Houston, Texas plays host to one of the biggest cards the UFC has presented to date when the Toyota Center houses the Octagon this Saturday for UFC 136. The featherweights kick off the main card off Ultimate Fighter veteran Nam Phan (18-10) faces “Bad Boy” Leonard Garcia (15-7-1) in a long awaited rematch. A knockout artist takes on a submission specialist when “The Young Assassin” Melvin Guillard (27-8-2) battles fellow lightweight “J-Lau” Joe Lauzon (20-6). In the middleweight division, trash-talk extraordinaire Chael Sonnen (24-11-1) returns to action when he faces “All-American” Brian Stann (11-3). In the main event, the lightweight title is up for grabs as the champion “The Answer” Frankie Edgar (13-1-1) battles “The Bully” Gray Maynard (10-0-1) in a follow-up of their highly entertaining fight in January where the match was ultimately ruled a Draw. The co-main event though has another title up for grabs with “Ken-Flo” Kenny Florian (14-5) challenging one freight train of a featherweight in “Junior” Jose Aldo (18-1) for his featherweight title. Both men are coming off impressive performances. Aldo has been successful keeping his place on top of the 145lb. division ranks but with Florian dropping down a weight class to come after him, he has bigger challenges than what he had fought before.
At First Glance: For Kenny Florian, this is it. Not once, not twice, but three times Florian has let the chance of holding the UFC lightweight title slip out of his hands. When the lights come front and center in Houston, Florian gets his fourth and most likely final chance to wear gold when he challenges Jose Aldo for his featherweight title. He returns after a Unanimous Decision victory over Aldo’s training partner “The Gun” Diego Nunes (15-4) at UFC 131. Being the bigger fighter for once, Florian is going to try to use size to bully around the smaller yet explosive Aldo. Aldo has passed each test before him with flying colors and has staked him claim as one of the absolute top, if not the top, pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but he will have new problems to solve when Florian is locked inside with him.
In Depth: If there was one thing that always troubled Kenny Florian during his tenure as a lightweight, it was his size relative to other competitors. His first attempt to seize the lightweight title was smashed by the wrestling and ground-and-pound of the smaller yet more muscular “The Muscle Shark” Sean Sherk (34-4-1) in 2006. After his second failed title attempt in 2009 against “The Prodigy” BJ Penn (16-7-2), 2010 saw Florian’s undertaking to become the number one lightweight contender go to waste when current challenger Gray Maynard took Florian down at will en route to a Unanimous Decision victory. Now dropping to the smaller weight division, Florian for once should be able to utilize a reach and size advantage over current featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Florian’s striking has taken him leaps and bounds even beginning in the UFC as a middleweight when he eliminated “The Crippler” Chris Leben (22-8) from the charter The Ultimate Fighter tournament via doctor stoppage to the end of his lightweight career when he out-struck KO artist “The Fireball Kid” Takanori Gomi (29-9) and “The Carpenter” Clay Guida (29-11) prior to submitting them. Striking aside, Florian might see it best to neglect going for a knockout and let his size advantage try to take down and out-grapple Jose Aldo. After a shoddy first round at UFC 131, “Ken-Flo” rallied back in the final two rounds to keep Diego Nunes under control through constant pressure with clean strikes and takedowns to earn his title shot. While Aldo himself is an effective black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, Florian’s height and reach should easily hold him down and keep him at bay with ground-and-pound or with a slew of submission attempts.
What Florian might have in size and strength advantage is countered by the speed and explosiveness of reigning champion Jose Aldo. Smaller, Aldo should enjoy the natural speed advantage that comes with the package of not having to drop as much weight as his upcoming competition. Paired with the ability to burst into his strikes, the champion can easily make short work of tough fighters. Even with the likes of “MTB” Mike Brown (21-8) or “The California Kid” Urijah Faber (25-5) falling before him, UFC 129 saw Aldo in one of his best performances to date when he kept “The Machine” Mark Hominick (19-8) on the receiving end of bludgeoning leg kicks, crisp punches, and unexpected wrestling. The closest Aldo came to losing his title was when Hominick gained top position after a takedown, but he was able to prevent any significant damage from occurring with active control and defense from the guard. For Aldo, his tools to get the job done are there no matter where the fight takes place but with a larger fighter in Florian whose ground credentials outrank many in the organization, he might not be as fortunate to survive a ground assault like Hominick tried to employ. Fortunately for him, Florian does bend if he is on the receiving end of exchanges. As a middleweight, “The Dream” Diego Sanchez (23-4) came out guns blazing and stopped Florian within minutes at the first Ultimate Finale. When he dropped to lightweight, Florian started to unravel slowly as BJ Penn started to outstrike him. The drop in weight with same results proves that Florian’s unfortunate consistency can easily lead Aldo to another successful defense if he can land that one good crack.
Wild Card: Once again, Florian’s psyche comes into play when he stands across from the champion. Florian has gotten flack from the MMA community including UFC President Dana White about choking when the big moment is right before him. Aldo might be a dangerous opponent, but Florian can seek refuge in that his striking is solid, his groundwork will more times than not keep him afloat, and he has the size advantage. If he is apprehensive in trusting himself and letting the cards play out without his influence, the title aspirations for Florian might be done for good.
The Verdict: At this point now and at Florian’s age where many fighters see their career in MMA start to close, Florian has to lay it all out if he wants his legacy to include a title. His Jiu-Jitsu is top-notch and his striking can get the job done. Now that he is one of the bigger fighters in his respective division, he has no excuse not to win. What is not in Florian’s favor is that Aldo has shown that even the strongest strikers like Hominick provide little danger to him and those whose reputation were based on the ground such as Urijah Faber were left waning. Much like how some remain a bridesmaid yet never become a bride, Florian will always be a great fighter but will remain a contender and not a champion in the night’s closing. Aldo via Unanimous Decision