The Curious Case of Kenny Florian
Meet Kenny Florian, the gatekeeper of the UFC’s lightweight division.
It’s not a job he wanted. Heck, if he had had his way, he would have been a champion already. However with losses in title fights against Sean Sherk and B.J. Penn on his resume, it’s doubtful that he’ll get too many more shots. Throw in his loss in the finals of the original Ultimate Fighter tournament, and he’s like the Buffalo Bills of MMA – always coming up short on the big stage.
Last night, Florian won a convincing victory over Gomi, out-boxing the once-feared striker and tiring him out before taking down and submitting him with a rear-naked choke. If this had happened 5 years ago in PRIDE, then Florian would have won the lightweight title and have become an instant legend. Instead, because it happened last night at UFC Fight Night 21, a somewhat minor event that served as the lead-in to the 11th season premiere of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he faces an uncertain future.
After all, Gomi is a long way from his glory days. Most sports betting sites had Florian as a solid favorite coming into this fight. Like some other Japanese-based fighters who have failed to make the transition to the United States, Gomi has never looked as dangerous or as dominant as he was in PRIDE. Despite that, he remains a big name, and you get the feeling that the UFC signed him because it hoped he could recapture some of his form and pick up some wins en route to a mega-fight with current UFC lightweight kingpin, Penn. Losing to Florian, however, should put an end to that. Now, Gomi is probably one loss away from getting cut.
After the fight, Florian immediately talked about undefeated contender Gray Maynard, who had challenged the winner to a fight. Maynard is, without question, being groomed for a title match with Penn, and has the credentials for an immediate title shot. He’s beaten Roger Huerta, Nate Diaz, and current #1 contender Frank Edgar. However, first he has to prove his mettle against Florian, and a victory would all but guarantee him a title shot against Penn.
For a guy who’s as good as Florian, it’s strange to think that he could be relegated to being Penn’s underboss. But that’s what happens when you’re solidly entrenched as the #2 lightweight in your promotion with no hope of ever beating the guy at #1.
In fact, the specter of Penn could continue to haunt Florian, even if the former goes through with his much-rumored move to welterweight.
When they fought last August, many thought that Florian could pull off the upset. Penn was coming off a demoralizing loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94 in January 2009, and during the run-up to the fight, spent more time hurling accusations at GSP and filming himself jumping out of pools than talking about Florian (seriously, check out the video – you’ll be impressed).
Instead, what we got was a one-sided butt-kicking from the champ that showed that even when Penn’s motivation and focus are off, he is still capable of beating any lightweight in the world. There’s no shame in losing to Penn, but Florian certainly didn’t show much in that fight to justify a rematch.
That’s the reason why, at the post-fight press conference, Florian wasn’t exactly clamoring for another shot at Penn. "I still want to be a champion. The first time around, I was very young in my career, and I just see every fight like a building block. That's all it is,” said Florian, conveniently ignoring the Penn fight.
So what does the UFC do with Florian? Obviously, having him headline their August show in Boston is a no-brainer. If Penn moves up to welterweight permanently, as he seems intent on doing, then Florian would be the strong favorite to become the new lightweight champion, although his legacy would be compromised because he never beat the real champion. Another possibility, which was floated by Jake Rossen at Sherdog.com, would be to move Florian to the 155-pound division of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC – the UFC’s sister organization that focuses on lighter weight classes – although why they also have a 155-pound division is beyond me), thereby giving them a marquee fighter.
My proposal would be to set up a tournament, similar to the ones PRIDE had. Take the top 8 guys in the lightweight division (not including Penn), and set up an NCAA style bracket. You could even have a UFC half and a WEC half so that each organization would have a fighter in the finals. Set up the tournament so that matches take place over a period of a few months and have the final headline an event so that it gives the tournament the legitimacy and prestige it would need in order to be taken seriously. The winner gets a belt that would not be defended (they did this in PRIDE all the time), and a title shot at Penn or whoever the champion is.
If Penn vacates the title before the tournament is over, then the final can be for the vacant title. That way, whoever wins can say they went through everyone in the UFC and deserved to be the champion, even if he didn’t beat Penn. It’s not the ideal solution, but it would generate interest and it would lessen the blow of having two guys fight for a title that they couldn’t take off Penn. Plus, you could easily replicate this model for the welterweight division for when GSP moves up to middleweight, and for the middleweight division for when Anderson Silva leaves.
Of course, all bets are off if Frankie Edgar upsets Penn at UFC 112 on April 10. That’s probably the outcome Florian is hoping for. Along with everyone else in the lightweight division.