Kenny Florian has had a front-row seat to a pair of MMA’s more compelling stories in his role as UFC analyst on Fox.
The former UFC contender has witnessed the resurgences of two of his co-workers, current bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and middleweight title contender Michael Bisping, culminating Saturday night at UFC 199 at The Forum in Inglewood, California.
“They’re both great stories,” Florian told Newsday. “To see what Dominick has been dealing with and see him deal with the ups and downs of his career, you can’t imagine what that required.”
Cruz (21-1, 4-0 UFC) will defend his title for the first time in his current reign as champion against rival Uriah Faber in the co-main event Saturday. Cruz was named the first UFC bantamweight champion in 2010, fighting Faber in his first title defense of that run as well. He later was stripped of the title because of multiple knee and groin injuries that prevented him from defending his title for several years.
He returned to the Octagon in 2014, only to miss all of 2015 with an injury to his other knee before winning the belt back last January.
“It’s nothing short of inspiring, not a lot of fighters are able to come back from injuries like that,” Florian said. “And then to perform up to that level, Dominick has done that.”
“It’s just so impressive what he’s doing and how he battled back.”
Cruz is back to his old ways, beating T.J. Dillashaw in a split decision to earn the belt. His ability to stay dominant is thanks to his unique style, intelligence and self-belief, Florian said.
“For a fighter, having faith in yourself and having a true belief in yourself and what you’re doing, it’s huge in this sport,” Florian said. “I think when you’re in one-on-one competition, it really is about beating yourself, and I think Dominick Cruz understands that. He has a great belief in himself and his style.”
Florian said Cruz has done a great job on improving his strengths and solving his weaknesses, evident in his avenging the only loss of his career in the 2011 rematch Faber. With another five years of growth by Cruz, Florian thinks it will take a stoppage for Faber to walk away with UFC gold for the first time.
“I think Dominick is so good at winning rounds and knowing what he needs to do to win the fight,” Florian said. “Piece by piece, move by move – he really is a chess player out there.
“It’s very difficult to beat someone like that.”
While Cruz has been preparing for this matchup for a while, Florian’s other co-worker didn’t have the same luxury.
Bisping (28-7, 18-7 UFC) was awarded a shot at the middleweight tile against Luke Rockhold (17-2, 5-1 UFC) after former champion Chris Weidman pulled out of the bout on May 18 with multiple herniated discs in his neck. Despite a long career in the UFC that began with winning “The Ultimate Fighter” season five, Bisping kept coming up short of a championship fight.
“For Michael Bisping to finally get this shot, it’s something that he talks about, it’s something that really means a lot to him,” Florian said.
A 3-4 stretch between 2012 and 2014 was a low point, but Bisping is 3-0 since, including a decision win over longtime champion Anderson Silva that launched him into the title picture.
Given Bisping’s long path to the top, Florian doesn’t believe the challenger was turned off by the short fight camp.
“I think that it’s difficult because getting a world championship fight isn’t something that happens every day,” Florian said. “For Michael, it’s something he’s been pursuing his whole life and UFC career, to finally get this opportunity, I think he knows this might be his only chance at fighting for the belt.”
That chance comes against Rockhold, who is the last man to beat Bisping in November 2014. Florian thinks Bisping may be outmatched in certain areas against Rockhold but still but sees a path to a Bisping victory through pressure and disruptiveness.
“Michael can do some damage with his hands, and I think he can win the fight if he can consistently make it a boxing match, and one that is perhaps less technical than Luke Rockhold is used to,” Florian said. “I think Rockhold is the more technical fighter, he might be the cleaner fighter overall, he’s the larger fighter. So I think Michael Bisping needs to use his speed and his boxing skills and counter-wrestling skills to win the fight.”