It's hard not to like Kenny Florian.
Outside the cage, he's an affable guy with a good sense of humor, willing to take time from his training to speak to just about anyone, and treat them like a long-time friend.
Inside the cage, he has transformed into one of the most complete lightweights in the sport today.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the Massachusetts native ten days ago, where we discussed his evolution as a fighter, Saturday's title fight with B.J. Penn and his desire to fight Osama bin Laden.
This is the K2 Interview with Kenny Florian.
I would place you as one of the top three or four guys in the UFC in terms of your evolution from your first fight to where you are now.
How important is it to you as a fighter and following the lost to Sean Sherk to get back in the gym and keep improving and evolving?
I realized that I'm just in love with the sport. I love training, I love working hard; when I wake up, that's what my job is.
After that Sherk fight, I decided to really start committing myself to that and if I love what I do and I am a professional fighter then I needed to start acting like one and training like one. That's when I really started training year-round and really dedicated myself to learning my craft.
That's been essential. Plus my attitude of wanting to learn and wanting to get better, that's been key. In doing that, you have to be honest with yourself, analyzing your weaknesses and keep improving on those things.
We hear a great deal about certain gyms and certain teams, like Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque for instance, but we don't hear that much about Team Sityodtong.
How much of an influence has your team and guys like Mark DellaGrotte and Peter Welch had in your evolution as a fighter?
Everyone from my brother Keith to Mark Dellagrote to Peter Welch and now my strength and conditioning coach Jonathan Chaimberg, everyone's been huge in helping me for this fight and everything that happened before it.
It's been tremendous having all those different aspects and all those different coaches who are really dedicated to seeing you do well and giving you the right advice, the right technical advice, and being close to those people. It's huge.
Mark (Dellagrotte) is the kind of guy that gives you the weapons for the fight; he's the guy who really sharpens weapons. My brother's the strategy guy who puts everything together, puts together the game plan, watching video incessantly and then Peter Welch is the guy who kind of integrates the boxing into what I do, the footwork stuff.
It's definitely a group effort and one that's worked out very well now.
We're two weeks away from the fight. How is training camp going, what are you weighing and is cutting weight ever a difficult process for you?
No, it's not really ever an issue. Right now, I'm 167 pounds, so right on schedule, right where I need to be and weight really has never been an issue for me. I'm in the best shape of my life and at the best skill level of my life, so it's time.
I really feel like it's my time now. At this point most of the hard training is over; just a few more days of hard training and then it's tapering for the fight.
Part of that training and one of the things that got a lot of attention leading up to the fight was heading up to Montreal to train with Georges St-Pierre and Firas Zahabi at Tri Star Gym.
Was that something you had always talked about doing or envisioned doing or did GSP's domination of B.J. at UFC 94 heighten that a little more?
I always wanted to go and train with Georges at some point and I think it can only help you. Any time you get a chance to train with one of the best fighters pound-for-pound in the world it's going to help you.
You know, feeling that type of intensity and pressure and skill level is going to raise your level, simple as that. I learned that from my days as a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor and it's the same thing here with Mixed Martial Arts or any type of sport.
The best athletes often times are great watchers and great learners and that's one thing I've always tried to do is be a good watcher, be a good learner and learn from others. And how can you not learn from one of the best in the sport in St-Pierre?
Going up there to Tri Star Gym and training with different people really is very helpful. You can have the best guys in the world with you training at home, but once you train with them every day, you learn to avoid their strengths and not on purpose. You get too comfortable or maybe there is too much respect amongst your peers, so to another gym, it gives you those butterflies.
Never training with someone before, it recreates that kind of fight feeling, especially going in there and sparring. It was great going up there.
I also got a chance to work with Firas Zahabi who is a great trainer in his own right and it’s always good to learn new things, new styles, get input from different people and I was able to hook up with Jonathan Chaimberg who is now my new Strength and Conditioning coach, so really, I gained a lot from going up to Montreal the two times that I did.
Did you get into any trouble in Montreal? I’m a Canadian boy and I’ve been to Montreal a time or two myself. Any misadventures that we won’t really talk about?
(Laughs) I did not. I did not, surprisingly enough, but it was good. I love the city – great city, fun city – and I will definitely be back for future fights, no doubt.
I’m going to believe you that you didn’t get into any trouble, even though I know St. Catharines Street is a very dangerous place.
(Laughs) No jail time.
Talking about being a watcher and learning through watching different fighters and seeing how they do things, I’m sure you’ve spent a lot of time recently and in general studying B.J. What makes him such a difficult opponent at 155 where he hasn’t lost in seven years and in general?
You know, B.J.’s a tough guy to beat because he’s so good at everything. He’s very well-rounded, there’s no glaring weakness. Some of my past opponents you can look at and say, “Well, I need to take the fight here” or “he makes big mistakes when he does this” or “this is the way to beat him.”
With B.J. it’s little things. He’s very, very well-rounded, he’s dangerous everywhere, and that’s why he poses problems for so many fighters. With me it’s going to come down to little details; exposing little things, trying to take advantage of little things and it’s going to be a chess match out there. It’s going to be who did all their work, all their homework and who goes out there and executes the best.
Not to divulge any secrets or anything like that, but what do you bring to the table that can set you apart where others have failed in the past bunch of years?
I think the key is I am well-rounded as well. This is the point where I’ve been building up my arsenal, building up my weapons since the Sherk fight and even before that. It’s been about building up my arsenal of weapons and my skill level to the point where I can compete with anyone in the world.
I feel I’ve done a good job of getting to the upper echelon of fighter's skill. I still have a lot to improve on – that’s never going to stop – but I feel that at this point of my career I can contend with anyone out there in the world and this is a great opportunity for me to prove that.
I’m sure you’ve been talking enough about the B.J. fight in the last few weeks, so we’ll go off-topic with a few more.
You’ve been busy training lately, so you’ve left your position on MMA Live, which means you’ve missed a few “Buy or Sells” or “Fact or Fictions,” so we’ll turn to Fedor.
Do you see him in the UFC? Do you think Dana and Zuffa make that commitment and bring him into the fold or is this something …
(Interrupting) This is my least favorite part of the show. You’re asking me my least favorite part of the show.
(Laughs) I’m going to have to go with fact. You know, I’m a positive person, I would love to see it happen. I would love to see Fedor fighting in the UFC. I don’t know how realistic it is, but I think it could happen.
When they look at all the other organizations and they try to put together and say, “How can we make the most amount of money?” and “How can we test Fedor the best?” I think the only answer is the UFC at this point.
I think it will be able to be put together; I don’t know how quickly, but I think it can be put together.
(Note: Turns out a lot of us were wrong on this one ...)
How much did Dr. Phil apologize for calling you “Kenny Florini” when you, Forrest and Dana did the show a few months back?
(Laughs) I don’t even know if he realized he called me “Kenny Florini.” It was one of the guys, one of the producers who apologized. Oh well.
If you could fight anyone past or present, who would it be and who would win?
I would love to fight Osama bin Laden and I would kill him, round one.
Yeah, elbows, after he was knocked out.
If you could play matchmaker for a day, regardless of organizational ties or money or anything like that, what three fights would you make and why?
I would have Fedor Emelianenko against Brock Lesnar. I think it would generate a tremendous amount of interest and a tremendous amount of pay-per-views.
Kenny Florian against BJ Penn – that’s the fight everyone needs to see - and Anderson Silva against Georges St-Pierre. Those are the three biggest fights you could put out there. Maybe I’m biased though.
Or maybe like a fantasy fight, like the Incredible Hulk against Thor or something like that.
The B.J. fight, would that be a rematch? Would that be BJ getting a return shot at his belt?
(Laughs) Possibly, possibly. A rematch, yeah, exactly.
Very cool. I appreciate you doing this.
Yeah, no problem. Thanks.
A huge thanks to Kenny Florian for taking the time to complete this interview and his manager Ron Weinberg for making it happen. Good luck Saturday ... we'll have to talk again after the fight!