In a sport that had grown so much in really only a few years, Rich Franklin will add yet another first to his career when he headlines the first UFC show in China on Saturday.
Franklin (29-6), headlined the first live television event in the United States, and also headlined the company's first shows in places like Ireland, Northern Ireland, Germany and Western Canada. He faces the sport's most unorthodox stand-up specialist, Cung Le (8-2), in the main event at the Cotai Arena at the Venetian Resort in Macau.
While he's done press in numerous Asian countries to build the fight, he's not really sure what to do expect from the local crowd since he didn't arrive in Macau until Tuesday. To get acclimated to the time difference, and to Le's unique style, he started training in Singapore, in the same time zone as Macau, on Oct. 23 with Wu Shu and San Da fighters. It's his second time training in Singapore, since this match was originally scheduled for July 7 in Las Vegas. The match was pulled at the time when Franklin, whose career the last five years or so has been as the company's utility man, was asked to save a show in Belle Horizonte, Brazil, and face Wanderlei Silva two weeks earlier then he was originally scheduled because Vitor Belfort was injured.
"It's difficult to tell," he said about how the market is taking to UFC. "When I went to Brazil, I figured the fight in Brazil was going to be a big deal. The Gracies put the UFC on the map to begin with, and as far as modern-day MMA goes, Brazil is kind of the cradle. When we were in Germany, Germany was anything but. Anywhere you go, you are going to have pockets of fans who are super excited about UFC coming. But in Germany, we faced the stigma of human cockfighting, like the days of old in the United States, with government restrictions, legislation, dealing with politicians. When I was there and talked about MMA as a sport, it's as if I was doing the interviews I did ten or 15 years ago in the United States.
"China was a little like that, but not as much because the Asian cultures are more accepting of combative sports. Bruce Lee was from Hong Kong. We talked about Bruce Lee's ideas. His philosophy of MMA is what you need, having an open mind to different techniques. In many of Bruce Lee's films in the 60s you would see armbars, that's how far ahead of the curve he was. We played off that to explain the sport to the public. We also used the combative Olympic sports, wrestling, judo, boxing and even Tae Kwon Do, all having elements in MMA. Explaining to the Chinese people was much easier. I did press in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand. Cung went to other places, Mainland China, Vietnam and a couple of other places.
"When I was in Taiwan and did press there, there was a significant number of reporters who showed up. In Macau for the fight announcement, they were doing a good job of covering it on ESPN. I saw teasers all day, but without me being there, it's difficult to get a true gauge."
With Franklin at 38 and Le being 40, this is likely to be the oldest combined age fight in the UFC this year. Franklin, who started with UFC in 2004 and won the middleweight title the next year, beat Ken Shamrock in the UFC's live television debut on April 9, 2005, on Spike TV. It was the main event that followed the legendary Stephan Bonnar vs. Forrest Griffin bout. At the time, fighters like Bonnar, Kenny Florian and Nate Quarry were newcomers trying to break into UFC on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Franklin was a veteran title contender, who coached on the second season. Now Bonnar, Florian and Quarry are all retired.
"Yeah, I realize I'm on borrowed time at this point," said Franklin. "I'm 38 years old. I remember when I started being asked these questions about a year-and-a-half ago. It really hits you hard at first, but I'm used to it now. I never thought about it with Bonnar retiring. I didn't look at it like that. But Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and I were the people who were part of the UFC before it exploded and they're now all gone. I'm the last of the Mohicans."
With just over eight consecutive years in the organization, Franklin has been with the company the longest consecutive time of anyone on the current roster. B.J. Penn and Vitor Belfort started in UFC earlier, but both left UFC and fought elsewhere before returning. And where his career has taken him is nothing like what he ever could have envisioned it not all that many years ago.
"I would have never predicted this," he said. "I was teaching high school in 2002. I quit my job and was teaching part-time until three weeks before my title fight (in 2005 when he beat Evan Tanner to become UFC middleweight champion). I was still teaching in the at-risk program when I decided to quit my job. I never thought it would end up like this. I thought, 'Maybe I'll do this for a few years, it'll be cool, and then I'll go back to teaching.' That's how things would have been had UFC stayed where it was. I've been with the company almost ten years, the same time the sport has exploded. I was on the main card for the Ultimate Fighter 1 final, fought Ken Shamrock, then got the title fight, and the sport blew up.
"When I started working for UFC, there were 12 people in the office. Now I walk in, very few of the original 12 remain. I walk in, and I don't even recognize half the people. I remember doing interviews and being asked about what the ceiling was for UFC. My predictions on growth were way smaller than what ended up happening. I have no clue where it's going. If I fast forward seven years, I have no idea where it'll be."
Franklin is a 13-to-4 favorite over Le, whose use of a variety of "movie kicks" that aren't supposed to work in a real fight put himself on the map as a martial arts magazine cover boy as the country's most famous San Shou fighter in the 90s. Le became a tremendous local drawing card for promoter Scott Coker, when he promoted kickboxing and martial arts shows in San Jose, Calif., at the time, before both took the plunge to get into MMA when it became legalized in California in 2006.
Despite doubters who expected his style not to work in MMA and were salivating the idea that he'd be a big name who would fall on his face in a "real fight," Le has had a successful career, even though he was nearly 34 before he had his first MMA fight.
But his age is an issue with Le even more than Franklin. His style of throwing so many spinning kicks and making them work requires incredible speed and reflexes, as well as conditioning. In watching him throughout his career, it's actually quite sad that MMA wasn't as big a dozen years ago. Whether he'd have been a UFC champion in his late 20s is speculative at best, but what is a sure thing is that he'd have been a force, and been a worldwide star based on his style of spinning kicks from every angle, flying scissors takedowns, and even Greco-Roman wrestling suplexes that he'd hit out of nowhere.
In addition to age, he's been splitting time for the past several years between fighting and doing martial arts movies. Plus, he's very small for a modern middleweight, because he's never cut excessive weight. He'll be giving up significant height, reach, size and cage experience to Franklin. His style expends a lot of energy and can work against him in a longer fight with Franklin, who is legendary for his conditioning drills.
"I'll tell you what, people don't realize how athletic Cung is," said Franklin. "You spend so much time zeroing in on a specific sport and a specific style. People see him do spinning kicks and it's all impressive to be able to do that. They can do that in karate exhibitions, but do be able to do that in a real fight is even more impressive, and he consistently does it. He's underrated as a wrestler and people often overlook that. You'll see him do backflips after he wins a fight, that's the kind of athlete he is. This unorthodox style is going to be unique in this fight for me."
But Franklin has been training with fighters with similar roots, who are throwing spinning kicks and back fists at him all day long, trying to develop an innate pattern recognition for Le's style.
Many athletes were blown away in the early days of UFC watching Franklin do a nonstop circuit training session. He went from exercise to exercise, without stopping, for nearly an hour, when the session was filmed on an early UFC television special about him. He said he still does that same conditioning circuit today, with a few modifications.
"About my age and training, you can talk to any of my training partners, I train with young guys and when I get into the gym," he said. "I can train today just as intense as when I was 22 years old. The only difference is time in between. When I'm done, I'm physically drained. Ten or 15 years ago, I could go train, leave the gym, run around, do errands, cut the grass in the heat, and come back and train again later in the day. Now I train hard, but I take a nap and then go back and train. The circuit training we did back then was a lot of exercises with machines, one station to the next, to the next. It was the first time anybody had seen anything like that.
"We've taken that concept, and made it even worse. If there was a level of hell, we went from the upper level of hell to an even lower level that's even more intense. We quit using the machines. It was revolutionary for its time, but we needed functional movements. We started doing more functional exercises. The circuit that we do will mimic a fight as best you can. When you train at a pace that's more intense than any fight, when the fight comes around and you're fighting, the pace is easy. I'm good to go and that's why strength and conditioning has never been a problem for me. We're doing more strength movements, lifting a heavy tire, sprinting, pushups, kicks on a Thai paid, deadlifting a certain amount of weight. We go from something heavy to something fast, back-and-forth, to mimic a sequence in a fight."
Another challenge to Franklin will be returning to 185 pounds. That was his weight class until losing his title, and then losing a rematch, to Anderson Silva. He moved to 205, and while he said he never felt outmuscled, he said it was ridiculous the sheer amount of weight he was giving up in the cage when he fought Forrest Griffin. But it's been more than four years since the last time he's made this weight. But he made 189 for a 190-pound catchweight fight on a somewhat abbreviated camp with little difficulty in his fight with Wanderlei Silva in June. But making 185 on his frame was always a challenge, and cutting weight can be more difficult with age.
"It's stressful to make 185," he said. "I understand cutting weight at this age is a little more difficult. I've trimmed my size. I'm approaching this fight two or three pounds lighter than I would have the last time I cut to 185. I've done that in case it's significantly more difficult. I presume it's going to be harder to do. We'll find out. I believe I've taken the right precautions."
Franklin has never lost a middleweight fight to anyone but Anderson Silva, the best of all-time in that weight class.
According to Rami Genauer of Fightmetric.com, Franklin has only lost when getting worked over in the clinch (Silva), being taken down repeatedly (Forrest Griffin and Dan Henderson) or by a big one-strike blow (Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida). Of those methods, only the latter is one that Le is likely to do. While Le is a very good wrestler, Franklin has defended 83% of takedowns attempted against him when he's fought at middleweight.
When Franklin retires, the book on him will likely be how unfortunate his heyday was at the same time as Anderson Silva, because it's possible he could have spent years as the sport's star middleweight instead of being the guy UFC would call to fill the plug when they had a show that needed a main event.
"Possibly, but maybe it's fortunate I ran into him in my career," he said looking back, noting the move back to 185 is with the goal of getting one last title shot. "If you're going to lose, it might as well be to that guy. It's just amazing the stuff he does in the Octagon. He fought Stephan Bonnar and he slipped the spinning back kick like something in the Matrix. I'm sure he's a better fighter than when I fought him. I think I'm better as well. He's more experienced. I'm more experienced. Beating a guy like Anderson is going to be a tough thing no matter who you are. But when you have a champions mentality, you knock me down and I'll get back up. Knock me down twice and I'll get up again. Eventually I'm going to find your number. I believe with another shot I can win that fight."