I’m choking out UFC superstar Rich Franklin. That’s never happened to him in 32 professional MMA fights, although this is hardly an octagon cage war.
He called me out from across the practice mat to grapple, and after admiring the bull’s eye painted on the front of my mouthguard, he gave me a pink-mouthguarded grin and began attacking me with a series of submissions — armbars, kimuras, triangle chokes, the kitchen sink.
Just when I was beginning to feel like a ball of yarn being pawed by a very large kitten, he allowed me to slip behind him and lock an arm around his throat. Then he did something even more surprising. Instead of struggling to break free of my grip, which he could have done as easily as snapping a twig, he adjusted my hold to sink the choke in even deeper, forcing him to tap out before he passed out.
We’re at Revolution MMA, an upscale mixed martial arts gym in northern Toronto. Franklin has flown from his home in Cincinnati to spend a Saturday afternoon teaching a seminar. For the 20 or so would-be ultimate fighters and weekend warriors in attendance it’s like learning to shoot hoops from LeBron James or golf from Tiger Woods. Yes, a couple of hours with Franklin and he’s tightened up my boxing and plugged holes in my ground game, but it’s as much about the fanboy experience as it is learning the intricacies and nuances of cage combat.
“I like teaching seminars but it’s hard because the skill level of the participants varies so widely you never know how technical to get before people start getting either lost or bored,” says Franklin, who taught high school math until his career in the UFC took off. “Sometimes they want to learn how to fight, sometimes they’re more interested in hearing stories about fighting, which is fine, so I try to provide both.”
It’s hard not to stare at Franklin as he talks. Nicknamed Ace because of his resemblance to a certain pet detective, he’s like a mad science experiment that grafted Jim Carrey’s head onto a gorilla’s body. And the whole time I’m looking at him, I’m picturing Anderson Silva’s knees rearranging his face when Silva beat Franklin to capture the UFC middleweight title.
It takes a particular kind of guts to step into the octagon against MMA monsters like Anderson Silva (twice), Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva, especially while wearing fight shorts the colour of neopolitan ice cream. But that’s what makes Rich Franklin one of the most-popular fighters in the UFC, his Average Joe-ness and willingness to fight whomever UFC president Dana White puts in front of him.
“I’m a businessman and this is my job,” he says. “It’s all about the next fight, getting in the cage. It doesn’t matter who they put in there with me.”
In addition to being a former champion and fan favourite, Franklin is also one of the UFC’s top workhorses. He’s fought sixteen times in the last six years and three times this year already against top opponents, despite a few nagging injuries. His last fight was a first-round loss to Belfort in September that saw the lightning-fisted Brazilian swarm Franklin and pummel him with punches until the referee stepped in.
So, despite the injuries and illnesses that have sidelined four of the UFC’s five divisional champions and at least as many top contenders, making a pay-per-view powerhouse like Franklin all the more valuable to the promotion, Franklin has decided to take a few much-needed months off.
“I took the Belfort fight because Dana called and asked me, even though I wasn’t quite where I needed to be physically or mentally. Now, I’m not making excuses, that’s just the nature of the fight game,” he says. “But now I’m taking some time off and probably won’t fight again until April or May. I need to rest and relax and recover a little bit and I also hate prepping for a fight in the wintertime. Cincinnati can get pretty cold and I hate running and working out when the temperature is always zero.”
While fans wait anxiously for the fighter’s return, Franklin finds himself in an unusual position. He has fought at both middleweight (185 pounds) and light heavyweight (205 pounds), but his last two fights, a unanimous-decision win over Wanderlei Silva and the knockout loss to Belfort, were both contested at a 195-pound catchweight.
“The UFC asked me to fight the catchweight fights to help Silva and Belfort make the drop down to 185 pounds,” says the 35-year-old. “But now I’ve lost my ranking at 185 and 205. It’s crazy — I can headline a card and not be top-10 ranked.”
As a result, he admits the UFC isn’t quite sure what to do with him. Fighting at middleweight is an exercise in futility given he’s already lost twice to champ Anderson Silva, who is either from the Matrix or Krypton, while he’s also lost to the light heavyweight champ, Lyoto Machida. Yet, Franklin isn’t quite ready to settle into the role of gatekeeper, the fighter all challengers must get past before being handed a title shot.
“I just want to fight the top fighters in whatever division I’m in,” he says. And then, as if recognizing the cliché he’s just offered, he adds, “Even if I put together a couple of wins at 195 I’m not sure that helps me at 205 in terms of getting big fights. I need to get in there and mix it up with the light heavyweights so I can work my way toward a title shot.”
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