Kenny Florian: “I am the kind of person that loves challenges and new opportunities and this certainly fits the bill.”
By Jon Prentice
After a long awaited return, season 3 of the Professional Fighters League (PFL) gets underway on April 23rd as 60 fighters across six weight classes battle it with the winners of each weight class taking home a $1 million prize.
Several big name additions have been added to the roster for the upcoming season, such as Fabricio Werdum, Anthony Pettis and Rory MacDonald, however, one name that has got fans talking is that of former UFC star and broadcast guru Kenny Florian who will be returning to the commentary booth after several years away.
Florian enjoyed a very successful 20 fight professional career in the sport, going 14-6, finishing runner up in season one of The Ultimate Fighter and competing for UFC gold on three different occasions.
Following retirement from competing, Florian has become a fan favourite in his roles as a commentator, analyst and podcast host. I had the privilege of catching up with Kenny ahead of his return to commentary duties for the PFL later this month.
First and foremost, congratulations on the new role with PFL! How did the opportunity present itself and how happy are you to become part of the PFL team?
“It was an opportunity a couple of years in the making, there was a little bit of a break obviously with the pandemic, talks kind of restarted after things started to slow down a little bit and things started to look a little brighter as far as bringing the PFL back. We were able to sort it out last year sometime, and yeah I was excited. It’s been some time since I did commentary, I think the last time I did it was in 2017 for the UFC and I am excited to get back to it. I’ve learned a ton since then and I am the kind of person that loves challenges and new opportunities and this certainly fits the bill.”
What are you most looking forward to in this role?
“You know I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my life, I have been lucky enough to participate in a lot of different things but I’m not sure anything comes close to being live for a fight and when you are there live and watching it the energy is not like anything I have experienced. I call robot fights for Battlebots and have done MMA before and just being live at those type of professional events when you are not sure exactly what is going to happen and witnessing it live in that environment is unlike anything else. I miss that and I love being a part of that and I love watching MMA. I have been a mixed martial artist for a very long time and I consider myself a student of the game, not only for the ability to learn but the ability to educate fans. I consider that a true honour and I take that very seriously and anytime I get the opportunity to educate fans and help them along in their understanding in what these fighters are going through and what they are trying to do and all the hard work that goes into it. I think that’s a very important role and one that I am very much looking forward to getting back to.”
Do you see similarities in the preparation for commentating on a big event compared to competing in a big event?
“It is kind of similar. There’s a lot of video research that goes into it, particularly as I am going over to the PFL for the first time. You know there’s a lot of fighters there that I do know and there are a lot of fighters there that I don’t know. (I am) trying to do my best to get caught up on everything, you know it’s a different rule set, a different format for the PFL that I find really intriguing, so there are some definite similarities. As far as the butterflies for the pre event nervousness… I guess it is definitely there and I think it calls for us to definitely show up in a different way, and for me it means that there is an important thing taking place and I feel like over the years I have been able to take advantage of that energy and deliver what I hope are energetic and accurate portrayals of what is going on. I feel like that’s the kind of stuff that helps elevate us in a lot of different ways, whether it is competing ourselves or broadcasting.”
What are your thoughts on the PFL league format, and do you think that it has helped draw in more new viewers to the sport given its similarities in format to more traditional sports?
“Absolutely. I think you could certainly argue that it is more digestible to fans and it makes a lot more sense. It takes away the politics in professional MMA. The fighters hold their destiny in their hands, it’s not open to interpretation in terms of who is going to get the next title shot or who is the more popular fighter or any of that. It’s really easy to understand and when you look at what has happened over the last few weeks with the NCAA basketball tournament for the colleges and their national championship, everybody gets so excited for the playoffs and everyone gets so excited to see who’s going to qualify and then they kind of follow along and look at the brackets to see who is going to advance.
“I think that’s really exciting for fans, I think people really dig that format. I think it makes it more exciting in a lot of ways because you will inevitably see some upsets and surprises. Also, it adds a new wrinkle as far as how you train for those fights and that’s something that I am not really familiar with. As far as my preparation as a fighter that’s very different.
“So how do you pace yourself? How do you prepare? All those things are unique and I do think it’s a lot easier for people to follow along and it’s easy for people to understand. I think the biggest debate going on in other organisations and promotions, like the UFC of course, is who deserves the title shot? Who deserves a certain fight? Who should be fighting each other? I think with everything out in the open everybody knows how things are supposed to be done.”
Do you think that other promotions will follow suit with the format in the coming years?
“It is possible. I do think that the PFL has set out a very unique format for themselves which separates themselves from everybody else. I think it is definitely going to catch on more and more and if it continues to be this proven recipe I wouldn’t be surprised if other organisations follow suit.
“However, I do think that there is a certain niche for each organisation that maybe they want to keep it separate to separate themselves from other organisations. I think we are inevitably creatures of habit and once we get used to a certain thing it’s rare that human nature changes for the most part, but who knows. I do think though that this will prove to be an excellent recipe in the future for the PFL themselves.”
Is there anyone you have your eye on that you are particularly looking forward to seeing in action this season and any dark horses that fans should keep an eye on?
“There really are a lot of great fighters in the PFL. Of course you have the big names, but some of the guys I think people should watch out for, one guy in particular who is one of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s training partners, Movlid Khaibulaev, an excellent wrestler and it sounds crazy to say this but it seems like he is Khabib but with even better striking! I hate to make that comparison as Khabib is such a legend, but this is a guy who really everybody should be watching out for.
“Of course there’s Lance Palmer who is a 2x defending champion in the featherweight division and he certainly has some awesome competition. This featherweight division is tremendous, Brendan Loughnane is another guy to watch out for, a lot of experience and has never been finished. Bubba Jenkins is another guy to watch out for with his excellent wrestling background so that’ll be really interesting.
“You know I am intrigued with the welterweights, lightweights and featherweights as they have been the divisions I have competed in and I’m most intrigued by. With Anthony Pettis getting injected into the lightweight picture, Loik Radzhabov is going to be someone to watch out for, Akhmet Aliev, Marcin Held is coming into the division. There are a lot of interesting challenges at lightweight.
“I am looking forward to the return as well of Magomed Magomedkerimov at welterweight, Rory MacDonald coming into the fold and of course the defending champion Ray Cooper III. There are a lot of interesting match ups that I am looking forward to and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.”
Now on social media I see a lot of fans of the sport include you in their commentary dream team and on their list of best commentators in the sport, how does it make you feel when you see/hear comments like this?
“I really appreciate it! If I am being honest I probably most appreciate the feedback from fellow fighters or former fighters and when I get feedback from other professional mixed martial artists it does mean a lot to me. I try to give a very honest assessment of what I am seeing and I also try to give a very different assessment to most people.
“I try to look at it from the perspective of how are we supposed to be doing high level mixed martial arts? What is correct? What is reckless? What is exciting but also what is correct? I think sometimes we do get overly excited by a lot of the things that we see or are used to hearing like how strong a person is or how powerful a person is and whilst that is impressive.
“I think talking about the more technical side of the sport elevates our understanding of it and gets us to understand that hey you know what, that wasn’t just some car accident that happened. There were things that were set up and things that were put in motion that allowed for that knockout or that submission to take place. I think anytime we can unwind that for people at home that are watching I think we gain a greater appreciation for that. I am going to do my best to try to communicate that in the simplest of terms for the common fan to understand even if they haven’t watched MMA before, that’s going to be my goal along with making it more digestible and fun as well.”
Looking back at your time commentating with the UFC do you wish you had had more exposure and more time on the mic there?
“You know what, I am the kind of guy that doesn’t really have any regrets about anything. I certainly had a whole lot of time, I started with ESPN and Jon Anik, we did a show called MMA Live back in 2007 or 2008 when we first started. I started doing commentary back at the finale of TUF 6 between Roger Huerta and Clay Guida and then I did UFC 83, which was my second event ever. I did one fight for TUF 6 then I did a whole PPV show which was the rematch between Georges St Pierre and Matt Serra which was just bananas.
“So I was kind of thrown in really early on and I got some good repetitions from that time all the way through to 2017. Of course I would have liked to have done more, but I think that being away from the sport in a lot of ways has given me a different perspective and a greater appreciation for the job and for the role and I hope to bring all of that into this season of the PFL.”
Now you of course were a finalist in the very first season of The Ultimate Fighter, are you surprised by how far the sport has come since you competed on the show, and if so, what has surprised you most?
“I think that I definitely saw the potential for this popularity and growth. I knew that if people were able to get educated on the sport and see how fun and how exciting this sport is then it can take off. At the same time, when I look back at where we started and where we are now it is amazing to see.
“We have grown extremely quickly, that is a credit to all the organisations and all of the people who have been working hard, and of course all of the fighters who have been working so hard and sacrificing their bodies and doing everything possible to be the best fighters they can be. They have delivered amazing fights and different organisations have delivered some excellent products and we are still growing as a sport. I think it’s only going to get bigger from here on it.”
You last competed in 2011 against Jose Aldo in a fight for the FW title, you retired after that and obviously talked about the injuries that lead to that retirement, was there any point where you contemplated a comeback to compete as we see so often in the sport or did you know that was your time?
“For the most part yes. I think I entertained it when I was maybe a year out from retirement. I tried to get back into training at the time and in the back of my mind I kind of had it as an idea to see how things would go, but physically I just wasn’t able to return to the way I wanted. I am doing a heck of a lot more training over the last few years and feeling pretty good with a few setbacks here and there from my back.
“You know what, I always said that if I wasn’t physically able to do the things the way that I wanted I knew it was time to retire because as soon as your body isn’t able to perform at a certain level I think you are only jeopardising your health at that point. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that was going out and really getting beat up.
“I am very lucky that, you know yes I suffered losses, and the guys that I lost to were certainly elite but the guys that I lost to weren’t guys that really beat me up for the most part. I didn’t really take a beating in my fights ever. Diego Sanchez aside I really didn’t get beaten up that badly, so I am lucky and I want to preserve that.
“My goal as a martial artist was to be able to hit and not get hit, not because I didn’t want to get hit, but I wanted to show that martial arts could do that, that you could be an assassin that could get in and get out without taking damage and that to me was the most intriguing part of it.
“I feel lucky that I didn’t take too much damage, my back of course gave me problems but for those that have seen some fighters that have really suffered things like CTE or some kind of permanent damage I just didn’t want to be one of those guys. It’s one of those things that’s hard to watch, I hate seeing some of my colleagues not the same after their fighting careers.”
During your time competing, were you always planning for a career in presenting, analyses and commentary once you retired, or were there ever any plans to move into a different aspect of the sport or even away from the sport completely?
“I would love to say that I had this master plan but I really didn’t. I believe that a lot of these opportunities are presented to us when we have a passion for what we do and we just kind of work hard and put our head down. I think that if you work hard and show a passion for what you are doing, eventually these opportunities are going to come your way and I have been lucky enough that those things have transpired and been presented in my life. Honestly, it sounds silly but I have always just followed my passion and things have worked out.
“Anytime someone asks me for advice like ‘hey how do I do commentary or how do I get into fighting or how do I get into jiu jitsu’ I always just say, do you love it? And if you love it work hard at it! Everyone’s journey is different right, if I told people to copy my journey or this persons journey it is probably not going to work out or maybe it wont be authentic to you. It’s as simple as finding what you love and working hard to get after it and to have this genuine curiosity and constantly be a student. If you do that things will work out.”
Finally, with your wealth of knowledge and experience in the sport, is there anything you would change about it?
“You know I think that it is going to take time, and I hope that time solves the problem, but I do think that we could do with better judging, better refereeing.
“I think safety is a major concern of mine and a lot of that ends up falling at the hands of the referee. That of course is a very difficult job and one that I wouldn’t want to do, however, I do think that with an important role such as refereeing we just need more consistency. I also think that we can do a little bit better perhaps with some of the rules and making things more clear, both for the fighters and for the fans.
“I don’t know exactly what those things are but I think whatever we can do to make things more safe and just more clear for the fighters. What does it mean to truly win a round? How can we educate the judges to understand the grappling portion of the fight and what dominance means in regards to that? Because it really does affect a fighters career. At the end of the day, several years from that fight all people are going to see is that L, is that loss and they are not going to remember that a guy got cheated out of a decision. Those are the things that I really feel for the fighters as I watch the sport.”