Kenny Florian returns to competition and vows to continue, despite bitter taste

Kenny Florian (R) throws then featherweight champion Jose Aldo in his final UFC bout, in 2011.

Nick Laham/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Nearly 15 years ago, Kenny Florian decided to try MMA out to test his Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills. He ended up excelling in the sport that jiu-jitsu created, competing for world titles in three different weight classes before retiring.

Four and a half years after his last MMA contest, the retired fighter decided to return to competition this past weekend at the IBJJF New York Spring Open, a submission grappling competition where chokes and joint locks are allowed, but the strikes of MMA are not. Florian tells FOX Sports that as his back healed from injuries that forced him to retire from MMA recently, he had picked up his own training and competition just seemed like the next logical step.

"Competition is something I’ve been missing," he explains.

"I’ve always found it easier to train for something. I had been enjoying myself with training and my body had healed to the point where I was training three to four times a week again. I thought that if I was already training this much that I’d love to test myself, that I’d love to have something to work towards."

Florian says that being an active competitor helps purify one’s training. "When you’re competing, you put your training under a magnifying glass. You see more clearly what you are doing well and what you are doing poorly. I also wanted to see how I responded to a pressure situation."

Florian chose a tournament of the controversial IBJJF not because it is the largest Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition association, but rather because the timing of the New York Open worked well in his busy schedule, and because he knew he’d find top competitors there. Florian did indeed meet up with skilled athletes and also felt he responded well to being in a pressure situation, again.

"It was chaotic the day of. I showed up to the wrong side of the building, then I had people asking me for photos and autographs (laughs). It was good, it was fun, but I was trying to get to my match and I got to the mat late and was about to be disqualified," he remembers.

"None of that affected me, though, in the match. I felt good. I felt fine during the match."

Florian also did quite well in the match against his fellow black belt competitor, being the aggressor the entire match, passing the guard, and taking the back and/or mount, depending on your perspective. Still, after time was up and no one was submitted, the referee raised Florian’s opponent’s hand.

Kenny tells us he knew he was in trouble less than a minute prior when he looked up, from on top, and saw that he had somehow not been awarded any points, and his opponent, who had not hit a sweep, gained an advantageous position or attempted even a single submission, had been awarded two.

"I never felt in trouble, I never even felt off-balance. He never physically scored on me," Florian says, still irritated.

"I felt I was robbed. During the match, with about 45 seconds left, I looked up and saw a two to nothing score on the board. I thought, ‘why do I only have two points? I had his back earlier, which is four points.’ I had to wait a second and realize those points were by his name. I had no idea what the hell was going on."

The IBJJF’s strange rule-set doesn’t give points for when a competitor passes the guard of their opponent, if that opponent simply turns face-down and gives up their back — one of the most dangerous things you can do in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That’s what Florian’s guard pass was like, and so he wasn’t surprised that he didn’t get credit for it, but was mystified that the referee didn’t award him points for subsequently taking his opponent’s back.

He was also shocked when the referee warned him for supposedly stalling, even though Florian was actively working to pass the guard at that point, and when the referee took away Florian’s advantage and gave his opponent two points when KenFlo grabbed inside the pant leg of his opponent.

"The referee gave me a warning for stalling while I was knee-cutting to try and get through the guard, and didn’t warn him for trapping me there. It is always the guy on bottom who has the onus to not stay still and stall. But the ref warned me and then took away my advantage and awarded two points to my opponent. I don’t know what the hell they were doing. I didn’t know what to say and to argue would have been useless. I was just dumbfounded. It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth."

Still, Florian is glad that he competed and plans to do so again later this year. "My opponent went to the finals where he met with his close friend Formiga. I feel good that I should have won at that level, in a tough tournament at a high level," he says.

"It is unfortunate that an incompetent referee can alter things like that because I know I’m not the only one who has had that happen to them. But I do plan to compete again. I want to do the world championships, gi and no-gi at the end of the year, in my division – either Masters 1 or Masters 2."

Florian is also open to competing in a one-off match at any of the newer professional grappling events that abound, these days, like Polaris or the EBI.

"Definitely," he said.