Florian feels fit for flight at featherweight


It makes no sense for a man to subject himself to chokes, punches and kicks, or to have his limbs twisted in abnormally awkward positions, if he doesn't intend to lift a belt one day.

Kenny Florian has been subjecting himself to all types of strikes and submissions for more than nine years. He has also inflicted such treatment on many others. But to this day, Florian has yet to reach the MMA mountaintop. He's come close a few times in his career -- two lightweight title shots and an eliminator.

Each time, however, he's failed to bring home the bacon.

After being handled with relative ease by Gray Maynard in a lightweight eliminator last Aug. 28 at UFC 118, Florian concluded that his chances of getting back in the title picture were slim to none.

But the desire to become a champion burns deep inside the highly talented 35-year-old Boston resident. He wasn't going to let his longtime dream vanish. So Florian did the unimaginable for a fighter who began his career as a middleweight: He decided that his next fight would be at 145 pounds.

No fighter in UFC history has fought in four different weight classes, and here was Florian looking to do it in the most unconventional manner -- by cutting more weight.

There were doubters and detractors. Even Florian questioned whether he was making the right decision.

He wants back in the title picture, however, and that just wasn't going to happen at 155 pounds. With that in mind, dropping to featherweight quickly became his most viable option.

"[A] motivating factor for going down to 145 was that at 155, I wasn't getting the top contenders to compete against [any more]," Florian told ESPN.com. "I want to fight top guys. At this point in my career, I'm not here to just beat up guys -- I want to test myself against the best in the game. At 145, I didn't want to fight just anybody, I want to fight one of the best. And put myself in position to challenge for the belt at some point."

After the decision to move down was finalized, a harder question arose. How was the lean-bodied Florian going to cut weight without starving himself? If there was any shot of shedding 10 additional pounds off his slim frame, he needed the services of a high-quality nutritionist.

Florian (13-5-0) didn't have to look far to find his man: George Lockhart. He has eliminated unwanted pounds from several of today's top mixed martial artists. But Lockhart is not your average nutritionist.

He doesn't just help mixed martial artists cut weight; he makes them more efficient fighters in smaller bodies. Lockhart has helped former WEC light heavyweight champion Brian Stann become a full-fledged middleweight and ex-lightweight Dustin Poirier became a featherweight under his tutelage in just 28 days. Even UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones doesn't concern himself with thoughts of becoming a heavyweight with Lockhart around.

"The nutrition advice I've been getting from George Lockhart has been phenomenal," Florian said. "I still have a tremendous amount of energy during the workouts I've been doing. I'm still performing great."

Cardio has never been an issue for Florian in his three previous divisions (middleweight, welterweight and lightweight), and by all accounts it won't be Saturday night when he faces top-10 featherweight contender Diego Nunes at UFC 131 in Vancouver.

Rather, it's wrestling that has been Florian's Achilles' heel inside the cage. If he is to be taken seriously at featherweight, Florian must show improved wrestling techniques. And in this training camp he has, under his new wrestling coach, Sean Gray.

"I still say that wrestling is one of the hardest things that I do, but my body has adjusted to the workload," Florian said. "I'm stronger and I can now handle the workload. George has taken my game to the next level. When I do go back to lightweight, which is such a wrestling-rich division, people aren't going to be looking at my wrestling as a weak point."

We won't truly know how much Florian's wrestling has improved until Saturday night, but Gray doesn't waste time with guys who can't cut it on the mat.

Gray is a hard-nosed wrestling instructor, who serves as associate head coach at Boston University. If his expectations are very high, maybe it comes from his All-America wrestling days at Virginia Tech. So his first order of business was to inform Florian that he would receive no special treatment. If Florian wanted to become proficient in wrestling, he'd have to make a full commitment.

Gray doesn't offer beginner lessons to his students. Florian went straight into advance classes and has received high marks from his tough-grading teacher.

"There were some things in place as far as offensive attacks, just basically teaching him a system of wrestling at a very high level -- being able to get to the leg, being able to finish from any situation, whether it's a high finish, a midlevel finish and a low finish," Gray told ESPN.com.

"The key wasn't to teach Kenny wrestling, but to help him evolve into a wrestler. And he's done that quicker than any wrestler with his experience that I've ever coached. Kenny is brilliant. He's been able to grasp these high-level concepts quicker than anybody I've ever worked with. What I'm telling you right now is that his wrestling is at a very high level."

Florian has consistently passed every test in camp, from both his nutritionist and wrestling coach. But the test that counts most is the one he will receive Saturday night from Nunes (16-1-0).

Those closest to the featherweight, who is ranked sixth by ESPN.com, say he is determined to send Florian home a failure.

"We're going in super-confident," Nunes' manager Ed Soares told ESPN.com. "Diego's had a great camp. We've got nothing to lose; the pressure's on Kenny. He's the one who's fought for the title at 155. He's the one who's gone down in weight to fight somebody. He's the one who has something to prove.

"Nobody knows who Diego is. We're hoping that Saturday night is his coming-out party."

Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.