Former Champion at a Crossroads

Sep 5, 2008
At 33, Rich Franklin has reached a career crossroads between the 185- and 205-pound divisions. His success was paved by such decisions.

Before the Ohioan chose life as a professional fighter, he worked as a high school math teacher at Oak Hill High School in Cincinnati. He urged students to pursue their dreams but knew all along he was not practicing what he preached. Already moonlighting as a mixed martial artist, Franklin heeded his own words, gave up teaching and pursued fighting on a full-time basis.

“I think about that everyday,” Franklin says. “It’s important that when you have dreams in life, you just don’t … dreams are not just dreams. They’re actually something that’s attainable.”

The one-time champion made his name as a calculating middleweight brute. Not until he ran into Brazilian juggernaut Anderson Silva (Pictures) did he appear to have a UFC equal at 185 pounds. Two virtuoso performances from “The Spider” made Franklin a virtual non-factor as a middleweight.

Franklin got back on track at UFC 83, as he escaped an armbar from Travis Lutter (Pictures) and bashed the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt en route to a second-round TKO victory. New challenges await at UFC 88 -- a bout with Matt Hamill (Pictures) and a return to the light heavyweight division.

“Going into the Lutter fight, things were different for me,” Franklin says. “I had had surgery at the beginning of the year on my meniscus, and my father passed away, as well. There were lots of distractions that kind of played into it.”

Back in stride, Franklin (22-3) believes the change comes at the right time. Should he fail, his detractors would be many. He left the 205-pound weight class behind in 2005 and will return to a deeper, much more dangerous division. Franklin, an outspoken born-again Christian, has taken leaps of faith before.

A second-string football player in high school, Franklin made the jump to martial arts once he realized his becoming a professional athlete was unlikely. He trained stand-up fighting first and later picked up jiu-jitsu, and when four years of teaching had worn him down, Franklin decided to give a career in MMA a shot.

Undefeated at the time, it was a risky decision made with the blessing of his wife, Beth. A win over UFC Hall-of-Famer Ken Shamrock (Pictures), an appearance on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series and his reign as middleweight champion suggest he made the right choice.

Photo by Sherdog.com

Rich Franklin's return to the
205-pound division could fade the
memories of two brutal loses to
middleweight king Anderson Silva.
However, his career may ultimately be defined by his inability to conquer Silva. Franklin’s reintroduction to the light heavyweight ranks could breathe new life into his career, though his stay may not be permanent.

“This is definitely a tough test to see if this weight class is going to be a good fit for me or not,” Franklin says. “I’m in the process of trying to gain weight, and that’s not all going to come in this one fight. It’s going to take me several months to continue to put weight back on to be one of the bigger competitors again at 205 pounds. I know on the spectrum of things I’m going to be smaller. I think the next couple months of my career is definitely going to answer that question.”

In Hamill (4-1), Franklin sees a perfect way to re-enter the fray.

“Well, I’ll say this,” he says. “Matt’s not one of the top 10 205-pound fighters.”

With that said, Franklin will not coast into the fight. Hamill -- whose only loss was a controversial split decision loss to Michael Bisping (Pictures) a year ago -- has plenty of weapons at his disposal. A decorated amateur wrestler, he won three national championships in college and has developed a grinding approach inside the Octagon.

Carrying an extra 20 pounds in a 15-minute fight concerns Franklin, who expects to have a speed advantage against Hamill. He augmented his typical pre-fight preparation by training with revered MMA coach Matt Hume (Pictures). Not having to cut weight was an added bonus.

“There’s no stress coming into the fight,” Franklin says. “It’s a much easier approach to this way.”

Despite his many accomplishments, Franklin counts his blessings. He remembers spending eight to nine hours a day in a classroom. Now he runs wind sprints, spars and fights for a living. The shirt and tie have been replaced by shorts and flip-flops.

Franklin has traveled to Iraq and also visited wounded troops at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Giving back to United States servicemen and women has been one of the highlights -- if not the highlight -- of his professional career.

“Being able to affect people’s lives like that is probably the best part of doing what I do now,” Franklin says.

Outside the cage, Franklin, with the help of American Fighter President Jeff Adler, started the “Keep it in the Ring Foundation,” a charitable organization that aims to “advocate non-violence and build character in youth.” To that end, Franklin “definitely” wants to work with Hamill -- a silver medalist in the Deaflympics -- after their paths cross at UFC 88.

While Franklin’s latest test inside the cage weighs heavily on his career, his father’s sudden and unexpected death in January put everything into perspective, including his two TKO losses to Silva.

“Winning that fight [with Lutter] and everything … my dad would have been sitting there with a smile on his face and [would have] just been proud of me for doing what I did,” he says. “Even though you’re going through tough times, you gotta keep that kind of stuff in mind -- that somebody like my dad would not want me to just completely shut down and give up on something.”
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