Kenny Florian is in a curious spot. After a loss against BJ Penn last August—his second title shot since joining the UFC in 2005—Florian broke from longtime trainer and Muay Thai specialist Mark Dellagrotte. Nonetheless, after submitting Clay Guida last December, Florian still finds himself among the promotion’s 155-pound elite. Now, backed by a transnational training camp headed by brother Keith and Tristar Gym’s Firas Zahabi, the Boston resident is on the cusp of another title shot. But life as a fighter is about the journey, he says—the training, the competing, becoming the best fighter he can possibly be—and not necessarily the destination. “With BJ Penn, he didn’t get a title around his waist until the third try,” Florian says. “Maybe it will take me three times as well.”
On March 31, Florian faces Takanori Gomi in the former Pride star’s first Octagon appearance. “I think [the UFC thinks] if Gomi gets by me, it marks him as a challenger to BJ Penn’s belt, and if I win, maybe not immediately, but down the line, it’d be a good win on my resume to get a title shot,” he says. A third title shot is a very real possibility, Florian says, and regardless of the opponent, he expects the outcome to be vastly different than the last time out in which he succumbed to a fourth-round rear-naked choke. “I can sit here and start listing excuses. But BJ goes into it with the same types of obstacles and the same types of challenges that I face, and it really comes down to who’s better that night,” Florian says. “BJ was better that night.”
The upcoming bout with Gomi is Florian’s second since his failed title bid against Penn and the subsequent split with Dellagrotte and Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy, whom Florian had been affiliated since 2004 and who also trained him for his 2006 title shot against Sean Sherk. Florian only addresses the split with Sityodtong obliquely: “I think the choices I’ve made [since the split] have really been huge steps in me improving as a fighter. All the coaches I have on board right now are guys who really put in a tremendous amount of work and interest in me becoming a better fighter. There’s no egos, there’s no other concern except having me become a better fighter.” On his present relationship with Dellagrotte, Florian says, “I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him in a long time.”
For his part, Dellagrotte says he wishes Florian well and that the new training camp has invigorated him. “He’s with some great people and he’s going to excel. I’m sure he’s going to do very well against Gomi,” Dellagrotte says. Still, he says he knew the split was coming even before the Penn fight: Despite bringing a Muay Thai coach over from Thailand, Florian trained at Sityodtong just twice in the three weeks prior to the fight and spent most of his camp with Zahabi at the Tristar Gym in Montreal.
Friction between Dellagrotte and Kenny’s brother Keith, whom Florian named as head coach in late 2008, was a driving force behind the split. The two were constantly butting heads over strategy and control of Florian’s training throughout his time at Sityodtong, Dellagrotte says. Their problems came to a head in the Penn fight; Dellagrotte says that at one point while shouting instructions to Kenny, Keith told him to be quiet. “For me, being the coach I am and having the resume I have, to be told on pay-per-view in a title fight to be quiet and not do my job, I was about to grab the bucket and walk back to the locker room,” Dellagrotte says. Though he initially remained quiet about the details of the split, Dellagrotte felt slighted after the Florians unfairly pinned the failure of the Penn strategy on him. “Mark Dellagrotte’s game plan is never to wrestle anybody,” he says.
Florian is steadfastly loyal to his brother. “Since I first started training to when I started my mixed martial arts career, Keith put in more work than anybody. He always has, and he’s always kind of been the guy that’s gotten the least amount of credit for a long time,” Florian says. And Dellagrotte says the thought of issuing a him-or-me ultimatum to Florian never crossed his mind. “Blood is thicker than water. I’m a hardcore Italian guy, family is family, and I would actually have less respect for Kenny if he didn’t include his brother in his training camps and stuff like that.”
In an era when many fighters find the majority of their training needs fulfilled under one roof, Florian’s camp spans three cities. Though he bases his training in Boston out of his Florian Martial Arts Center in Brookline, Florian says he’s taken three separate three-to-five-day trips to train in New York City with fighters like Kurt Pellegrino and Frankie Edgar (“While BJ will definitely be the favorite, Frankie is deserving of that title shot. He’s a very, very tough fighter, and I think he’ll do very well,” Florian says), and three lengthy trips to Montreal for workouts with Georges St. Pierre and company at Tristar Gym as well as the Montreal Wrestling Club. Florian’s longtime boxing coach, Peter Welch of South Boston, is still in the fold. When he’s in New York, Florian trains with John Danaher, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie, and he has employed Jonathan Chaimberg, St-Pierre’s strength and conditioning coach.
The change of teammates “has really given me a whole new ceiling of where I can go with my MMA game,” Florian says. Training sessions are videotaped, notes are logged, and the workouts emblematize what Florian considers an evolved, scientific approach to mixed martial arts fighting. “The different training methodologies I’m using today are vastly different than what I was using before,” Florian says.
Six days a week of two-to-three workouts a day have led to improved wrestling, better boxing, and tighter jiu-jitsu, he says. The latter two were on display at UFC 107, when Florian dropped Guida in the second round with a right hook before sinking a rear-naked choke. It was an emphatic victory that validated his new handlers, but Florian still finds flaws in how he fought: his elbows flared in the first round, he started slow, he lost his balance throwing a kick. After every fight, Florian consults his trainers and does his own analyses to determine what skills he needs to develop. “There’s no such thing as a perfect fight,” Florian says. “For me, I always feel there’s something I need to improve upon. I always try to make it as clean and as beautiful as possible.”
Despite having prepared for 17 mixed martial arts bouts, Florian says he hasn’t become jaded. Training, he says, is a spiritual experience: the martial arts still hold a wealth of knowledge waiting to be gleaned, and bumps and bruises are no deterrent. “I love the process of learning and getting better and trying to perfect a certain skill or technique,” Florian says. “That’s what gets me up, that’s what gets me excited to drive or fly wherever I’m going: It’s that real possibility that I’m going to get better for going there.”