UFC star Kenny Florian (Getty Images)
When Kenny Florian makes his featherweight debut this weekend, he won't be doing it alone. Jonathan Snowden explains how MMA is indeed a team sport - at least in the gym where champions are made.
You hear over and over again that mixed martial arts isn't a team sport. That once the cage door closes, a fighter is left alone with his fears, his insecurities, his nagging injuries, with only a lifetime's training to bolster him. And, of course, an opponent looking to rip him limb from limb staring intently across the way. Inside the cage the only thing defending you is you. Your corner can shout instructions. The referee can protect you from fouls. The rest is all on the fighter. It's truly mano-e-mano when Herb Dean or John McCarthy implores you to "get it on."
There's truth in the above - but it's also an incomplete picture. Before any big name UFC fighter (you know, the kind of guy with his toy in Wal-Mart or his name on a custom Tapout t-shirt) ascends the steps into the hallowed Octagon he's spent weeks with a team of professionals. From nutritionists to conditioning coaches, from trainers to family support, no one makes the long walk into the cage alone. Mixed martial arts is a team effort - all the way up until the moment months of preparation culminate in violence.
For UFC veteran Kenny Florian, team has never been so important. Fifteen fights into a UFC career that's taken him to the brink of greatness, Florian is blowing it all up and starting again. Only his brother and grappling coach Keith Florian remains from a support team that took him from The Ultimate Fighter reality show to two unsuccessful shots at the UFC lightweight title. Kenny had made it - but not quite all the way to the top.
"I've been with Keith since the beginning. He's actually the one who told me about this whole UFC thing. We were living together in the same room for so many years and we know each other so well," Florian said. "We started our Brazilian jiu-jitsu careers together and he's been the guy responsible for overseeing most of my training. His is another pair of eyes. Like another set of my eyes. He has a way of doing things and is very demanding with what he requires. The guy is an amazing trainer and always working hard. Making sure I'm on point, not just with Brazilian jiu-jitsu training but with everything else."
The Florians have put together an all star team of professionals to guide him into the murky waters of the UFC's featherweight division. In a career that started at 185 pounds before Florian found his niche at lightweight, this will be his first experience cutting down to 145 pounds. But cutting weight is only part of it - Florian needed to cut weight, adjust his fighting style to combat smaller and quicker athletes, all while rebuilding a body puffed up from a serious knee injury that has shelved him for 10 months, the longest layoff of his career.
Jonathan Chaimberg, owner of the Adrenaline Performance Center in Montreal, understands how to build a world class athlete. An Olympic level wrestler at the Montreal Wrestling Club, Chaimberg's own athletic career was cut short by injury. But like many others before him, walking away from sports was hard to do. A degree in Exercise Science followed, as did an amazing first opportunity in mixed martial arts - training welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, a fighter he had met at wrestling practice and with whom he had a good rapport. More MMA work followed and today Chaimberg works with athletes not just in MMA, but major league baseball players, hockey stars, and Olympic hopefuls.
"He's the guy in charge of making sure I'm in top physical form for my fights," Florian said. "He's also the guy responsible for making sure I'm making improvements. That I'm getting stronger, that I'm getting faster, that I'm getting more flexible. And that my work load capacity is better for every single camp. That's one thing Jonathan Chaimberg has been great -making me stronger in places where I wasn't strong before. I've become a much, much better athlete since hooking up with him."
Although Chaimberg has delegated much of the day to day work to Mike Boyle's team of specialists in Boston, he keeps a close eye on Florian's progress and has worked with him for weeks leading into this fight. Florian is no GSP - but he doesn't have to be. Each athlete is different and Chaimberg approaches each fight and each fighter as if they are unique.
"Everybody is different. I'm not a classical coach who has everyone do the same things," Chaimberg said. "Kenny's main focus now is strength. Up until this camp he wasn't someone who would wow you in the gym. He wasn't that physically strong - great technique and great skills, but not very powerful. Against some guys, he could get away with it. Against Gray Maynard, who is a great wrestler and also very strong, it's a tough match-up. So we focused on getting Kenny supremely strong and powerful for this fight. Putting on a lot of good muscle. His body is completely different. He's put on a lot of solid muscle. His strength is at a place where I would be impressed even if he was fighting at 155. At 145 it's unreal."
A knee injury suffered in the Maynard fight last year was a blessing and a curse. While Florian hated laying around on the coach, his return to the gym, under strict orders not to make contact with other athletes, was an opportunity to rebuild his body. For a coach like Chaimberg, it was the opportunity to paint on a fresh canvas.
"He was really only able to concentrate on strength and conditioning for the first part of his training because his injuries didn't allow him to do other things," Chaimberg said. "So it allowed him time in the gym to really go hard and understand what he needed to work on. Then once he was able to begin wrestling and his other disciplines, he was able to keep strength and conditioning as a major part of his programs."
It seems counter intuitive to add pounds of lean muscle at a time you are trying to cut an additional ten pounds. But it is the next member of the team that will help make that possible. Florian's coaches say he's right on track to make his featherweight debut - with much of the credit going to an unheralded Marine sergeant who is guiding Florian into uncharted territory.
"When you're doing something for the first time, you're never really sure how it is going to go," Chaimberg said. "We wanted to make it as smooth as possible, so we got him a dietitian named George Lockhart who is tremendous at what he does."
Florian first heard of Lockhart on the set of ESPN's MMA Live. Brian Stann, a former Marine Captain who had successfully made the cut from light heavyweight to middleweight was raving about his new nutritionist. Florian, who already had a possible move in the back of his mind, was intrigued.
"Stann said 'He's phenomenal. He's done great work with me. There's no better guy than George Lockhart,'" Florian, looking to make a major change in his own body, was soliciting opinions from a variety of sports nutritionists about making the cut to featherweight. He and Lockhart hit it off immediately. "He agreed that 145 was very possible. I always want to investigate everything I do, so I asked him "how?" and "why?" I'm pretty knowledgeable about nutrition and the things he was saying weren't just B.S. This was a guy who was extremely knowledgeable and knew what he was doing."
For Florian, the additional cut has meant sacrifice - but hasn't been quite as hard as anticipated. The move to featherweight is an exercise in discipline, the product of a regimented and intense schedule. That's Kenny Florian in a nutshell. He just had to start a little earlier, go a little harder. In short, nothing he wasn't willing to do in pursuit of being the best.
"I just had to get on my diet a lot earlier. And it was more difficult this time because I blew up to a heavier weight because I was sitting on the couch not able to do any kind of physical work for two months straight," Florian said. "I've been very, very disciplined for a long time. My caloric intake is lower. My meals have been very specific and really catered around fuel for the training itself. I had a triathlon coach working with me before and he was very good. George was even more precise and specific and I was very impressed with what he had to say."
Of course, the journey into a new weight class is just the beginning. Florian still needs to figure out a way to win, not just against a great young opponent like Diego Nunes, but eventually against featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo. Chaimberg and Lockhart built a better Kenny Florian outside the cage. Tomorrow, we'll meet the man determined to build a new Florian inside it as well.