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Only Rich Franklin can answer the obvious question coming off his first-round KO loss

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When a 38-year-old former world champion loses by a one-punch knockout to an opponent he was almost universally expected to beat, the question has to be asked if it's time to leave the cage. But as recent history has shown, the answer isn't nearly so simple.

Photo by Anton Tabuena, MMA Fighting
When you're a 38-year-old former world champion and less than 36 hours ago was knocked out with one punch just 2:17 into a fight by someone you were almost universally expected to beat, there is an obvious next question that Rich Franklin needs to ask himself.

Is this the end of the road?

Franklin (29-7, 1 no contest) has been asked that question a lot of late, even though it had been three years since he had been finished in a fight, and even though he was coming off a fight of the night performance in a win against Wanderlei Silva in his previous fight.

The question was not so much because of performance in the cage as much as his age, and more, the reality of having most of his contemporaries as well as a number of fighters younger than he is, recently ending their career.

It's also something he talked about shortly before his loss to Cung Le on Saturday in Macau in UFC's debut in the main event of UFC's debut in the People's Republic of China.

"Yeah, I realize I'm on borrowed time at this point," he said. "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 it now. I never thought about it with (Stephan) 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 na they're now all gone. I'm the last of the Mohicans."

It's easy to say that the fighter should decide, but in most cases, fighters are going to go on for too long. It's often the damage at the end of their careers when they are older and their bodies can't absorb a blow as well that leads to problems later in life. Yet there is quite the lure to continue, both in terms of fame, money and familiarity. A fighter when making that call is in most cases going to make a lot less money, the fame can be fleeting, plus there's walking away from the life training in the gym with your crew that you've lived much of your adult life.

But in the case of Franklin, it really is something only he can give a good answer to at this point.

Two other longtime stars, Jon Fitch and Jake Shields, were coming off similar stunning one-punch knockouts, even quicker than Franklin's loss. While they are a few years younger than Franklin, both were still well into their 30s with a lot of mileage on their bodies. They were two veterans who in many ways were like Franklin, they hadn't lost in their weight class to anyone but Georges St-Pierre, until getting blown out in such fashion. Fitch came back in his next fight with arguably the most inspired performance of his entire career, beating Erick Silva last month in Rio de Janeiro. Shields, moving up a weight class, also defeated Ed Herman in his comeback in August, although his win was overturned by a drug test failure. But in hindsight, with similar losses to Franklin, both proved that it was hardly the end of the line.

While Le magnanimously chalked up his win to a lucky punch, a better description would be that he took advantage of a strategic mistake by Franklin. Franklin, during the short fight, had his hands down and left his head right in front of Le after throwing kicks. Le saw the pattern, waited for the opening, fired one of the most devastating punches of his career and Franklin was out like a light.

This particular ending was simply a stylistic flaw that can be corrected with training, compounded with an almost perfect punch. And things happen in MMA. This isn't a pattern with Franklin. Aside from Vitor Belfort three years ago where a blow to the back of the head led to him being finished, and Anderson Silva, the consensus greatest MMA fighter on Planet Earth, Franklin hadn't been finished in a fight in nine years. And most of his fights for the last seven years have been main events, mostly against top-tier competition.

Only he can adequately determine whether his training is slipping and he's having trouble recuperating from blows as compared to his youth. He's intelligent, and in speaking with him days ago, there wasn't the slightest of those warning signs that you get with some aging fighters when you converse with them.

Still, at weigh-ins the day before, there were a lot of people surprised when they saw Franklin on the screen about 20 minutes before he was weighing in. Following one water-depleted fighter after another stepping on the scale, Franklin still stood out. His face looked drawn. His body looked almost frail. Even though he was champion at 185, and among the best in history at that weight, he always had his struggles to make it. And even before the fight, he recognized as he was now older, it may be more difficult. He looked like a guy who had drained his body badly while cutting and often guys like that don't perform well the next day. The problem is that physically, he is too small at 205 pounds. At his age, 185 pounds looks like a real chore to make.

Still, rehydrated, as he got into the cage and looked like a different person. He looked in physically tremendous condition, far more than his two-years-older foe. And he was moving well, not appearing slow in the least, let alone shot. Whether the cut would have hurt him in the later rounds is a question that went unanswered.

I'd have been far more concerned with a long-term mauling where he wasn't competitive than the quick loss he took.

But there is another factor, and that is, what are his goals? Even if Franklin physically feels good and finances aren't a concern, if his sticking around was to try and get one more title fight, this was a huge detour. With so many prospective contenders out there, he's going to need a series of wins. That's going to take some time, which, even if Saturday was a fluke, he may not have a lot of.

If his goal is to continue to fight because it's his living and he feels he is still good at it, with UFC running so many shows and having a limited amount of main eventers, he'll certainly have another shot, probably against a name fighter in a relatively big fight. And if, like Fitch and Shields, he shows that the quick loss wasn't indicative of a physical decline as much as the realities of a sport, then there's no reason to rush him out of the cage. Deep down, even today, he probably has a good idea which one it is. Hopefully he makes the decision accordingly.