There stood Rich Franklin, in his trademark pink and brown shorts, with a broken arm courtesy of a Chuck Liddell high kick only one minute into their UFC 115 fight. He knew it was broken the moment “The Iceman” connected, but “quit” was not in his vocabulary on this June evening. “Even though you are feeling pain in a fight, you have two options: you can quit or you don’t. It’s that simple,” Franklin says. “As soon as the arm broke, I could have quit. But quit is not in me. When you are in that kind of pain, you can say that you want to quit, but tomorrow I have to wake up with myself and live with being a quitter.”
With a leaner and more dangerous Liddell looking to silence his critics, Franklin had some critics of his own to send a message to. After a first-round knockout loss to Vitor Belfort in September 2009, fans lit up message boards that Franklin should call it a career. But that’s not what Franklin needed. He just needed to have his batteries recharged.
“I had fought top-notch opponents for that past year, and I told Dana White that I was worn out mentally as well as physically and needed some downtime,” he says, when asked about the retirement rumors. After wars with Wanderlei Silva and Dan Henderson earlier in the year, Franklin was admittedly exhausted. However, Franklin is a company man who never turns down a fight, and with UFC 100 sucking up most of the headliners, White needed Ace to step into the cage. Franklin, against his own better judgment, accepted and looked flat the moment he stepped into the cage with Belfort at UFC103. The Brazilian took advantage and laid Franklin out in the first round.
“It just wasn’t a good time for me,” he says. “In MMA, once you reach the upper echelon of fighters, every fight you get is going to be a tough fight. It takes a lot out of you to mentally prepare for the big fights over and over again.”
The ex-teacher turned mixed martial artist spent the next seven months reenergizing and was rumored to be in talks to fight Randy Couture, when a surprising twist of events found him on a flight to Las Vegas to coach opposite of Liddell on The Ultimate Fighter. The UFC found itself painted into a corner yet again when Liddell was left without an opponent and an opposing coach due to Tito Ortiz’s back injury. And who was the first person White thought to call? Rich Franklin.
But this time, Franklin had the time off he’d needed and was ready to fight whomever, whenever. White came calling again, and Franklin took a mere 15 minutes to decide that he would take Ortiz’s place in the cage and as a coach on TUF.
Now, here stood Franklin, broken arm and all, across the cage from a living legend, fighting like a man who had nothing to lose. Even though Liddell had dropped two in a row, Franklin knew that this version of The Iceman would be more dangerous than the rest.
“I knew that Chuck made a huge lifestyle turnaround,” Franklin says. “When we were at a photo shoot for The Ultimate Fighter, Chuck was in the best shape I’d ever seen him in. Not like the best shape in the last year or two, but the best shape ever.”
Despite the pain shooting through his arm, Franklin couldn’t quit. Here was a man, who was never a prodigious athlete, fighting another future UFC Hall-of-Famer in front of thousands. Quit? That would make Franklin laugh. Perhaps the most under appreciated fighter in all of mixed martial arts fought through the injury and, with seconds left in the first round, uncorked a hellacious right hand that separated Liddell’s body from his spirit.
And just like that, Ace was back. It was a highlight-reel knockout that he could add to his mantle of devastating finishes—right next to his flatlining of Nate Quarry. But getting Franklin to discuss his past accomplishments is like pulling teeth.
“I guess at the end of the day, it’s nice to look back at all of the things that I’ve done, but I’m not really one of those people who reminisces on his own accomplishments,” says the former UFC Middleweight Champion. “I’m always looking toward the future at what’s next. Life isn’t about what you did—it is about what you are going to do.”
With Franklin eyeing an early 2011 return, one has to wonder if a run at the Light Heavyweight Title is what he is going to do.
“If I wasn’t here to make a title run, I would have already hung up my hat,” he says.
Even though the names Bader, Jones, Evans, Machida, and Rua dominate the conversations at 205, you cannot look past the man who would probably still rule the middleweight division if it weren’t for pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. He may not possess the freakish natural ability of Jon Jones or the exceptional wrestling background of Rashad Evans, but Franklin has something that he believes they don’t.
“I wasn’t popular in high school or groomed to be a world champion. It just so happened that by the stroke of God’s hand I was able to become a world champion,” Franklin says. “I’ve gotten to where I am today for two reasons: God, and that He blessed me with a hard work ethic. I have more desire and will outwork anybody in this sport. That’s something that I’m not humble about. I know where I came from.”
They say you have to know where you came from to figure out where you are going. Rich Franklin’s accomplishments have put him on a path straight to the UFC Hall of Fame, and we trust the man with a master’s degree in education to be smart enough to know that’s exactly where he’s heading before it’s all said and done—whether he wants to admit it or not.