Florian’s Second Wind

Second Wind

By Brian Knapp Aug 4, 2009
He draws strength, hope and motivation from his roots, from the father who worked 20-hour days to provide a better life, from a mother who spoke not a word of English when she first set foot on American soil. Perseverance runs in Kenny Florian’s blood.

“They never handed anything to us,” he says. “They were the kind of people who, instead of giving us fish, taught us how to fish.”

Agustin and Ines Florian relocated to the Boston suburbs from Peru in the late 1960s, as they sought the financial and social stability that was unavailable to them in their homeland. They seized upon the American dream, a thoracic surgeon and a housewife whose decision to drop anchor in the states opened unimaginable doors for the fourth of their six children -- a son they named Kenneth Alan.

“It’s crazy,” Florian says. “I think about it a lot. I could have grown up in a different country.”

Born and bred in New England, Florian has emerged as one of the world’s premier 155-pound mixed martial artists. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt will make his second pass at the UFC lightweight championship when he meets B.J. Penn in the UFC 101 “Declaration” main event this Saturday at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

Though he realizes opportunity may not knock a third time should he fall to Penn, Florian (11-3) claims he bears no added pressure on his wiry shoulders.

“For me, it’s a joy and a pleasure to go out there and compete,” Florian says. “I see this as a gift.”

Planting Seeds

Though his father brought home a healthy paycheck, Florian grew up in a blue-collar atmosphere where hard work and perseverance were not only encouraged but expected. He had to earn his keep and thrived within a structured environment.

“I grew up around a big family, a very close family,” Florian says. “There was always something to do.”

His parents put down roots in the United States in hopes they could set up their children to succeed. Florian’s father, having completed medical school in Peru, sought to practice medicine in the most advanced healthcare system in the world.

“They wanted a better life,” Florian says. “Latin American governments weren’t -- and still aren’t -- as stable as they are here. You can’t have a good life. Things were tough there, and the best medicine in the world is here in the US.”

The family overcame one challenge after another.

“My father was a very, very hard worker, so we didn’t really get to see him too much,” Florian says. “He worked hard to provide us with the best life possible. He’s a very determined human being. He wanted to be a doctor since he was 8 years old. Being a foreigner, he knew he had to outwork everyone else.”

Despite the hurdles she faced, including the language barrier, Florian’s mother -- a teen-ager when she arrived in America -- held the family together and provided her children with the building blocks upon which they still lean today.

Photo by Sherdog.com

B.J. Penn will be a tough
test for Kenny Florian.
“She couldn’t drive; she couldn’t speak the language,” Florian says. “With her raising kids by herself and my dad working 20-hour days, I’m sure it was tough on her. My mom was 18, 19 years old. She basically learned English by watching TV.”

Florian -- who holds dual citizenship in Peru even though he has not visited his parents’ homeland in some two decades -- picked up soccer as a youth and quickly dreamed of turning it into a career. A standout midfielder in high school, he honed his skills inside the sport’s Olympic Development program and went on to play collegiately at Boston College.

“I knew that I wanted to be a professional athlete,” Florian says. “I wanted to be a professional soccer player. And I used to dream about being this martial artist who traveled the world. I never thought it would happen.”

Birth of a Martial Artist

Soccer was not Florian’s only outlet. He also became heavily engrossed in the martial arts culture and gravitated to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Naturally, Florian’s progression led him to mixed martial arts, and, in 2003, he made his successful professional debut in Massachusetts. Still, his game lacked necessary ingredients, and a few fights into his career, he committed to stand-up training.

Enter Mark DellaGrotte, a charismatic coach who runs the Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy in Somerville, Mass. Florian took the plunge.

“I met Mark just from being around the local martial arts scene,” Florian says. “For years, people told me I needed to hook up and train with him. People said, ‘He’s like the you of muay Thai. You should work on your striking and get into MMA.’ I loved Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but eventually I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to try this out.’ I went down two weeks before I fought Drew Fickett [in July 2004].”

Outside pressures were quite real as Florian wrestled with the idea of focusing his full attention on martial arts. Members of his own family pushed him towards law school and a noble but typical profession. Fluent in three languages, he made a living translating financial documents, but he could not ignore the draw of competition. His heart burned for something more. Florian considers his decision to buck the advice of those closest to him as one of his greatest achievements.

“Not succumbing to the pressures of my family and others to get a regular job was tough,” he says. “They wanted me to go to law school and get a normal job. I definitely had law school on my radar. The most creative thing I did was quit my job to become a professional martial artist.”

Not long after he fought -- and lost -- to Fickett, Florian was cast on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series. He advanced to the middleweight final before succumbing to the strikes of the far more experienced Diego Sanchez, but he was on the fast track to becoming an international superstar. Florian dropped to lightweight and soon emerged as a title contender.

“I knew I’d need the right pieces in place -- the coaches, the training,” Florian says. “Once I had the ability to be capable of fighting at 155, I could see it happening.”

Turning Point

On Oct. 14, 2006, after convincing victories against Alex Karalexis, Kit Cope and Sam Stout, Florian climbed into the Octagon and fought Sean Sherk for the vacant lightweight championship at UFC 64 in Las Vegas.
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