Highbrow Brutality

Highbrow Brutality

By Joe Hall Apr 1, 2008
Kenny Florian (Pictures) wasn't supposed to be a fighter.

He was a smart kid. Focused, always smiling.

His parents, immigrants from Peru, preached hard work and education. That's how his father, Augustin, had become a surgeon. He wanted Kenny to be a lawyer. He also wanted his children to be able to defend themselves, though.

The Florians were essentially the lone Latino family in a neighborhood about 25 miles outside of Boston. Augustin had earned a black belt in judo and maintained a fierce loyalty for Latino boxers. Didn't matter if his man was 1-40.

"He's going to win," he would say. "I swear he's going to knock him out."

"He's fighting Marvin Hagler for God's sake!" was Kenny's reply.

Kenny's dad also had him watching John Wayne, and his brothers broke his heart when they told him Bruce Lee was dead.

Older brothers.

"Let's see how fast you can make a sandwich for me," one would propose to Kenny.

"No, I'm not gonna make you a sandwich."

One butt-kicking later, Kenny was slapping a sandwich together as quickly as he could. Then there were the taunts, often about other kids in the neighborhood. Kenny, he's faster than you. Kenny, he's stronger than you. Kenny, he can beat you up.

"No way, man!"

Plenty of neighborhood scraps, but Kenny stayed on course. Eventually he entered Boston College, played some soccer for the university and started down a pre-law path. He was sticking to his parents' plans. Yet something happened that first year at BC, and his interests began to veer.

"Jiu-jitsu was this thing that grabbed a hold of me," Florian says. "Even soccer took a backseat to it. It was something new, something I just thought was the most beautiful thing in the world."

The aesthetic side of the art appealed to him at first. The philosophy, the technique, the fact that jiu-jitsu would allow him to subdue a larger, less skilled opponent. Like his brother Edgar, "the guy who used to kick my ass all the time."

Kenny got him with a guillotine.

Jiu-jitsu had also caught the interest of Keith Florian, Kenny's younger brother. Keith was a scrappy high school kid then, apt for a throwdown with just about anyone. One brawl in particular stands out of the past, when Kenny prepared his 16-year-old brother to take on a face-stomping wrestler.

"It was insane!" Kenny recalls from the edge of his seat, his words ready to quicken through a vigorous retelling. "It was like Dan Severn (Pictures) versus Royce Gracie (Pictures), and Keith took him down, got on top of him, mounted him, mounted him and pounded him, he rolled Keith, got a huge wide base -- he was a wrestler -- and started head butting Keith, and I was like, ‘Wow. This kid knows what he's doing!'"

Wait a minute. No alarm over seeing that the wrestler, although impressively competent, was head butting Keith?

"Yeah! I was just like, ‘It's going to be on!'" Florian says, laughing about it now. "And Keith was like 150 pounds soaking wet and this kid was like 220. I remember the kid got on top, and it was on rocks and sand, I s--- you not, and he took his boot and he stomped Keith right in his face with a boot. Oh my God. Keith got hit right in the face, and he goes, ‘That s--- doesn't faze me.'"

The younger Florian ultimately hit a sweep, got the wrestler's back and choked him out. No doubt a legendary moment in local street-fighting lore. Kenny took his brother home, slapped some cold steaks on his face and spent the evening hiding him from their mother.

"I don't know where he is. I don't know where Keith is," Kenny mocks repeating. "Oh God, the stupid crap we used to do."

Truth is, Kenny had taken his brother through something of a training camp for the fight. They had watched the first four UFCs, grappled, developed a game plan.

"He'll probably try to take you down," Kenny had said.

They didn't know much back then, but they were determined to discover something. Marathon matches ensued on a cement floor cushioned with only a rug. Back and forth they battled, sometimes for an hour straight, rug burns eating up their arms, neither hesitating to throw the other on his head, on the cement. And there was their father, Augustin, with an enormous old-school video camera settled on his shoulder, taping them. Something interesting was happening. That work ethic he had wired into them as children, a drive to study and practice -- he was watching his sons apply it to jiu-jitsu.

Both would become black belts, but the real world also beckoned. Kenny graduated from Boston College with a degree in communications. Went to work translating financial documents, kept thinking about law school.

In the meantime he took a couple of fights. His goal was to test his jiu-jitsu, not to become a fighter. But his first few times in the ring echoed his early experiences with grappling: Both sports seemed instinctual, ingrained in him at some earlier point.

"With each fight," he says, "something started coming out of me."

That something was blood in a July 2004 bout against a much more experienced Drew Fickett (Pictures). In three prior fights, Florian had been undefeated and unscathed. Fickett's fist found his nose, however, and Florian instantly realized he had not been hit in a long time. Bloodied, he reacted like a fighter. He didn't drop, didn't panic. He fought on to lose a split decision, which also meant he had gone the distance with a talented, seasoned opponent. UFC President Dana White, who was in attendance, was impressed.

"I thought you were going to get your ass kicked, kid," he told Florian in the locker room. "I thought you won the fight."

White suggested that he send in some footage for possible casting on a reality show the UFC would be doing soon on SpikeTV, but Florian wasn't listening. He was stewing. He was deciding it was time to train some striking, to dedicate himself fully to fighting.
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