The main event of Saturday's UFC on Fuel 6 card in Macao between Rich Franklin and Cung Le had an interesting storyline leading into the fight. Both fighters were competing in the latter stages of their careers and had registered tough wins over solid opponents in their previous outings. Their showdown in Macao promised to be an exciting affair, but in the buildup to the fight, it became clear there were differences in the way Franklin and Le viewed their remaining time in the sport.
In his pre-fight interviews, the 40-year-old Le stated he was taking everything in his life one day at a time. After considering retirement on several occasions due to a growing profile in the action-movie industry and the ticking clock of father time, the AKA-trained fighter locked his focus on the fight ahead and nothing more.
Things were a bit more ambitious on the Franklin side of the aisle. While the 38-year-old shared his opponent's uncertainty regarding time left in the sport, "Ace" was quick to voice his intention to make one last run at the UFC middleweight title in the process.
Getting back to the top of the weight class wouldn't be an easy task, but with fresh faces and new challenges waiting, Franklin was excited to return to the division he once championed.
For the past five years, Franklin has operated outside of divisional pictures, and the move would also serve to provide a hint of stability. Over that stretch, he bounced from light heavyweight to catch weight bouts as a part of fan-friendly matchups and last-minute, card-saving main events. But a solid performance at UFC 147 where he scored another victory over Wanderlei Silva set the stage for the fight with Le, and the Cincinnati native felt energized as he prepared to make his return to the middleweight division.
Unfortunately, things couldn't have ended in worse fashion for Franklin.
Despite getting out to a solid start where his jabs and leg kicks found their marks, a small mistake mid-exchange cost him dearly. In the process of landing a leg kick, Franklin left himself exposed. In a flash, a powerful right hand from Le folded the former high school math teacher face first into the canvas.
It was a spectacular, albeit brutal knockout, and the footage of Franklin crashing headlong into the mat immediately solidified itself as one of 2012's best finishes.
As the replay looped and fans watched Franklin being separated from his senses, the chatter regarding his retirement began to surge. In a matter of seconds, the former champion went from attempting to re-establish himself in the weight class to being pushed to the fringes of relevance. At the highest level of the sport, every loss hurts, but the manner in which it happened amplified the intensity drastically.
Had Le earned victory on the judge's scorecards, the title-run talk would have been erased, but I can't imagine the thought of Franklin fighting again would create much of a stir. He's spent his career trading punches and kicks with the sport's best, and while Franklin is a game fighter through and through, he's had a handful of "off" nights over the course of his career.
On the flip side, with defeat coming by way of a devastating overhand right, questions regarding Franklin's ability to perform at the highest levels will come fast and furious.
It would be the equivalent of finally getting your 1970 Pontiac GTO back on the road only to have the transmission drop out as you drove down your street. While it looks catastrophic, the repairs can be made. The car will eventually make it back on the road, and the plans you had before the setback will return.
But where your confidence in the vehicle will gradually recover, the perception of the neighbors who witnessed the grisly scene has been altered. Where they previously used to admire the car, now they see it as damaged goods. The incident has created a skewed perspective, and it is a circumstance we've seen play out several times in the brief history of mixed martial arts.
The Light-Switch Theory
There are few things MMA fans appreciate more than a knockout. There are certainly those who get riled up over slick grappling exchanges, high-level transitions and rare choke holds, but a laser-beam right hand that blanks out the opposition is universal. It is what fans hope to see when two fighters step into the cage and has the ability to elevate a fight to legendary status.
Not every knockout is going to be memorable, but when you see Carlos Condit snuff Dan Hardy, Junior dos Santos nearly take Gilbert Yvel's head off or Cheick Kongo launch a "Hail Mary" on Pat Barry—those are moments you are never going to forget.
Highlight-reel moments such as the ones mentioned leave a lasting impression on fans, but they also have a tendency to take a toll on the fighters as well.
It is a popular theory in MMA that once a fighter has suffered a legitimate knockout, they become more susceptible to it happening again. I've heard fighters describe it as having their "jaws loosened," but my favorite comparison is the light switch. When a switch is first installed, it takes some type of effort to flip it. Over time, it gets broken in and eventually wears down to the point it can no longer remain in the "on" position. Once a fighter has been knocked out a time or two, the ability to turn the lights out supposedly becomes easier.
The evidence to support this theory is visible when you examine the recent history of the sport. Prior to the rematch between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell at UFC 52, "The Natural" had never been knocked out. Following his KO loss to "The Iceman" in the first round of that fight, then again in the trilogy bout at UFC 57, Couture's ability to take a big shot appeared to lessen. In the eight fights that finished out his Hall of Fame career, Couture was finished twice and dropped on multiple occasions at the hands or feet of his various opponents.
Perhaps the best example is Liddell. The former champion spent his entire career trading hammers with the opposition. He was more than content to eat a punch in order to land one because Liddell had supreme confidence his punch would put you to sleep. On many occasions, he was correct in that assumption, but once things began to go in the opposite direction, Liddell was never able to recover.
With his fighting style and a chin that would no longer hold, things went south in a hurry for Liddell. He suffered losses in five of his final six bouts, including a ferocious knockout at the hands of Rashad Evans at UFC 92 in Atlanta.
Things eventually reached the point where Liddell realized he simply couldn't perform at the level he was used to fighting at, and one of MMA's all-time greats accepted the harsh reality of the situation.
Only time will tell which category Franklin falls into. In the 35 fights prior to Saturday's bout with Le, Franklin had only been finished four times (2 TKO/2 KO). The most recent knockout came against Vitor Belfort at UFC 103, and while "The Phenom's" power is legendary, the knockout by Le was on a different level.
The way Franklin hit the deck was difficult to watch and evoked the memory of Liddell dropping after Evans put him away. While I think the talk of Franklin's time being up in the sport is premature, the knockout in Macao certainly presents cause for concern.
Then again, this could all be off the mark. It is possible Franklin simply was caught by a punch he never saw coming. Le is an excellent striker with tremendous accuracy, and while he labeled it as a "lucky punch" in his post-fight interview, it was a measured strike thrown at the perfect time.
That being said, getting knocked out by a former Sanshou kickboxing champion of Le's caliber was certainly a risk Franklin had to entertain as he prepared for the fight. The former Strikeforce champion is one of MMA's most dangerous strikers, and it wasn't an issue of Franklin overlooking him—Le simply capitalized on Franklin's mistake.
Maybe the MMA world is overreacting. Maybe they are spot-on. Franklin has proven in the past he is capable of bouncing back after a difficult loss, and it's possible he'll do precisely that in his next outing.
While that may ultimately end up righting the ship, you can't blame fans for at least getting the sense it's a movie they've seen before. Liddell talked about making a run back to his title all the way up to his final loss against Franklin at UFC 115. The notion of Liddell recapturing the light heavyweight title seemed as far-fetched then as Franklin's hopes of achieving that goal now.
Even with that being the case, Franklin's had a great career with many accomplishments to be proud of. Whether or not the reward outweighs the sacrifice can only be measured in his terms, but no matter how he comes to that decision, the reality and perception of how the road looks after this fight will always be a factor.