If ever there was a time for Kenny Florian to fight for, and possibly win, the UFC lightweight title, it's now.
Florian has improved every discipline he relies on in the cage: jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling and boxing. He moves more fluidly, his strikes are sharper and his elusive skills make it nearly impossible to hit him with a flush shot.
With these skills, Florian can compete with anyone -- including 155-pound champion BJ Penn. He offered a sample of his improved skills on Saturday at UFC 91 in Las Vegas.
Florian took on fellow contender Joe Stevenson in a lightweight title eliminator. He used high-caliber footwork and a stinging jab to frustrate Stevenson early on.
With just over a minute remaining in the first round, Florian applied a rear-naked choke. Defenseless, Stevenson tapped and referee Herb Dean stopped the fight at the 4:01 mark.
Afterward, Florian could hardly control his excitement. Not only did he accomplish his goal -- winning impressively -- but he did it in front of Penn.
"It's one of the most satisfying wins of my career," said Florian, who improved to 12-3. "Joe Stevenson is no joke. He is one of the best in the world, and I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to show everybody the level I was at, and I think I was able to do that.
"I wanted to show, first and foremost, that I am truly a mixed martial artist, that I can do it all. And if I get a guy on the ground, I can submit even the most dangerous opponent.
"I beat Joe at the absolute best part of his game. Hopefully, BJ saw that I can be a threat to his belt, and that I am the No. 1 contender out there."
Penn saw every second of Florian's victory over Stevenson. And when the victor let it be known that he intends to become the next UFC 155-pound titleholder, the champ offered a wry smile.
There is no mistaking Florian's vast improvement as a fighter, but Penn points out that he too has fine-tuned his game. Penn's decision to rededicate himself, however, did not come easy.
It is unlikely any fighter on the planet can claim to have better overall skills than Penn. His jiu-jitsu is off-the-chart good, and he can outbox anyone in the cage.
Despite his exceptional talents, Penn (14-4-1) has proven to be vulnerable. The knock on him is he tends to lose focus.
Lack of conditioning or concentration have been blamed for each of his losses. But while Penn can't guarantee he will never suffer another loss, he promises it won't be due to lack of preparedness. He first made this promise to himself two years ago.
"Right after Matt Hughes finished me, the first time in my career, still I didn't care much," said Penn, who will move up to face UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre in January. "It was the fact that I turned 28 years old. I was like, 'I'm 28 years old. What am I doing? Why am I wasting my time?'
"I have improved my focus and dedication. Everything else comes along with that. I have been improving my skills and my conditioning. I want to leave a mark in this sport. I am going to be 30 years old next month."
Penn said he isn't thinking about Florian right now. His attention is solely on the rematch with St. Pierre -- they met in March 2006. Penn lost by split decision.
If Penn beats St. Pierre, he will hold the welterweight and lightweight titles simultaneously. According to UFC president Dana White, Penn will defend both.
"Should BJ defeat George St. Pierre, he will defend two titles at the same time," White said recently. "No one has ever done that."
Florian isn't optimistic that Penn will defend both titles. He is taking a wait-and-see approach for now.
"If BJ fights Georges St. Pierre and wins, my feeling is he will not want to come back down to 155," Florian said. "If he loses, I feel he will come back down to 155 and we will get it on in April or May. If he wins, I think there is less of a chance I will be fighting him for the title during that time frame."
Though Florian prefers to face Penn, he would not be disappointed if offered a rematch with the last man to defeat him -- Sean Sherk. Florian says he and Sherk likely will meet for the lightweight title if Penn abandons it.
And Florian is confident the rematch will produce a different result.
"The next obvious match that has to happen is Sean Sherk-Kenny Florian for the title," said Florian, who lost a five-round decision to Sherk in October 2006. "I want to show Sean Sherk, I want to show the world, how far I have come since that fight.
"That fight is still something I think about. To show people how far I have come, that would be a dream match for me."
Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.