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Kenny Florian on the mechanized chaos of 'Battlebots' and the dangers of flying shrapnel

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

I have a confession to make. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with ‘BattleBots.' I'm not talking about the same kind of obsessed I was with Pokémon or Power Rangers, or whatever other flavor of the year was sucking hundreds of hours from my life. I'm talking about the type of obsessed where this stuff was a legitimate priority. Fiery explosions and ‘Twisted Metal' style carnage? Are you kidding me? It was almost too cool for my little brain to handle. From first sight, no weekend was complete until my dad and I gorged ourselves on the spectacle of two super-sized robots shredding each other into weaponized scrap metal.

Of course I, and many others, eventually moved on to other pursuits (albeit, in my case, pursuits just as violent). ‘BattleBots' petered out after two years and five seasons, and robot fighting shifted underground, seemingly resigned to live out the rest of its days as another niche YouTube rabbit hole for random nostalgia hunters to get buried in for hours upon hours.

But just like the possibility of Fedor vying for a UFC title, the pastime of mechanical machismo underwent an unexpected revival in 2015. ABC took a flyer on a six-episode reboot of the ‘BattleBots' series -- a mini-tournament of sorts to test the waters -- and you know what, it actually ended up being pretty fun.

Old favorites and new slaughterhouse brutes alike collided in a 16-bot bracket, with over 4.62 million people tuning in to see underdog Biteforce capture the ‘BattleBots' title in the season's finale. The show's surprisingly strong viewership seized an easy stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in its Sunday timeslot, likely ensuring a more robust second season. And one of MMA's own, Kenny Florian, was right there in the middle of the action.

The former three-time UFC title challenger landed the familiar role of cageside commentator, the color man to the mechanized chaos. Florian has been a common sight in the broadcast booth at UFC Fight Nights for several years now, and with the 'Battlebots' trial run over, he reflected with on the challenges of his new gig and the exhilaration of seeing two steel beasts rip each other to shreds.

(This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.)


Shaheen Al-Shatti: So congratulations, first off. Now that it's all over, how do you feel about the season? Did it live up to your expectations coming in?

Kenny Florian: It was so much fun, man. I didn't realize the kind of sounds and impacts I would hear being there next to the Battlebox! It was insane. I'd watched it on television in the early 2000's, but I'd never been there for an actual fight. It's just a whole different experience. You had no idea what was going to happen on those impacts, especially with those horizontal spinners. Every time it felt like watching a car accident. These are 250-pound boxes of metal just are smashing into each other at insane speeds, all for that moment of surprise where you have no idea what's really going to happen.

And you can make the comparisons to mixed martial arts. You had the kind of grappling-style bot. You had the striking-style bot. It was really, really interesting, and getting an idea of what these engineers went through -- it wasn't just one sleepless night, but sleepless night after sleepless night of putting these robots together, then throughout the tournament of what they had to do, staying up until 5 a.m. (to do repairs), taking turns sleeping, the different metals they had to use in a pinch.

I mean, some of these bots were almost $100,000 for a competition where you can win $60,000, so it was a labor of love for a lot of these guys. And you hear about these backgrounds, they worked for the Department of Defense, for NASA, we had a plumber -- they come from all different backgrounds, so it really was fascinating.

SA: I have to admit, man, I didn't foresee Biteforce winning at all. Every match, I thought he was going to lose.

KF: I know, right?! He was like the Royce Gracie of the competition. He was this little grappler, this little underdog who kept going in there and coming out, and every time it's like, ‘Wow! How the hell did he do that?'

SA: I wonder, did all of this almost feel familiar? Like, at any point did you feel like you were back to calling fights, if only because of all the chaos?

KF: Absolutely! Except it was, like, with way more fear because I had no idea what the hell was going to happen. It was so cool. I think from being around this sport, being around mixed martial arts for so long, you kind of get used to it. When you see knockouts, you start thinking ‘oh yeah, that's normal, I've seen that before.' You see things so many times. But there was this newness that I think was pretty exciting in calling these fights.

SA: I watched Battlebots back in the day, but I hadn't seen anything in a long, long time. And right away, it was clear to me that the horizontal spinners were total game-changers. ‘Rumble' Johnson in bot form, just here to maim and destroy you. With so many wild fights, what was the most memorable moment for you to call?

KF: The Bronco vs. Stinger match was unreal. Stinger was kind of this wedge-lifter-bot who would get underneath people, pin them up against the screws and put them outside of the Battlebox. Bronco went in there and was struggling for a little bit, but then Stinger got lit on fire from his own flamethrower and got flung up into the air and stuck outside of the Battlebox. And it was just spectacular. It was a great fight while it lasted, just back-and-forth and with an utterly spectacular finish.

I remember the slow-mo, I can still play it in my mind -- the bot on-fire, flipping up in the air. Knowing what Bronco was capable of doing -- I mean, that thing can lift like 1,300 pounds and fling it up in the air something like 10 feet, that's how powerful that flipper was -- so it was pretty freaking cool, man.

SA: (Laughs.) There were times where it seemed like you were genuinely terrified to get hit by shrapnel.

KF: Oh man, so we were behind machine-gun proof glass. And I think for, like, the first three or four fights that we called, literally every single fight shrapnel flung at us at insane speeds. It was going right at (play-by-play man) Chris Rose's head every, single time. And he would duck behind me. Like I don't know what it was, he was trying to use me as a human shield. But he would duck and flinch every, single time, despite knowing that we were behind that glass. It was so funny.

I kept laughing and making fun of him, and then there was a fight down the line where a biiiiiiiig chunk of metal flew right at my head, and man, luckily I was behind that glass. But I did the same thing! I had to flinch and jump away! Thank God that stuff was there, because I certainly wouldn't have my head today. It's pretty spectacular being there. It's a surreal, crazy experience.

SA: I was honestly surprised at how well the show did in the ratings. Given that you guys may very well get a second season, what kind of response have you gotten from fans and viewers of the old show? Has it been a positive response for the most part?

KF: It really has. More than anything else, I think the engineers wanted to feel respected. They wanted to feel like what they were doing could be appreciated and be celebrated. And I hope that it came across that way because these guys really are so impressive at what they do. They just wanted to be taken a little bit more seriously. In the past 'Battlebots' competitions, I think it was kind of more seen as a joke. And listen, there's humor to it. There's a lot of humor to it, and it's funny sometimes, but I think when you're making fun of the engineers themselves, you're not giving them the proper respect.

They want to be seen more as a sport, as hopefully we were able to convey that a little bit more. I know from talking to these guys and seeing what they did, seeing just some of the hard work and what these guys do, what they've been through, they certainly have my respect. It was all very impressive and I was fascinated by all the different kind of style match-ups. And again, it just kept taking me back to the early mixed martial arts days, the different styles -- what style is going to beat what? You may be great at this style, but maybe not the other. It was really a case of rock-paper-scissors. So it was a very cool experience for me.