THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

New approach kick-started Florian

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / December 12, 2009

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MEMPHIS - When Firas Zahabi signed on to coach UFC fighter Kenny Florian over the summer, there were times he found himself baffled. He knew Florian was among the elite in the sport of mixed martial arts but there was something missing, something that didn’t make sense.

Florian had significant skills, everyone who watched him knew that, but in his new leader’s eyes he didn’t have the necessary ones.

“It was amazing because I would look at his training regimen, I would look at what he does and be incredibly surprised that he was able to reach the level that he’s at,’’ said Zahabi. “I’ve trained with so many athletes and I’ve seen so many guys get to that level but not the way he did it.

“The way he did it was almost backwards in some ways. He was doing things that I thought brought him no real return. It was a waste.’’

Florian, who had split with longtime coach Mark DellaGrotte in a mutual and amicable decision after his unsuccessful title shot against lightweight champion B.J. Penn in UFC 101 in August, agreed that a new approach was needed. He grew to admire and trust Zahabi, who is based in Montreal, from his time working out with another of Zahabi’s fighters - UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.

Florian, who takes on Clay Guida in tonight’s UFC 107 at the FedEx Forum, said he used to think he was getting mixed messages in his training. His brother, Keith, who is also his coach, and DellaGrotte had different approaches, whereas his brother and Zahabi are on the same page.

“I feel like I get reinforcement wherever I go, whereas there’s no saying, ‘That’s black,’ [while someone else is] saying, ‘I think that’s white,’ and then I’m confused and don’t know what’s what,’’ said Florian. “Now I feel we’re all moving toward a common goal. [Zahabi] is a guy who has really taken training and coaching to the next level. He’s a guy who’s very open-minded and he’s on the cutting edge of what’s going on in mixed martial arts.

“For me, I feel like I’m taking a PhD course in mixed martial arts. I am learning new things all the time. I felt like that was kind of lacking in some of the areas in prior coaching. I’m someone who needs to constantly be challenged. I need to see mountains to climb. If I don’t see those things, I become stagnant and I get too comfortable.’’

A real stunner
Florian’s loss to Penn wasn’t shocking because Penn will go down as one of the most gifted mixed martial artists of all time, but it was stunning in terms of the ease in which the Dover, Mass., native was dispatched. UFC president Dana White couldn’t believe his eyes and said Florian’s strategy was all wrong.

“I think Kenny had one of the worst game plans ever in fight history,’’ said White. “I don’t know who came up with his game plan, but it was horrible. It was horrendous. It was shocking. If you look at his last eight fights, [the way he fought Penn is] not the way he fights. He was running in, grabbing B.J.’s legs, and trying to hold him against the fence. And then I was thinking, ‘Maybe his strategy is, because B.J. has been notorious for not being in shape, maybe he’s hoping by the third round [of the five-round fight] that B.J.’s going to get tired.’ When B.J. wasn’t tired by the third round you’d better come up with a new game plan. He came out in the fourth round doing the exact same thing. He didn’t do anything in that fight. It was crazy.’’

Florian, who turns 34 in May, acknowledged it wasn’t his best outing but said he took whatever lessons he could and moved on. He said it was a case of paralysis by analysis because he had eight months to prepare.

“That was a hard loss to take,’’ he said. “I think the goal of every fighter is to be able to give their best performance out there above anything else. If you performed at your best and still lost, I could sleep well with that. What I don’t sleep well about is that I didn’t perform at my best. I didn’t look like myself. I didn’t perform the way I would normally perform and that’s what is most frustrating to me. I know I am better than that.

“The loss I am over but the fact I didn’t perform well is what hurts me even more. I’m looking forward to getting back out there and showing a new Kenny Florian. This is kind of the version 3.0 now. What’s exciting is I know I’m going to get more software upgrades as I go forward. If there’s one thing I could change, I really would’ve liked to have worked with [Zahabi] more because he had, in my opinion, the best strategy as far as striking goes and how to attack and defend against B.J. Penn, but that’s how you learn.’’

Another level
Zahabi said he believes Florian can become far better.

“Kenny has to do some new things that are going to help take him from great to legendary,’’ said Zahabi. “He has to get to that level to be a champion. All the UFC champions seem so invincible right now. That’s why they are champions and I want to take Kenny to that point, where he seems to have no weaknesses in his game.’’

Tonight, all Florian will be thinking about is the challenge posed by Guida, who is one of the best scramblers in the UFC, with a seemingly bottomless energy supply.

“I’m going to fight moment by moment and see if the opportunity arises for me to take advantage, wait for a mistake, hopefully I capitalize, hopefully I smell the kill and hopefully I take it,’’ said Florian. “I’m going to go back to just enjoying the process. The [months leading up to the Penn fight] it consumed me maybe too much. I had too much time to think about it.’’

As for his future, Florian said he won’t plan it. Although not impossible, the chances of a third title shot seem remote at the moment.

“B.J. Penn didn’t get it done the first two times,’’ he said. “Hopefully the third time is the charm for me, too.’’

White said it won’t be easy considering the constant influx of talent into the UFC.

“It takes a long time to get back up there,’’ said White. “If you look at how long it took him to get back [for the second time], B.J.’s a couple of fights from leaving [for the welterweight class]. He missed an opportunity in trying to beat one of the greatest fighters ever in mixed martial arts history.’’

Having said that, though, White said no matter what long-term career path he chooses, Florian has an exceptionally bright future.

“ESPN loves him,’’ said White. “He’s extremely intelligent, he speaks well, he’s a great guy. This sport isn’t getting smaller, it’s only getting bigger and more and more mainstream. Kenny could end up being one of those guys on ‘SportsCenter.’ He could end up running for politics in Massachusetts. I don’t think there’s anything Kenny Florian can’t do.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.