problem was far more serious. The latest re-injury just weeks ago was the final word from his body that this line of work was no longer possible.
Understanding one's time is up is not the same as being content or at peace with the decision. Florian says he's known for some time the clock was running out. It's not a surprise he can't compete anymore, but that doesn't make coming to terms with it particularly easy. As he tells it, it's not just getting a new job. It's the emotional and psychological ordeal of figuring out who you are, what your identity is and how you find a new way to live your life.
"Man, it's brutal. It's extremely difficult," he said. "You go through a long period of time just really trying to deal with the injury and trying to find some identity outside of training every day and preparing for a fight. There's something beautiful about having a whole schedule laid out for you and knowing that you have a fight coming up and you're working towards getting better as a fighter. There were days I literally did not know - was it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday?".
"Any time you dedicate your life to something like that, that becomes you," Florian argued. "That becomes your identity. Looking for something else, there's a period where you feel lost trying to move towards something else."
Despite the challenges, Florian readily admits he's in a more advantageous position that most to transition to something new. In the middle of his fight career, Florian began taking television commentary opportunities on the suggestion of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. That lead to a call from ESPN to be a part of MMA Live, which in turn lead him to his present position on Fuel TV's 'UFC Tonight' and the UFC commentary B-team alongside Jon Anik.
Those are fortuitous circumstances. So rare, in fact, it naturally leads one to wonder: if he didn't have the TV gigs to lean on, would he still have quit fighting?
"Did it make it easier [to quit]? Yes," Florian partially admits. "Would I've stuck around to keep doing that? No. I always said if fighting no longer became fun anymore that I would stop doing it. It was still fun, but it was not possible. It's not fun taking a few minutes to get out of bed, not being able to walk around properly, dealing with pain and all that stuff. That became not fun."
Florian now has to look ahead to his future on television, but he's always going to have plenty of his own moments to look back on and enjoy. Two UFC fights in his illustrious career stand out as his personal favorites.
"I like the Clay Guida fight," Florian confessed. "That was a fun fight. That was coming back after a loss. We had a fun, bloody fight."
"And the [Takanori] Gomi fight was great just because I looked up so much to Gomi when I was coming up in my career. And the things he did over in Japan, he was the champion over in PRIDE. That was very cool as well."
For all there is to celebrate in Florian's achievements, no career is without low lights. Interestingly, Florian is admirably honest with himself when it comes to his shortcomings. When asked about his chances of earning hall of fame status, he is unsure not just because he doesn't want to seem immodest. Florian candidly said never winning a title hurts his chances.
"I don't know. I think if I won a title, then for sure I would be. I don't know, that's not really for me to decide."
Whether he enters the hall of fame or not, Florian walks away from the game with an understandable frustration - "I miss training everyday. I'm kind of miserable if I'm not training". It's the sort of frustration borne from a fondness for something that was never extinguished.
He isn't bitter or angry, though. He's done something he wanted to do it as long as he could physically do it. For the black belt from Boston who initially desired just enough money to put on a gi every day and teach jiu-jitsu classes, the frustration he feels is only a reminder of how much he gave to the pursuit of the game he loved and the career he lived.
"Just being able to compete in the UFC has given me so much," Florian said. "That's priceless for sure."