Rich Franklin has given a lot to mixed martial arts.
Over his 13-year career, the former UFC middleweight champion has amassed a diverse resume, stepping up to trade leather with a list of the world's best time and time again. His journey across the sport's ever-changing landscape has featured numerous highs and a handful of lows, but through it all, the 38-year-old Franklin outlasted many of his contemporaries and has accomplished the difficult task of remaining relevant in sport where time is unforgiving.
Not to say there hasn't been rough patches for the Cincinnati native. The 185-pound title he once proudly held has drifted out of reach over the past five years, but Franklin's willingness to alter courses has kept him on the short list of "go-to-guys" when issues arise under the UFC banner.
No matter the situation, Franklin always shows up to scrap and his reputation as a class act is etched into the organization's history.
While his career may be moving into the latter stages, "Ace" isn't showing any signs of slowing down. After spending the past four years bouncing between light heavyweight and catchweight bouts, Franklin will return to the division he once ruled when he faces former Strikeforce champion Cung Le in the main event of UFC on Fuel 6 in Macao, China. Whether this chapter of his career is the next or the final, the former math teacher-turned-UFC champion has definitely made a lasting impression.
A Rising Star in Zuffa's UFC
As the days of Royce Gracie and Dan Severn faded and the Zuffa takeover got underway, the organization was in desperate need of marketable stars. In order to accomplish this feat, the UFC was banking on a wave of rising talent, mixed with a batch of proven veterans, to get the brand to the next level.
In a group which included the likes of Hall of Fame fighters Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes and Randy Couture, Franklin helped to elevate the visibility of the organization. Much like his peers, Franklin quickly developed a reputation for putting on action-packed throwdowns as he claimed victory in seven consecutive outings, with all but one coming by way of finish.
Over this run Franklin also became the middleweight champion by defeating Evan Tanner, following it up with a brutal knockout victory at the expense of Nate Quarry at UFC 56. A straight left hand down the pipe, a dead-on connection as Quarry went stiff, and an eternal loop into the UFC's highlight reel was made.
As the post-TUF surge hit the MMA world, Liddell, Franklin and Hughes ushered in a reign of dominant champions for the UFC. The organization's visibility was rising at a rapid rate and the three fighters became stars in the process. In 2005 "The Iceman" was settling the opposition in style, Hughes looked untouchable and Franklin's output overwhelmed everyone the UFC put in front of him.
Their collective successes came at a crucial time during the UFC's growth, but unfortunately for all three champions, a new wave of superstars were hungry to get their turns. Over the next year and a half Franklin, Liddell and Hughes were dethroned and Anderson Silva, Quinton Jackson and Georges St-Pierre were crowned.
Looking For Answers
Following his loss to Silva at UFC 64, Franklin was eager to get back on track. He worked hard to earn acclaim as one of the best middleweights in the world and quickly set about regaining his momentum.
In his first outing since losing the title, Franklin battered veteran Jason MacDonald for two rounds causing "The Athlete's" corner to stop the fight before the start of the third. The win reinvigorated the former champion and earned Franklin a slot in a title eliminator bout with Yushin Okami.
He would also find success against Okami as he brought "Thunder's" six fight win streak to a halt at UFC 72. Following back-to-back victories, the UFC gave Franklin the opportunity he had been asking for, as a rematch with Silva was scheduled for UFC 77 in his hometown of Cincinnati.
In the first fight, Silva mauled Franklin in the clinch, as he landed devastating knees at will. For the second go-round, Franklin knew it was a situation he had to avoid, but once the action got underway, "The Spider's" muay Thai was simply too much. Franklin once again found himself on the business end of another brilliant Silva performance and, following a second loss to the current champion, suddenly found himself on the outside looking in at a division he once ruled.
Franklin would compete once more at 185 pounds in a fight where he bested Travis Lutter at UFC 83. Despite the victory, Franklin realized the sea change of the division had already taken place, and having already competed numerous times at light heavyweight, decided to try his hand in a new weight class.
At the expense of training partner and friend Matt Hamill, Franklin made a strong statement in his new division when he slammed a body kick into the TUF alum's liver, resulting in a fight-ending TKO.
Legends Collide and the Birth of the "Fun Fight"
The victory over Hamill was a solid notch in the win column but an increase in divisional depth meant Franklin was going to have to knock off a few more contenders before getting a title shot. At this time the light heavyweight title was on a merry-go-round as "Rampage" Jackson, Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans all took turns holding the strap, with only Jackson successfully defending the belt on at least one occasion.
In his next outing, Franklin was matched up with former Pride two-divisional champion Dan Henderson at UFC 93 in Dublin, Ireland. The bout was an interesting pairing, as both men had risen to prominence at similar times but in separate organizations. Henderson's arrival in the UFC following Zuffa's purchase of the Pride organization was highly touted, but after coming up short in two out of three outings under the UFC banner, the buzz around the former Olympian Henderson began to slide.
That being the case, Franklin versus Henderson still had all the makings for fireworks, as both brought proven power into the Octagon. Despite being rocked early and out-wrestled for the most of the first two rounds, Franklin's cardio came through in the third as he poured it on as the fight came to a close. But the late effort wasn't enough to change the tide on the judges' cards and Franklin came out on the losing end of a split-decision.
The bout with Henderson kicked off a four-fight run where Franklin would face fellow legends of the sport. With none of the fights having title or even contender implications, Franklin suddenly found himself as the go-to-guy for fan-friendly matchups.
With each of his next three fights headlining a pay-per-view card, Franklin's place as one of the organization's cornerstones became crystal clear. He found victory in two out of three showings, earning a unanimous decision nod in a war with Wanderlei Silva, getting stopped via TKO against Vitor Belfort, and knocking out former champion Chuck Liddell at UFC 115. The bout with the former 205-pound king was another example of Franklin's willingness to come to the rescue.
When Ortiz was forced to withdraw from the trilogy bout with Liddell due to a neck injury, the UFC called on Franklin to step in. It was an important bout for both fighters as Liddell was desperate to prove he still belonged in the UFC and Franklin was looking to bounce back from the loss to Belfort.
While Liddell looked strong throughout the opening round, he was caught in an over-aggressive charge late in the frame and Franklin scored the knockout victory. The defeat would mark the final appearance for Liddell inside the Octagon as he suffered losses in five of his last six outings. It was an end of an era for the future UFC Hall of Famer, and despite being injured in victory, Franklin marched on.
The Next Chapter
The bout with Liddell would be his only appearance in 2010 and a throwdown with another former champion, Forrest Griffin, his only fight in 2011. Several surgeries kept Franklin on the shelf for a lengthy stretch but when the main event collapsed at UFC 147 in Brazil, the promotion once again came to call. Franklin would return for another dust-up with Wanderlei Silva. Much like the first fight it was a back-and-forth scrap, with "Ace" claiming the unanimous decision victory in the end.
Over the past few years he has voiced his intentions to make one more run toward title contention. Whether this will come to pass remains uncertain, but the one guarantee will be Franklin's unique drive and preparation that put him in the position to give his best. He is a notorious gym rat a legendary training regiment, and an impressive body of work that has entertained MMA fans for over a decade.
The sport he helped build will continue to evolve, and Franklin will give his all to stay stride for stride with the process. When the time comes where he can't keep up with the opposition, then it will be a decision he has to make. Until then, he is a man who never fails to deliver an exciting fight, and no matter the time or circumstance, Franklin is always a fighter that can be counted on.
It is what he does and he's done it well for a long time.