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Rich Franklin: UFC's Company Man Faces Down Career Conundrum

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For five weeks Rich Franklin slept sitting straight up in a chair. Maybe ‘slept’ is the wrong word. ‘Dozed’ might be more appropriate, considering the quality of rest he got as he nodded off each night with his chin on his chest.

"I would fall asleep for an hour, hour and a half, then wake up. Then I’d fall back asleep for an hour or two and wake back up. It was like that for weeks on end," Franklin told MMA Fighting.

This was the result of shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum he’d suffered in training before his scheduled bout with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 133. Franklin went under the knife after injuring the shoulder during grappling practice, and for the next five weeks laying down wasn’t an option. If he tried it, the weight of his shoulder pulling itself down toward the bed would cause him enough pain to rule out any chance of sleep. So the former UFC middleweight champ made his bed in a chair. He took his hour of shut-eye here, two hours there, and he did it for over a month. Maybe the most surprising part is that, even through the constant fog of fatigue, even when his rehab consisted of painful efforts with two-pound dumbbells, the 37-year-old Franklin didn’t seriously question whether this lifestyle was still worth the reward. Which is, when you think about it, maybe a little odd.

Not that Franklin is the first fighter to go through the tedious labors of post-surgery rehab. It’s practically a rite of passage in a sport where injuries are as plentiful as sponsored after-parties in Vegas nightclubs. It’s not hard to understand why a 25-year-old fighter -- one who still dreams of greatness, of world titles, of fame and money and groupies -- would see a few rough weeks of rehab as nothing more than a speedbump on the road to the top. But Franklin? He’s pushing 40. He’s already been a champion. He’s already banked his UFC highlight-reel moments and cashed his checks. What else does he want with this sport? What’s left that’s worth all this pain, this damage?

To hear Franklin tell it, the answer is: nothing. He’s already gotten what he needs from MMA. Now it’s about what he wants, or rather, what he doesn’t want, which is any other kind of life.

"As far as accomplishments go, I think I’m at that point where I could walk away and I could be happy with my career," he said. "My conundrum is, I love doing what I do. When I think about what I’m going to fill my days with outside of fighting, it’s difficult for me. ...I love doing what I do and I don’t know what else I would want to do."

For instance, take his recent work as an analyst on FUEL TV for UFC 144. It’s supposed to be one of the cushiest athlete gigs around. You put on a suit, sit still long enough for them to splash a coat of makeup on you, then you talk about the thing you’re already an expert in. Wouldn’t that be an easier way to earn a living? When’s the last time Jon Anik had to sleep sitting up because of an injury suffered in rehearsal?

And sure, Franklin said, he enjoyed the FUEL TV stuff, "but the thought of me doing something like that as a full-time job? I’m just not in that mindset yet where I can not be active and be sitting behind a desk. I’ve done that. I used to be a high school teacher. To go back that, mentally, would be a regression. I enjoy going to the gym. I enjoy training and doing what I do. That’s the difficult part for me to give up."

Maybe this explains why, when Franklin got the call asking him to replace an injured Vitor Belfort in a main event bout with Wanderlei Silva at UFC 147, he was off in Singapore preparing for a bout with Cung Le at UFC 148. He didn’t need to go to Singapore, of course. He probably could have imported his own San Shou expert if he’d wanted to stay home and do the same old thing, but that’s not how Franklin does things. He wanted to actually learn something, not just get by.

So there he is, getting his Singapore on, when he logs on to the internet to see what’s happening in the MMA scene back home. That’s when he read the news, and he knew what was coming next.

"I saw that Vitor broke his hand, and I knew right away, the UFC is probably going to call and see if I will fill in for this," he said. And sure enough he was right. The very next night, the call came through. How about changing opponents and dates? How about changing continents?

"At first I thought, I’m all the way over here in Singapore training specifically for Cung, so this is really a difficult change to make," Franklin said. "But then, as I got to thinking about it, I believe that this is a winnable fight for me, and hey, the UFC needed someone to step in for them. Characteristically, I’ve been that guy. So here I am."

Moving the bout up two weeks meant less time to cut down to 185 pounds, hence the catchweight provision. But then, the last time he fought Silva it was also at a catchweight. That worked out well enough. Franklin got the decision victory and a Fight of the Night bonus. This time he’s really doing the UFC a favor. This time he has every reason to expect even more bonus appreciation, although, he insisted, that’s not the only reason why he’s been the very definition of the company man all these years.

"I guess I like being the guy that helps out. I’m a team player. I told the UFC that from day one. I said, I’m the kind of guy that, if I feel like you have my back, I’ll have yours."

And he has. In fact, in the last few years of his career, it’s become his defining characteristic. Franklin is the guy who will help out when the UFC needs him. Franklin is the guy who doesn’t say no.

In return, he keeps getting big fights against big names, despite the fact that his title-chasing days are almost certainly over. He wins some and loses some, but still gets the chance to do the only thing he really wants to do. He gives the UFC what it wants, and it gives the same thing right back. At least for now, neither of them has to think about what comes next, about what life will look like when there is no more Rich Franklin in the UFC. Maybe that’s as fair a trade as either can hope for.

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