Most fighters who've challenged UFC lightweight titleholder B.J. Penn over the past couple of years have had game plans that, at least in part, rely on the champion quitting.
Penn has been known to run out of gas in many of his fights. And since he's simply too talented to be beaten otherwise, as the thinking goes, tiring him out is the best strategy.
But Kenny Florian isn't buying that.
"People tend to look at B.J. like he's this god and he doesn't make mistakes, like you just can't beat him on the technical level," said Florian, who challenges Penn for his title at UFC 101 on Aug. 8. "I feel you can beat him at the technical level. In doing that, if he happens to fail physically or slow down, that's going to be worse for him. But I'm not expecting that."
What Florian is expecting, it seems, is to go out and simply be better than Penn. He's a more "complete fighter," his striking more well-rounded and not overly reliant on boxing, unlike Penn, he says. And while he allows that he doesn't have Penn's freakish flexibility or even his natural punching power, he can still challenge the champ in every aspect of the fight and force him into making crucial mistakes.
The trouble is Penn hasn't lost a fight at lightweight since dropping a decision to Jens Pulver at UFC 35 seven and a half years ago. While his conditioning has sometimes appeared questionable when fighting at higher weight classes, and despite being mostly overpowered in his last fight against UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre, Penn has proved nearly untouchable at 155 pounds.
But while the conventional storyline in MMA tends to paint Florian as the hard-working, but not as gifted counterpart to "The Prodigy," Florian isn't willing to concede that there's a talent gap in this fight.
A former Division I college soccer player, Florian points out that he recently had his DNA tested by the genealogy and sports genetics experts at Warrior Roots in Kensington, Md., and the results surprised even him.
"For example, my muscle efficiency was very, very high," said Florian. "That means that someone who was normal couldn't get to where I could if we were both working our hardest.
"I always knew that I had good lungs. But muscle efficiency I had no clue about, and it gives you just that much more fuel in your training and that much more confidence going into the fight, knowing that it if it becomes a battle to see who will give out first, it probably won't be you."
But lest this fight start to seem too much like merely a pure athletic contest, there simply has to be some personal animosity and just a touch of controversy. In this case, as if it were a dispute between two 15-year-olds, it all stems from a text message.
Penn maintains that in the lead-up to his UFC 94 bout with St. Pierre, Florian sent a text to someone in his camp to warn him that G.S.P. might be greased up when they met in the Octagon. Florian initially denied ever sending such a text, but admits now that he did mention greasing to the Penn camp, only not in regards to St. Pierre, but one of Florian's own previous opponents.
"One of the reasons I didn't want to get into explaining that was because I don't want to be the guy who starts accusing people of greasing. I don't want to be the guy making excuses or anything like that. But since B.J. keeps pressuring that issue and talking about it, fine, [Roger] Huerta is who I was talking about if they want the story. It wasn't about Georges."
As far as Penn's persistent complaints to the Nevada State Athletic Commission regarding the greasing allegations, as well as his assertion that he'll never fight in Nevada again, Florian thinks it's all "a little overkill," but says he understands where it comes from.
"He's a proud champion, and no one likes to lose, myself included. It must have hurt to work so hard and then lose to a guy who he probably considers his nemesis. But one of the worst things I think you can do in that situation is try and take away from a man's credit. What it does is create doubt around Georges St. Pierre and I don't think that's fair. Georges is such a talented athlete and I think if people saw the way he trains they'd know that."
For Florian, the drive to become a champion is one of the things that's fueled his rise up through the UFC's lightweight ranks. But it isn't the only thing. His primary motivation, he insists, is simply to get better. When one looks at how far he's come from the skinny, inexperienced middleweight who got crushed by Diego Sanchez in the finale of the first Ultimate Fighter season, it's impossible to say that he hasn't improved dramatically over the years.
The question is, is he good enough to beat Penn, who many consider to be the best lightweight MMA has ever known?
"I've said it before, there are probably better 155-pounders than me out there," Florian admits. "But not on fight night."