Commentary

Nothing like home cooking for Florian

Local fighter can't wait to climb into the cage in UFC's maiden Boston event

Updated: August 25, 2010, 5:10 PM ET
By Jeff Wagenheim | Special to ESPNBoston.com

"Countless," Kenny Florian says, chortling at the question. He's in his car, with me on speaker phone, and he's cracking up to the point where I'm bracing to hear the screech of brakes. "It's . . . it's . . . just countless. I can't put a number on it."

Florian cannot calculate or even estimate for me how many ticket requests he's gotten over the past few weeks from family, friends, long-lost kindergarten classmates, people he once sat next to on the Green Line, and folks he's never even met but who think they know him because they've seen every Ben Stiller movie. This is what you have to deal with when you're a local mixed martial artist -- Florian grew up in Dover, went to Boston College and trains in Brookline -- who is about to be part of the Massachusetts debut of your sport's promotional behemoth, the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

A whole lot of people want to be at TD Garden on Saturday night to watch Florian fight Gray Maynard in UFC 118. "The requests are still coming in," he says. "Flooding in, I should say."

[+] EnlargeKenny Florian
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comKenny Florian expects to be energized by the partisan Garden crowd when he takes on Gray Maynard at UFC 118.

Florian, 34, welcomes the interest. The last time he fought in Massachusetts, as an MMA neophyte back in 2004, it was at a small-time event called Combat Zone 7: Gravel Pit, in front of just a few hundred onlookers at Club Lido, part of the Wonderland Ballroom complex in Revere. This weekend at the Garden, Florian will enter the UFC's iconic cage before a crowd of more than 15,000, and he figures that a good 200 among them will be family members and friends.

"When they announce my name, the place is going to be rumbling," he predicts. "And having all that crowd support will come in handy if there's a time in the fight when I need extra motivation." Florian is being careful, however, to avoid getting caught up in his surroundings. "You can't make too big a deal of it," he says, "or it'll get you off your game. This is like any other fight."

Nice try, Kenny, but it's not.

True, the cage will have eight sides like at any other UFC event. But this is Boston. This is the Garden. It may be a different building than the hallowed old Boston Garden he grew up revering, but it's still going to be a special night for Florian in a way that Maynard and most of the other guys on the 118 card cannot possibly comprehend. Joe Lauzon, a lightweight out of Bridgewater who faces Gabe Ruediger in a preliminary bout, understands. So does Marcus Davis, a Bangor, Maine, welterweight who once boxed at the old Garden and will be trading leather with Nate Diaz on Saturday night. The local guys know the history. They have a history.

A case in point: At one point during our conversation, Florian mentions that earlier in the day he took part in a photo shoot at TD Garden with "my friend Shawn Thornton, No. 22 on the Bruins," and suddenly he starts to sound like he's a little kid again. "I got to go in the Bruins locker room," he says, his voice getting charged up, "and I even saw the Celtics' parquet floor."

Buy that kid a huge "#1" foam finger, in green or gold.

Back when Florian really was a youngster, "I went to the circus at the Garden and I saw Disney on Ice," he recalls. "I did everything there." But his earliest Boston sports memory is from across town at Fenway Park. He was in the first or second grade and a neighborhood friend -- "Who knows what he's doing now?" -- invited him to join his family for a Red Sox game. It was on a school day, Florian remembers, and he got to skip afternoon classes to go into the big city. "I was so fired up, like a little kid can get," he says, adding that he doesn't remember much of anything about the ballgame, just that "everyone I knew was jealous."

In the more than two decades since then, Florian has spent many a night at the Garden, both the grimy old one and its glistening replacement, rooting on the Bruins and Celtics. One thing he's never attended at either building: a prizefight. "I didn't go to any live fights but I grew up watching boxing," he says. "As a Bostonian, how could you not be aware of the sport's rich local history, from Rocky Marciano all the way back to John L. Sullivan and the bare-knuckle days?" He was an especially devoted fan of Marvin Hagler, and when the marvelous Brockton middleweight lost a controversial decision to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987, when Florian was 10, "I remember crying that night."

Hagler is not expected to be cageside on Saturday night, but among Florian's couple hundred friends in the arena will be "Irish" Micky Ward. The retired junior lightweight from Lowell is best known for his trilogy of brutal fights with the late Arturo Gatti, although he likely will get an even bigger dose of fame come December when "The Fighter", a David O. Russell film in which Ward is portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, opens in a theater near you. "It means a lot that Micky will be there to support me," says Florian. "I consider him a legend."

Boston has had an abundance of sports legends, from Ted Williams to Tom Brady, Bill Russell to Bobby Orr, Killer Kowalski to Rosie Ruiz. Florian, for his part, is as familiar to sports fans as anyone in MMA, and not just because of his fights. He gets a lot of TV time as a regular panelist on ESPN2's weekly "MMA Live" and as an occasional color analyst for UFC fight telecasts. He is not, however, seated among Boston's sports giants, despite his worldwide MMA success (or even despite having played varsity soccer at BC!). But could competing on the big stage in his hometown elevate Florian? "I don't know about any of that, but here's a comparison I will make: None of those Boston legends were from Boston," he says. "I grew up here. This is where I went to college. This is where I still live and probably will for the rest of my life. Fighting in this city is special to me."

Twice before, Florian earned shots at the UFC lightweight championship, and in the buildup to each of those bouts, he said his goal was to "bring the belt back to Boston." Both times, he came home empty-handed. On Saturday fight, a win over Maynard likely would propel him into a third title fight. After his demoralizing loss to B.J. Penn a year ago, did he imagine he could ever climb that mountain again? "Yes I did," Florian says without a moment's hesitation. "I have a lot of faith in myself. I knew I could do better than I did in that title fight. I knew I had to get better and I had a lot of hard work in front of me. But I've never been afraid of hard work."

He's also not afraid to change what isn't working. Following the Penn fight, Florian left his friend Mark DellaGrotte's Somerville-based Team Sityodtong, with whom he'd been training for years. "I felt like I'd hit my ceiling," Florian has said. He still works out with South Boston boxing trainer Peter Welch, but he's also been refining his striking skills at Montreal's Tristar Gym with Firas Sahari, who trains welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, perhaps the pound-for-pound best in MMA, and works with light heavyweight wunderkind Jon "Bones" Jones. Florian, a jiu-jitsu black belt, also has polished his ground game under the guidance of Brazilian ace Renzo Gracie. The bulk of his training, however, occurs at Florian Martial Arts Center, the Coolidge Corner gym he co-owns with his brother and head trainer, Keith.

Those new training partnerships have borne fruit in Florian's two fights since the Penn letdown. Last December at UFC 107, he dropped Clay Guida with a crisp right hand in the second round and submitted him with a real naked choke. Then, in the main event of UFC Fight Night 21 in March, Florian dominated former Pride and Shooto champion Takanori Gomi, who was making his UFC debut. Florian pushed his MMA record to 14-4 by choking out "The Fireball Kid" in the third round after softening him up with relentless strikes.

Now the lone obstacle standing in the way of another Florian title shot is the undefeated Maynard, a three-time All-American collegiate wrestler who is the only man to own a victory over UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. Florian is confident that it's his time. "With all the changes I've made with my new coaches and training partners, I feel more confident than ever," he says. "In sports, especially the fight game, you have to believe you can be the best. If you're not in it to be a champion, then don't get in at all."

If he's successful on Saturday night, Florian surely will stick around at the Garden to watch the main event, in which Edgar tries to hold onto the title belt he took from Penn at April's UFC 112. Florian doesn't really have a dog in that fight, but deep down he wants a rematch with Penn. "I mean no offense to Frankie Edgar, but with what B.J. has accomplished, it's every fighter's dream to face a guy like that," says Florian, referring to Penn being one of only two fighters to win UFC titles in two weight classes (lightweight, welterweight), and being the first non-Brazilian black belt to win the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship. "It's not about revenge. I just want to beat a legend, and B.J. Penn is a legend. That's the guy everyone would like to have in their win column. Do that and you may be considered a legend yourself down the line."

Step 1 in that quest takes place at UFC 118. In the Garden. In Boston. That's something Kenny Florian has been waiting for his whole life. As he says, "Boston fans set such high standards for their sports teams and the athletes who represent them. And I'm fine with that. That's what makes Boston the sports town that it is, and why it means so much for me to be fighting in my hometown. When I walk to the cage, it will not be simply to win or lose. It will be to live my dream."

Jeff Wagenheim writes an MMA blog for thefastertimes.com.

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