Rich Franklin, Company Man

UFC Fighter Nears the End of a Career Marked by Losses

Montrealers pack the Bell Centre for a Mixed Martial Arts fight in 2011. Photo Riley Sparks

Rich Franklin was a company man.

I can’t think of any other way to eulogize Franklin’s career as an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter.

It isn’t a backhanded compliment. Franklin is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the UFC’s young history: not because of his talent or style, but because he stepped up and took his lumps when the company needed him to.

Without him, Montreal probably wouldn’t have fallen for a fighter like Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre owns one of the many houses on the street of Mixed Martial Arts fame, but it was Franklin who paved the road.

Some fighters have the ability to capture our imagination; they have a greatness to them that transcends sport and borders on black magic. Think of a man like Muhammad Ali, whose speed and rhythm looked much more like art than prize fighting.

Rich Franklin wasn’t an artist—he was a craftsman. Watching Franklin fight was like seeing an experienced mechanic take an engine apart. I’ll never forget his tactical, meticulously strategic win over Matt Hamill in 2008.

He threw combinations like he was plugging numbers into a mathematical formula. Finally, after three rounds of working on a much larger, younger opponent, Franklin ended the fight with a kick to Hamill’s liver. There was nothing close to flashy about it––it was hard work and a good game plan made possible by fundamentally sound kickboxing.

Franklin was the fighting equivalent of basketball’s John Stockton: hard work, Wheaties, passes the ball well, says his prayers and plays defence because coach says defence wins championships.

But Franklin likely won’t be remembered for his workmanlike victories. His most-watched fights, his most historically significant matches, were his brutal defeats.

Anderson Silva built his career on a pair of soul-crushing wins over Franklin. In their first fight, which forever ended Franklin’s short run as UFC Middleweight champion, Silva curb-stomped Franklin. The beating Franklin was forced to endure was so one-sided, so vicious that he had to have his face reconstructed immediately after the match.

Certainly, there was no shame in losing to a fighter many consider to be the greatest in mixed martial arts history. Of course, after taking such a public, humiliating beating, no one would have blamed Franklin for digging a hole in the middle of some desert, crawling into it and slowly dying.

But Franklin was a company man. One year later, when Silva had blown out the only other credible opponents in his weight division, Franklin stepped up and took a rematch.

Once again, he was dispatched within the first round. This time, however, Franklin was spared the embarrassment of having his nose separated from the middle of his face by a barrage of knee strikes.

In stepping up to take his medicine, Franklin helped ignite Silva’s legacy. The UFC wouldn’t be on network television, it wouldn’t be the highest-grossing pay-per-view draw in the world without people like Anderson Silva.

But every Silva needs a Franklin.

Someone credible has to be on the wrong end of those highlight reels. We can’t all be the one throwing super sweet kicks.

It would be unfair to simply qualify Franklin as a yardstick. He was a champion when the sport was still called “cage fighting” back when you still had to explain to people that you weren’t, in fact, the product of incest for enjoying a little hand-to-hand combat.

Franklin was the guy the UFC could drag out and put on TV to show you how normal cage fighters can be.

At the beginning of his career, when he was throwing down in backwoods beer halls for a few hundred dollars, Franklin taught high school math full time.

He wasn’t a bouncer or a street fighter; he didn’t roll off of a barstool and into the octagon. Probably the most interesting thing about the math teacher from Ohio was that he bore a stunning resemblance to Jim Carrey.

It remains unclear if Franklin will announce his retirement from MMA soon. The decision is his, of course, but after suffering an ugly knockout against a middle-of-the-pack fighter earlier this month, I don’t see the value of keeping Franklin around for much longer.

In the end, I suspect Franklin will do whatever his UFC bosses tell him to. Franklin is, after all, a company man in a sport increasingly dominated by individualists.

Again, this isn’t a backhanded compliment. Franklin always stepped up. He fought on short notice and moved up or down in weight classes depending on what was needed of him.

There were never any scandals with Rich, no inappropriate tweets or ill-conceived political statements. It often made him a boring interview subject, but he was the clean-cut, wholesome champ the UFC needed when it struggled to shed the Mad-Max-in-the-Thunderdome gladiatorial image it had cultivated in the 1990s.

When he leaves fighting, Franklin will be the last of a generation of athletes that ushered the UFC into the modern era of MMA.

Chuck Liddell retired, against his will, after a series of knockout losses left him punch-drunk. Tito Ortiz called it quits long after a series of back surgeries left him unable to keep up with the sport’s elite fighters. Randy Couture’s UFC career ended, appropriately enough, with his front teeth being kicked in by a much younger opponent.

With any luck, Franklin will walk away while he’s still healthy and not so far removed from a time when he could hold his own with the world’s best.

History rarely remembers the kind of trailblazer that Franklin was. After all, who wants to read about a math teacher with a habit of losing when it counts most?

But still, Franklin’s blood paved the way for athletes to be in a position to refuse dangerous bouts and collect multi-million dollar fight purses.