Florian eyes sport’s best

Kenny Florian grins wanly at the mention of his willingness to fight in any weight class.

The former soccer player turned pro fighter is one of the elite lightweights in mixed martial arts, but he has fought as high as the middleweight division despite a body that looks as if it might be snapped like a twig by many of the massively muscled men in the 185-pound division.

Florian hopes to become a fixture at 155 pounds now and will face highly regarded Japanese star Dokonjonosuke Mishima on Thursday at The Pearl at the Palms, Florian’s first fight since losing a bout for the vacant UFC lightweight title last year to Sean Sherk.

But a fight, Florian says with a shrug, is a fight.

“Hey,” he pointed out, “there are no weight classes in the real world.”

Not many in the real world, though, could have survived the punishing battle he engaged in with Sherk on Oct. 14 at Mandalay Bay.

Sherk, a physically powerful former wrestler who was dropping to 155 for the first time expressly for the chance to fight for the lightweight title, won a unanimous decision in a back-and-forth battle that was one of the year’s best matches.

That was of little solace to Florian, who desperately wanted to wrap the gaudy title belt around his thin waist.

But he said the loss, instead of tearing down his confidence, had a positive effect.

“If anything, it made me hungrier,” Florian said. “It also forced me to change my training routine, which I think has been a good thing. I’ve had to adjust a lot of things that way, and I’m committed to training full time. This is a year-round job, not something that begins a month, six weeks before a fight.”

To that end, Florian has hired a full-time strength and conditioning coach and a nutritionist to make certain he’s as fit as he can be for each fight.

The Sherk fight was exceptionally physical, and Florian gave about as good as he received. The fighters were drenched in blood afterward — “Most of it was his,” Florian says proudly — and had welts and bruises.

Florian laughed and said his mother repeatedly asks him about fighting, because she’s concerned he’ll get injured. But Florian, 30, said he didn’t come out of the Sherk fight with any specific physical ailment.

“You’re just so amazingly drained,” he said. “A fight like that, with a guy like Sean, who is incredibly big for a lightweight, really takes a lot out of you.”

Many fighters are never the same after a bout like the one Florian had with Sherk, but Florian said his new dedication to fitness and conditioning has paid off. He said he has had plenty of snap in training and that he’s excited to be matched with a difficult opponent to prove he’s still able to compete at a high level.

He lost to Diego Sanchez at middleweight in the first season of the UFC’s reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.” Florian concedes he’s no longer aching for another shot at Sanchez, because he’s competing at lightweight and Sanchez is a welterweight, but the same can’t be said for Sherk.

Florian said his goal Thursday is to prove to the UFC that he deserves to be back in a title fight soon, even though the division is rapidly becoming one of the MMA’s deepest.

“They already know this without me saying it, but I’ll fight anybody they put in front of me, because that’s what you have to do to get a title shot,” Florian said. “They’re not going to hand you anything. There are too many guys out there who are good enough. You have to win your way there, and that’s what I intend to do.”

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