(“When you put your focus on one thing, you tend not to focus on the journey. Once you get there, it’s not going to be as big of a deal as you thought it was going to be.”)
This Saturday, Rich Franklin will step into the Octagon for the 18th time to face Forrest Griffin in the co-headlining feature of UFC 126. During his 12-year career, Ace has experienced everything from championship glory to bitter defeat, and now stands as one of the sport’s most revered statesmen. “I think that what people will remember me for is that I’m a tough competitor who’s put on entertaining fights for the fans all these years,” Franklin tells CagePotato. “And I’m happy with that kind of legacy.”
Rich was generous enough to give us some phone-time recently, and instead of asking him about his gameplan for Forrest, we discussed Franklin’s career as a whole, from the moment he decided to pursue MMA as a full-time job, to the fight that changed his life, to every other notable moment that helped forge the fighter he is today. Let’s begin…
The Early Days, 1993-1999
Rich Franklin: “I started training in traditional martial arts in 1993, then I saw the first couple UFCs and started doing some jiu-jitsu. I was training at a Royce Gracie chapter here in Cincinnati, and the guy who was leading my class was a blue belt. By today’s standards, if the best you had in your area was a blue belt, you’d be way behind the times, but in 1994 it was a big deal to have that kind of a resource. So I was doing jiu-jitsu, working with kickboxing coaches, and of course I’d been watching the UFC, learning off instructional tapes and all those kinds of things.
I started fighting at these little local amateur shows out in Richmond, Indiana, and clearly at that point in time, I was just light-years ahead of the competition that was showing up at the event. The promoter told me, ‘These are amateur events, I don’t really have anybody for you to fight.’ But there was a gentleman there who said, ‘You know what, I run a pro show, and I’ll pay you to fight.” And he offered me 200 bucks. I was like, ‘Wow, I can make money fighting? This is great. I’m gonna make 200 bucks.” I was bankin’.
RICH FRANKLIN (5-0) vs. AARON BRINK (7-4) — Franklin’s first regional title fight
IFC: Warriors Challenge 11, 1/13/01
Result: No contest due to accidental injury, after Brink’s leg slipped through the cage.
“That’s the first time that somebody had flown me out to an event. At the time, the IFC was a California-based organization, and Aaron Brink was a California guy, so I was pretty much brought in to lose. But the interesting thing about that fight is I had gotten very sick beforehand. I was sitting in my hotel room about an hour-and-a-half before the event started, and I had over a 104-degree fever. I skipped the rules meeting, skipped all this stuff and basically just showed up to fight. And you can tell by looking at me on the tape that I was definitely not feeling good.
That was a long night of my life. And that’s actually when Monte Cox started managing me, after that fight. He and I had been at several shows together — I knew who he was, he knew who I was — and he liked me, and he said, ‘I pretty much saw you make about the stupidest decision you’ve ever made in your life tonight. If you’re interested, I’d be willing to manage you and make sure that things like that don’t continue to happen.’
Becoming a Full-Time Fighter, 2001-2002
”I didn’t quit teaching high school until June of 2002, so when I fought Aaron Brink I was still pulling double-duty, basically. One day, I called Monte and I said to him, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about trying to do this full time and quitting my job, and I’m calling to see what your opinion is on that. Do you think that this is something I can do?’ And he said, ‘I think if you really focused in on this, it’s something you can do well at.’ That was in the fall of ’01, the beginning of my fourth year of teaching.
After that, Monte and I decided that we were going to take the fights that would push me in the direction of a career, because prior to that I was just taking fights here and there, and making sure that I was evenly matched and stuff like that. We weren’t trying to use a systematic process to climb the corporate fighting ladder in order to end up in the UFC. But once we had that discussion, all the fights we took were good business decision fights against good opponents, and fights that could push me toward being in the UFC.”
RICH FRANKLIN (11-0 w/ 1 no contest) vs. EVAN TANNER (27-3) — Franklin’s UFC debut
UFC 42, 4/25/03
Result: Victory via TKO, 2:40 of round 1
“You’re nervous about fights at the time. Even today, I still get nervous. But I wasn’t any more nervous for that fight than I would be for any other fight in my career. Oddly enough, Monte and I and my training partners had spoken about who would be a good debut for me in the UFC, and I really liked the matchup with Evan Tanner. We had spoken about Evan as a possible opponent prior to that fight anyway, so I was really comfortable with taking that fight.
That was UFC 42, and back then the popularity of the UFC — relatively speaking, compared to what it is today — just had not exploded yet. That fight was in Miami, at the American Airlines Arena where the Miami Heat play, and that weekend the UFC went up against this free concert that was being held next door, and there were like five major bands that were there, so that really killed our attendance. I think the attendance of that event was only 8,000 people. Nowadays, if you were to have a concert next door to a UFC event like that, I doubt it would affect attendance that much.”
RICH FRANKLIN (14-0 w/ 1 no contest) vs. LYOTO MACHIDA (2-0) — Franklin’s first loss
Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003, 12/31/03
Result: Defeat via KO, 1:03 of round 2
“At this point in my career I was still undefeated, and losing just wasn’t part of my thought process. I was scheduled to possibly fight for the UFC around December of that year, but they had a problem with other fighters having to fulfill contracts in time, and so I ended up getting pulled off the card. I wasn’t under an exclusive contract with the UFC — I was being contracted fight-by-fight.
At the time I was out in Japan cornering Jorge Gurgel, who had competed in the ZST tournament, and I remember we were at dinner with some Japanese promoters — I guess they were tied into the Inoki Bom Ba Ye show — and they started talking to me about having this fight. This was the weekend after Thanksgiving. So Monte and I came home, and a week later they basically said ‘Yeah, we’re gonna offer you Lyoto Machida.’ Monte had seen him fight one time, and we came to a consensus like, ‘I think this a fight you could win.’ They were offering me more money than I had made on any other fight. It was a really good payday for me.
I had taken the fight on like a three-week notice, and we didn’t know a whole lot about Lyoto. And I guess there was some arrogance on my part because I was undefeated at the time, and lo and behold, I ended up losing. It’s not like I thought I was going to run through him because I didn’t think he was a good fighter. It was more or less a case of overlooking a fighter because on paper, he didn’t have a whole lot of experience. With all the experience that I had and some of the people that I had beaten, you wouldn’t have thought that I’d lose. But having only three weeks to train and stuff like that, it made a big difference. I’d never make that mistake again.”
RICH FRANKLIN (18-1 w/ 1 no contest) vs. KEN SHAMROCK (26-8-2) — the fight that put Franklin over
The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale, 4/9/05
Result: Victory via TKO, 2:42 of round 1
(Click photo to watch the fight on UltimateFighter.com.)
“I didn’t notice a big change in my popularity until the Ken Shamrock fight — that’s when things really started to take off for me. That was at the season 1 Ultimate Fighter finale, and my fight followed the Stephan Bonnar/Forrest Griffin fight, which was one of the epic MMA fights of all time. There are tons of stats about how the ratings during that show changed, especially midway through the fights, and how many people started tuning in. It was my first fight on cable television that wasn’t a pay-per-view, and I got more exposure out of that fight than I had in all the previous fights in my career.
Everybody at that point in time knew Ken Shamrock; Ken Shamrock had wrestled in the WWE, and had a huge fanbase. When I was teaching high school, even my students at the time knew who Ken Shamrock was. They didn’t know any of the other fighters, but they knew Ken Shamrock because he wrestled. So it was huge for me. But it was funny, after that fight I wasn’t ‘Rich Franklin’, I was ‘Hey, you’re that guy that beat Ken Shamrock.’
[On Shamrock’s infamous slip during the fight] The best I can think of is that he was doing some of sort of baseball-slide ankle-lock type thing and just slipped on the mat. But I remember when it happened during the fight, I didn’t even know what to make of it. I just stood there almost completely motionless for a couple seconds like, ‘What just happened?’ I would like to think that Ken’s heart was in that fight, but when you start looking at some of the fights he had after that, you have to start questioning things. Ken was still competing in PRIDE at that point in time, and he really hadn’t had a big downfall prior to that fight, so I think his heart was definitely still in it.”
RICH FRANKLIN (19-1 w/ 1 no contest) vs. EVAN TANNER (31-4) — Franklin’s first UFC title fight
UFC 53, 6/4/05
Result: Victory via TKO (doctor’s stoppage), 3:25 of round 4
(Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland)
“The funny thing about life is that you get your eyes set on certain goals, and you’re so anxious to reach them…like, ‘I want to become world champion, I want to become world champion, I want to become world champion’ — you’re so focused on becoming world champion that you forget that the journey to become world champion is really much better than the destination itself.
I remember going back to my hotel room that night, and I was carrying my championship belt, and I walked into my hotel room and set the belt down on the bed and I just stood over my bed looking at it for a second. I had my wife with me, a couple of my coaches, and maybe a couple random friends. And I said, ‘I don’t feel like a world champion, I thought it would feel different than this.’ I don’t know what I was expecting, but I just know that when you put your focus on that one thing, you tend not to focus on the journey. Once you get there, it’s not going to be as big of a deal as you thought it was going to be.
I liked Evan. He was always a really nice guy, a good sportsman and all that stuff. I would see him at shows, and after we fought we would oftentimes sit next to each other and talk, and we were friends on that level. He wasn’t somebody that I would just call on a Friday night and ask him what he was doing or something like that, and of course we lived on opposite sides of the country. But Evan was a good guy, and he and I developed the kind of relationship where if he was doing something at his school and he said, ‘Hey I’m doing a grand-opening at my school, could you possibly show up and help me out?’, I would have shown up to help him.”
“In order to have a winning mentality in a sport, you have to be able to tell yourself, ‘Okay, that fight happened on a certain day, last year, I was a different fighter, he was a different fighter, this is a new night,’ and you’re kind of starting with a clean slate. After a year, you’re two completely different fighters, both of you. You have to convince yourself of that, in order to not let what happened before hang over your head. We’d gone into the rematch with a new gameplan, and felt like we worked out a lot of the kinks that we needed to, and that what happened in the first fight wasn’t going to be an issue in the second fight.
I actually went out to Black House to train for the Wanderlei Silva fight [in 2009]. Anderson’s always been a really good competitor, very respectful to me; I like Anderson a lot. Though I’m not sure about the things that he’s been doing in the Octagon lately. [His fight against Vitor Belfort] could be one of those fights that’s a 30-second knockout in the first round, or one of those where they dance for five rounds and hardly punch each other. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.”
RICH FRANKLIN (27-5 w/ 1 no contest) vs. CHUCK LIDDELL (21-7) — Franklin returns to the light-heavyweight division after two bouts at 195 pounds, steps in for Tito Ortiz against the Iceman.
UFC 115, 6/12/10
Result: Victory via KO, 4:55 of round 1
“Chuck is still capable of competing at that top level, it’s just unfortunate that he’s been caught a couple times. And I’ll say that in that fight, Chuck came out looking better — from a physical standpoint and the way he performed — than he had in probably his entire career.
If you get knocked out several times in a career, you have to start wondering about head injury and that sort of thing. As much as fans are sitting back saying ‘Dana’s controlling his career, he’s controlling everybody’s career’, the decision [to retire Liddell] was made purely out of concern for Chuck. Dana and Chuck are friends, they’ve been friends for a long time, and when you fight for the UFC you develop a friendship with the people who run the UFC. They care about you after a while.
That being said, I’m not Chuck’s doctor and I don’t have any medical expertise. If a doctor clears Chuck to fight, then who am I to say that he shouldn’t be in the ring? Ultimately, it’s Chuck’s decision to retire.”
RICH FRANKLIN (28-5 w/ 1 no contest) vs. FORREST GRIFFIN (17-6) — Franklin’s latest challenge
UFC 126, 2/5/11
“I’m a competitor, and winning is on the line. That’s the most important thing. I don’t put any more pressure on myself, other than the fact that I just want to win a fight. I know that winning here could possibly move me up in ranks as far as my standing in the 205-pound weight class, but right now I’m only focused on the fact that I’ve got this fight, and I have to win. Whatever comes after that, we’ll worry about it when it happens.”