Rich Franklin has been called many things in his life. 'Ace'. UFC middleweight champion. Mathematics teacher. Company man. Southpaw. He's also a wise man.
I was lucky enough to taste a sample of this wisdom in June 2009, when travelling on a mini bus with Franklin and team en route to a German hotel. Less seedy than it sounds, the fighter was an hour or two removed from a stirring decision win over Wanderlei Silva in Cologne, Germany at UFC 99. Content and, indeed, delighted, he now sought peace and quiet.
But, as the bus pulled up alongside the hotel, a sentimental Franklin, his wife Beth and members of his team peered through the windows at a number of German fans congregated inside and outside the lobby.
'There are tons of them,' said one of the fighter's coaches.
The driver turned around to face Franklin. 'Do you want me to head round the back of the hotel and go in that way?' he said, hand primed on the gear stick.
Franklin pondered the getaway plan for a second. He consulted his entourage, most of whom were in agreement with the driver, the fighter's safety and comfort of paramount importance. Lest we forget, he'd also just fought three hard rounds inside the Octagon. This was a weary man, one riding a wave of adrenaline, sure, but tired and broken down nonetheless. Yet, despite this, the tired fighter shook his head, glanced once more through the window and said, 'No, let's get out here. Let's enjoy this moment and take it all in. We don't know how many more of these good nights there are going to be. Let me out.'
All that needed to be said had now been said. Nobody dared argue. Instead, the wise man opened the door without a moment's hesitation and led his troops towards the swollen lobby of autograph hunters and those in pursuit of a fresh Facebook profile picture. Of course, Franklin was inevitably mobbed, pushed, pulled and prodded to the point of distraction, but it felt good and right in that moment. It felt deserved, warranted. He knew that, at 34 years of age, there may not be many more nights like this up ahead and, while fans would always queue for his autograph, mixing with them in glorious triumph was surely the preferred backdrop against which to scribble and smile.
One could also argue Franklin is some sort of punching prophet. Because, since that night in Cologne, the former maths teacher has won just one of three fights and suffered wretched injury problems, the kind that have seen him inactive since February 2011. Fans of the former middleweight champion still remain, of course, but he's less inclined to now leap out of a bus in a blaze of glory. Wins have been hard to come by of late, and fights too have been sporadic. He fought once in 2010 and once in 2011 and the upcoming rematch with Silva marks his first outing in 2012.
A 90 percent tear in his shoulder's rotor put paid to much of this year, and acted as a timely reminder that Rich, all boyish good looks and charm, will soon turn 38 years of age. If he felt the end looming in 2009, it's fair to say he's teetering on the very edge now, just weeks from reconvening with Silva, another celebrated veteran of the sport.
It's far from a given that he conquers Silva again, either. After all, Franklin was originally supposed to be fighting master striker Cung Le at UFC 148 and, indeed, had ventured to Singapore to brush up on the art of Sanshou in order to deal with his opponent's peculiar style. And then the call came, the call that Franklin has grown accustomed to receiving through much of his UFC career. The company man was required to replace an injured Vitor Belfort at UFC 147, and Franklin, always willing and able, prepared himself to step into the Octagon two weeks earlier than expected. Not only that, he was now asked to fight Silva, a man reinvigorated by a recent two-round demolition of Le.
So, in summary, Franklin now fights two weeks earlier than anticipated and against a better opponent than before. Right. Hardly an ideal turn of events in the eyes of most, but Franklin isn't most and, moreover, this is a fighter who simply wants to fight. When you've been out since February 2011, any fight -- be it against Le, Silva or Junior Dos Santos -- carries much in the way of appeal right now.
Franklin's fortunes on June 23 are probably dependent on two things. How much does he have left? And how much does Wanderlei Silva have left? Both men know they are at least a couple of years removed from their respective primes, but what we are yet to discover is who still possesses that little bit extra to win fights at a time when victories are hard to come by for both. Silva showed there remained a little fight left in the old dog against Le, but, without wanting to take anything away from 'The Axe Murderer', how much of that success was down to his own prowess and how much of it was due to the fact Le, at 39, was even older than Silva?
Also, while Wanderlei may, incredibly, be a couple of years younger than Franklin at 35, there are few fighters with as much wear and tear on their bodies as the Brazilian hero. He's a fan favourite for a reason, and that reason is he leaves a piece of him -- sometimes small, sometimes huge -- inside the ring or Octagon each and every time he competes. A fighter only has so much they can give, and for a couple of years now we have all watched Wanderlei wail away with baited breath, half wincing, ready for the day his body simply gives up.
I think there is far less danger of that happening to Franklin, despite being the older man. The American's style relies less on bravado and more on technique and, while he's also been stopped on occasion, Franklin has steered clear of the kind of battles that have, in time, resulted in Silva's face being now almost recognizable to the one that smiled for the cameras during his PRIDE days. Also, while inactivity is often viewed as a curse, who's to say Franklin won't have benefited from a respite and a chance to refuel en route to a final trip to the well?
One thing's certain - if Franklin should drive home victorious on July 23, fans would be well advised to form an orderly queue outside his hotel. There's a good chance he'll find the time to stop and smile. Again.
UFC 147 takes place Saturday June 23 on PPV.
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