Kenny Florian (16-6) had suffered, and fought through serious back injuries for years but this pain was different. Last November, after losing a competitive decision against UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, Florian suffered a herniated disc in his back.
"This time it was different" Florian tells Yahoo! "I'd had herniated discs before but this time I had numbness and tingling in my limbs."
He tried to let it rest, and re-start training several times, even as doctors told him that he should give up competitive fighting. Ultimately, the fact that his back was preventing him from training all out told Florian that he needed to retire from mixed martial arts fighting.
Last week UFC President Dana White officially announced that Florian was retiring and then Florian himself made a statement to fans. Florian had originally planned to announce it during a telecast of "UFC Tonight," the show he hosts with Jon Anik on FX, but White decided something bigger was needed to send off Florian and announced it himself, as he did a couple years ago for former champ and legend Chuck Liddell.
That gesture was appreciated by Florian, perhaps especially because Dana White once publicly, and quite baselessly, criticized him for "choking" in big fights. "The fact that Dana insisted on making a big deal out of my retirement announcement really shows what kind of guy he is," Florian says.
"Dana and I are pretty close and I really appreciate him doing that, it was thoughtful and quite an honor." Announcing the retirement went well, but that doesn't mean that the decision itself came easily for the 36 year-old. He felt good about his effort against the dominant champion Aldo and skill-wise, knew that he was continuing to improve. But what was perhaps most difficult for Florian was having to give up one identity to find a new one.
"[Retiring] was a hard decision, man. It was tough," he admits. "You have built this identity as a professional fighter, a professional athlete, and all of the sudden that is gone."
Even though Florian became one of the best fighters of his generation, pound for pound, the identity of a professional MMA fighter or athlete wasn't one he initially wanted. Sure, as a former soccer player for Boston College, Florian is athletic. But like many other former college athletes, Florian went to work in corporate America, at a desk.
The multi-lingual fighter once spent his days translating business documents for a living. He trained and loved the grappling-based Brazilian Jiu Jitsu style of martial arts but just a few years ago he was almost no different than a million other nine-to-fivers that went to the gym after work to do something they enjoyed.
A near-death experience in Brazil when he fell off a cliff while hiking, however, changed Florian's outlook. Thinking he was going to die as he fell, he saw his life before him and one thought came to the forefront of his mind - that he didn't train enough Jiu Jitsu. When a slab of rock broke his fall and a fatal crash landing on the ground hundreds of feet below was averted, Florian had made a decision. He was going to quit his day job and devote his life to learning and teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
That decision, maybe more than any of his subsequent accomplishments in Jiu Jitsu and MMA, typifies what Florian is about. Many current UFC fighters waited a long time even after making it to the big leagues of MMA before giving up their day jobs. Once they did, it was often simply because the big-money opportunities to compete professionally loomed too large to ignore.
Florian, however, didn't give up a white collar career because he had the UFC offering him fame and fortune. He gave it up, to the chagrin of almost everyone around him at the time, simply to pursue his love for martial arts. He gave up a salary, security and benefits, essentially, to be able to practice Jiu Jitsu more.
It is that commitment to the martial arts that enabled Florian to go from an ordinary Ken to one of the best fighters in the world, even after taking his first MMA bout at the relatively ancient age of 28. And it is also why Florian feels like a success in MMA even though the title belt he sought for so long eluded him.
"Don't get me wrong, winning a world championship was always the goal," Florian says. "But I feel like the biggest challenge I ever faced was having the courage to do what I loved, to take my life in the direction that I wanted, and not in the direction that my parents and loved ones may have wanted - becoming a lawyer, for example. Feeling that pressure, of becoming a black sheep of the family or something, was harder than anything else. But there's nothing like the feeling of following your passion. That experience was even more important than any lessons I learned from fighting."
"If I had won the title, it would be on a shelf or in a closet somewhere. I would still have been most concerned with improving myself as a fighter. Am I disappointed? Sure. But the things I got from fighting ended up being bigger than a belt, and I think I would say the same thing even if I had won a title."
The UFC eventually did come calling when Dana White went to Massachusetts to scout Drew Fickett and instead ended up recruiting his opponent, the scrappy local fighter Florian. Florian became a part of the first ever Ultimate Fighter season, the one that helped set the UFC and MMA down the path towards mainstream status, and made it to the finals against Diego Sanchez despite competing two weight classes above his natural weight.
Even all through the TUF season and up o the fight with Sanchez on national television, Florian never considered making a career out of MMA. At the time, he just fought to see what his Jiu Jitsu could do for him, as the style's pioneers like Helio Gracie had done decades earlier. Losing to Sanchez changed all of that for Florian.
"That was the one fight where I actually do feel I choked. I didn't 'wake up' until I was hurt, and a few seconds later the ref was ripping Diego off of me. I felt like I could do so much better than that, and I hated that feeling so much that I decided to give MMA my all. I wanted to make a career out of it after that. I didn't want to go out like that."
And he didn't. No athlete is happy to end their career because of injuries, but Florian put together a hall of fame-worthy one over the course of eight years.
"KenFlo" competed in an astounding four UFC weight classes (from 145 pounds all the way up to 185 pounds) and challenged for a world title three times in two different divisions. For a couple years, Florian was the second best fighter in the lightweight division during a time when the champion just happened to be the best 155 pounder of all time - BJ Penn.
Florian has also become one of the sport's biggest names and best ambassadors. He worked for ESPN before moving on to hosting and doing live broadcast color commentary for FX and the UFC.
The Boston-area fighter has even moved to Los Angeles to accommodate his new profession. "I love it," he says of broadcasting.
"We are kind of in a tough spot because of how long Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan have been doing it together, and how good they are. They have these booming voices that everyone knows so well, and Jon and I definitely have a different style. But I feel like we are getting in a good groove together and I'm happy with the responses we're getting."
Florian has left his Boston Jiu Jitsu academy in the hands of his black belt brother Keith and says he may open up another gym himself in LA now that he's relocated there.
True fight fans will take solace in that Florian has more options to make a living now that his fighting days are behind him. Most fighters have limited ways to earn income for their families other than fighting and, sadly, many are forced to return or stay in the ring far too long or struggle to simply make ends meet outside of competition.
Florian still has his wits about him, and now gets to use them as a broadcaster for good money. Then again, it has never been just about the money for Florian. The lights, cameras and checks are nice, sure. But one gets the sense that Florian is still happy simply because he is doing things he loves. "I have never been more at peace and happier with my life and career than I am right now," Florian says, beaming.
Kenny Florian had the guts to try and make every fight fan's dream life come true and now he's enjoying the fruits of that effort. He doesn't need much. Some mat space, a gi, maybe a pair of gloves and good fights to watch and analyze. Same as always.