Right off let’s get one thing straight: I don’t want to see Rich Franklin retire. I like Rich Franklin. His wacky personal views aside, he seems like a good guy and an exciting fighter. I’m not trying to hustle him into retirement, though I see how it might seem that way. Here’s what I wrote in yesterday’s Si.com article:
Franklin, who moves up in weight in an attempt to revitalize his career as a 205-pounder, made the best choice. If he can’t beat Matt Hamill on Saturday, though, that glimmer of hope will also fade, leaving him with a choice between retirement and a steady fall from mediocrity. Neither road is appealing, but at least one is more dignified.
All right, that sounds like I am totally trying to hustle Franklin into retirement. Perhaps I should have phrased it more delicately. Our reactionary Canadian friends at Fightlinker think so, and I see at least part of their point.
For the record, I expect Franklin to beat Hamill. He expects the same thing, or at least that’s what it sounded like when he described Hamill as a good first match-up in the division because he is “not one of the top 10 205-pound fighters.”
If he wins, there’s certainly no reason for him to consider retirement. Even if he gets held down for three rounds, he can still chalk it up to a bad style match-up and make a lateral move in the division for his next bout. But there’s another question at the heart of this. What happens when a fighter goes from great to good? If you aren’t moving up, are you necessarily headed down?
In talking with Steve Cofield, Franklin compared his situation to that of athletes in other sports:
Franklin, 33, used a football analogy to describe his situation saying that Eli Manning won’t retire this year if the Giants fall short of another Super Bowl title. The 31 non-Super Bowl winning QBs didn’t walk away from the sport last year either, right?
I see the point he’s making, but I don’t think it works as a metaphor. For one thing, football is a team sport. Winning a Super Bowl doesn’t make you the consensus pick as the league’s best QB. Eli Manning is possibly the best example, and if you won’t go along with that, I would refer you to other Super Bowl winning QB’s like Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson.
Fighting is an individual sport. You don’t claim a title thanks to the strength of some other guys on your team. You can’t tell yourself that you’ll be on top again once your front office finally signs a tight end worth a damn or an offensive line that can block. It’s all you once the bell rings. And if you aren’t moving up, the best case scenario is you’re staying put.
If a fighter is fine with staying put, with being an also-ran for as long as the organization can keep selling his fights, then so be it. He can, to quote Bull Durham, keep going to the ballpark and keep getting paid to do it. That’s his choice.
But pro fighting is a brutal business in more ways than one. A guy who goes on past his prime doesn’t start throwing interceptions; he takes actual physical beatings. Again, I don’t think Franklin is to the point of having to worry about that yet. But it’s also brutal in the sense that it only cares about the guys at the top, and to a lesser extent about the guys who are on their way up. It isn’t a sport that treats past heroes particularly well.
If you acknowledge that you aren’t climbing up the ranks with an eventual title shot as the goal (and you can certainly argue that Franklin might genuinely see himself as 205-pound champ one day, even if he’s the only one), then what are you doing? You’re hanging around, seeing who you can still get paid to beat, finding out the hard way who you can’t, and most likely making a lot less money to do it.
That’s not the worst thing that can happen. You have to admire a guy who still wants to compete that badly. But it isn’t especially compelling, either. That doesn’t mean Franklin can’t or even shouldn’t do it. He’s earned the right to decide when he wants to quit, and I think he definitely has more good fights in him before getting to that point.
All it means is if he can’t beat Hamill, if he truly isn’t moving up in the division, then he has to get used to playing a new, much less glamorous role in the UFC. He also has to answer for himself exactly why he’s doing it, and that could be the hardest part.