Rich Franklin has always been one of the UFC's go-to guys when the promotion has tried to open up new markets. He main-evented The Ultimate Fighter's season one finale, back when the organization was simply searching for an audience. He was in the headline fight the first time they visited Ireland and British Columbia, and had supporting roles in multiple other locations.
Because of the credibility he brought as a master's degree-toting, ex-math teacher who can speak eloquently on the subtleties of an outwardly violent sport, it was a role that fit perfectly. Of course, it didn't hurt that Franklin was a stellar fighter with the bona fides of a legitimate title contender. The recent past, however, hasn't been quite as easy on Franklin, who has gone a more pedestrian 4-3 over his last seven fights since abandoning the middleweight division.
While the weight cut to 185 was never impossible, it was an unwelcome annoyance that he seemed at least somewhat glad to rid himself of until he met Forrest Griffin in February 2011. In that fight, Griffin, who is 6-foot-4 and generally reaches around 235 pounds between training camps, used his size advantage to muscle his way to the win.
The fight was an eye-opener for Franklin, who soon after decided to petition for a last run at 185. The request was granted the UFC's powers-that-be, and it begins at UFC on FUEL 6 in the new and exotic market of Macau, a special administrative region of China dependent on tourism that lies about 30 miles southwest of Hong Kong.
The event takes place on the Cotai Strip, a casino haven, and it could effectively be Franklin's last roll of the dice. At 38 years old, there is little time for him to build a case as a contender, especially with Anderson Silva's slowing schedule and interest in fighting Georges St-Pierre, along with already established divisional contenders like Chris Weidman, Michael Bisping and Tim Boetsch.
The fight against Le isn't exactly an instant resume-builder, only because he himself is already 40 years old and has only put together a 1-1 octagon record. But it is a start.
The bout should at least be stylistically interesting, with Franklin's basic but highly polished fight skills matching up against Le's flashiness.
Historically, Franklin has been above average at every facet of the game. He strikes well, has underrated wrestling, boasts a strong ground game and has a high fight IQ. In short, he's one of the most well-rounded fighters of his era that has managed to maintain relevancy even as a newer crop of youngsters has emerged.
Of late though, Franklin has preferred the striking game above all else. In his last five fights, for example, he has just three takedowns in six attempts over about 63 minutes of total fight time. Against Le, who throws a kick-heavy offense, Franklin is more likely to try to get inside and stay in punching range rather than giving Le the space to employ his more favored style.
This close positioning could lead to more tie-ups and clinches, but Le won't be easy to take to the mat, as evidenced by his 89 percent takedown defense.
Le is a very accurate striker -- 51 percent by FightMetric's count -- and uses a variety of kicking techniques from the roundhouse to the side kick and everything in between. He'll also change his opponent's eye level by varying his target from legs to body to head. But his attack requires space. He's historically been very good at creating it because most opponents are well aware they are unlikely to take him down, and beyond that, they fear that he could put them on their back.
To be sure, Le is a more advanced striker than Franklin, but since moving from Sanshou to MMA, he has never flashed true one-shot power. That means that in a five-round fight, Franklin is likely to have the luxury of experiencing the Le repertoire in one round before making the necessary adjustments.
The five-round limit is a significant factor on its own. As a former champion, Franklin has plenty of experience preparing for a long fight, and he had to do so as recently as June when he went the full 25 minutes in a decision win over Wanderlei Silva. Le has never had to do it, and to make matters worse, he's had to prepare for his first time while still recovering from a foot injury that he admitted, would have knocked him out of any other event.
Le told MMA Fighting just over a week ago that while he was only at 80 percent health, he refused to back out of the fight because he wanted to honor his martial arts roots by competing in China.
That sounds beautifully noble but unquestionably risky. And it's something you can't discount while predicting a winner. Can he go 25 minutes with an injured wheel? Success in MMA starts from the feet up. It's the first link in the kinetic chain, and it's very difficult to overcome a body with a weak base. Le has to try and do it for five rounds. Franklin is too technically sound and smart to miss taking advantage of it. He'll spend the first round figuring out Le's kick-heavy offense, and minute-by-minute he'll figure out how to get inside and land his punches.
Le may be a more polished striker but Franklin is good enough to hold his own and then take over as fatigue sets in for his opponent. As the fight goes on, Franklin's conditioning will overtake Le, and he'll either finish late or cruise to a decision.