If I had it my way,” Rich Franklin mumbles under his breath, “I’d just do the red carpet thing, get the pictures over with, then turn around and go home.”
With just about each day becoming a completely new adventure for the former UFC champ, tonight Franklin finds himself at a red carpet charity event in the Malibu Canyon, at a hilltop mansion that’s part of the Malibu Rocky Oaks Winery, wearing a suit with a purple tie. This ain’t his cup of tea. He’d like nothing better than to take it off.
“Well, take it off,” his American Fighter clothing brand co-owner Jeff Adler says to him. But Franklin doesn’t, because the One Hope Foundation is honoring him with a humanitarian award for his work with soldiers overseas in Iraq, Europe, and Japan, and for visiting dozens of hospitals, including Walter Reed, Bethesda, and the Center for the Intrepid. He is happy to do those things.
He is less happy to be celebrated for it.
Walking around the $65 million premises, Ace doesn’t look as much like Jim Carrey as he might’ve five years ago, but these days he’s being accused of looking like the guy he is slated to fight next, Forrest Griffin. Maybe it’s the serially reconfigured nose or the broad neck or the unsteady way in which he walks. “Forrest always says that they flatter him when they mistake him for me,” Franklin says. “But I think they’re flattering me when I hear it. He has like two inches and 20 pounds on me, they must think I’m massive.”
Franklin’s business manager, a constantly in motion sprocket of a man named J.T. Stewart, is in high clover in this environment. He’s got himself a drink, and his thumbs are in his suspenders. There’s a band playing, fronted by a singer who has cornered the market in boxcar chic. Brooke Hogan (Hulk’s daughter) is having a glass of wine with an equally blonde companion (Hulk’s ex wife, Linda).
And through it all, former NBA player Cedric Ceballos is emceeing the event, with his Isaac Hayes voice prompting people to bid on the silent auction items that range from signed Elvis paraphernalia to Muhammed Ali’s white robe to a framed Bill Clinton mural, with three Time magazine covers and a signed shot of him chipping a golf ball on the green.
Franklin is out of element in a place like this. People who know mixed martial arts come up to him and comment on what a sick fight he has coming up with Griffin or talk about his TKO of Chuck Liddell. The ones who whisper have been informed he’s a fighter of acclaim and come up to say hello, just to meet a well known somebody in an intimate setting. There’s nothing novel in this treatment. Franklin is used to it. He shakes a lot of hands, poses for a lot of pictures, and, when nobody’s paying attention, drifts into the room where the Manny Pacquiao/Antonio Margarito fight is about to start.
For all those who know who Franklin is, there’s at least one who might not. He’s the guy who says he’s going to pause the live fight, just as Pacman is making his way to the ring with Freddie Roach and his faction behind him. “It’s only for a few minutes,” he says. “They are just about to conduct the auction and present the awards. I will turn it back on right after.”
The Hollywood crashers moan a bit.What a buzz kill. Franklin feels like he’s had the rug pulled out from him, too. He’s a fighter. He wants to watch the big fight as it happens. He knows these kinds of big moments. You don’t pause big moments. Not even when they are toasting your philanthropic work.
Franklin starts threatening Stewart and Adler and anyone else near him to stay off of their cell phones. No spoilers. He then looks at the guy about to pause the fight.
“I promise,” the guy says, ushering everyone toward the stage on the terrace, overlooking Malibu and the Pacific. “If I don’t turn it back on right here where we left off, you all can kick my ass.”
Not taking this as a joke, Rich calmly asks for the man’s card.
To the man’s credit, he gives it to him.
It wasn’t all that long ago—right after Franklin lost to Anderson Silva for the second time in his native Cincinnati and was essentially relegated to “Gatekeeper of the Middleweights”—that he began telling everybody that he just wanted to put on exciting shows and to fight the toughest guys.
This, of course, sounded like concession, and the fight press couldn’t help but cue up the string section. Here was former middleweight champion Franklin, now in his mid-30s, heading off into the twilight of his career. He was acting on the side, starring in a movie called Cyborg Soldier with Tiffani Thiessen, where—as a genetically engineered super-soldier named Isaac—he uttered the unintentionally funny line, “All available evidence points to his elimination.”
Same went for his standing at 185 pounds. If he wasn’t charging toward that belt, or fending contenders off of it, then he had lost something in the way of seriousness.
Thing is, it was a little white lie.
“The only reason I left 185 pounds in the first place is because the UFC said they didn’t want me to fight Anderson again,” he says. “Even though I kept saying I just want to fight tough people, I think in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to fight for a belt.”
With no Silva trilogy and really nothing there to resolve from a fan’s perspective, Franklin fought his swansong in the division at UFC 83 in Montreal, overcoming Travis Lutter with strikes in the second round. “I was trying so hard to land that left cross and win Knockout of the Night,” he remembers. “The bonus was like $70,000…but I kept grazing him, couldn’t land it clean.”
Part of the reason Franklin was a celebrated champion is that it’s in his blood to think this way. He has said on numerous occasions that his favorite technique is the one that finishes fights. People in the business of selling pay-per-views like this philosophy. After Lutter, Franklin quietly walked away from the division where he never failed to put on an exciting show. His successor, Anderson Silva, cannot make the same claim.
“Rich drives me crazy,” says his long time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training partner and friend, Jorge Gurgel. “Because, the thing is, he always gets dropped, but then he recuperates and wins. Rich is like the king of…oh shit, he dropped Rich Franklin…oh shit, Rich Franklin recovered…oh shit, Rich Franklin just knocked him out! It’s hard to watch.”
It’s in that teetering-on-the-brink-of disaster-feeling that the one-time math teacher at Oak Hills High School has found his audience. There was the night he won the title in Newark, trading with the late Evan Tanner until the doctors waved him off. There was the knockout of Nate Quarry, that massive left which was so spectacular that the term “Quarry’d” was invented, a synonym of KTFO. There was his war with David Loiseau, which he fought with a broken left hand (as a south paw, no less), when Dana White surprised him by piping in AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock for his walk out.
“That song started up and I began getting cold chills,” says Franklin. He engaged in a five-round war that night, and successfully defended his belt.
And of course, there were those brutal battles with Silva.
The first time he and Silva met in Las Vegas, his Muay Thai coach Neal Rowe says, “They were trying to m
urder each other out there in that first fight—they were just weaving elbows.” Just as he had posterized Quarry a year before, Franklin would end up in a highlight reel—only this time, it was “Ace” being cut down by one of the greatest shows of precision striking on record.
Even when Franklin lost, he at least lost spectacularly.
As much as it hurt to lose the belt, the second loss to Silva was the more heartbreaking. After beating Jason McDonald and Yushin Okami to earn his rematch, Franklin and his camp—his first with Matt Hume—spent four weeks in remote Pinedale, Wyoming, studying, training, and obsessing over Anderson Silva. “We poured our heart and soul into that fight,” says Rowe.
Given the space of three years since that night, somewhat unsurprisingly, Franklin says he wouldn’t change his approach.
“If you look at the Cincinnati fight, I was doing really well in the first round,” Franklin says. “I was landing punches, controlling the punches…I took him down once, even though I wasn’t able to keep him down. I was fighting a good fight, but I just got clipped at the end of the first round. Any time your guys have to come out and basically carry you back to your corner, it’s not a good thing. Especially against a great striker like Anderson Silva, you’re a sitting duck out there. But I wasn’t about abandon what I do well.”
Yet, if he wanted to wear that strap again, he would have to at least abandon the middleweight division. He jumped up to light heavy to fight his friend Matt Hamill at UFC 88 in Atlanta, where he landed a thudding body kick to end it in the second round. A chronically obsessed food moderator, Franklin began using his food scale to make sure he was getting enough food to put on weight—and hold it—en-route to a match with Dan Henderson, where he helped make company headway in Ireland. He appeared on television, on ESPN’s MMA Live, and elsewhere, articulating the sport’s merits to anyone who inquired.
“I was sitting next to an old lady on the plane, and she said ‘UFC, isn’t that fighting where there are no rules?’” he says, sighing. ‘Uh, no, not exactly. There’s a harmony to the chaos.’ That’s what I always tell people, that’s one of my lines—there is harmony within that chaos.”
Franklin did goodwill tours for the UFC, visiting troops and hospitals. Then he fought a pair of catch weight bouts, first breaking into the Germany market against Wanderlai Silva (decision win), and then a headlining fight against Vitor Belfort (where he was knocked out in the first round).
“After UFC 100, they pretty much didn’t have any headliners, so they needed me,” he says of the latter. “A rematch with Henderson would have motivated me. But it got switched to Vitor, and that played into why I lost that fight. I was burnt out. When you’re six weeks out from the fight and you’re walking into the gym and looking at the clock as soon as you walk in, it’s not good. And I knew that. But what are you going to do? Fake an injury? Pull out? Heck no. I’ve never done that in my life. I’m a company man.”
Even though he is being sarcastic when he says this (sort of), it was around the time of the catch weight bouts that people began using the term “company man” when describing Franklin.
Know what he says to that?
“Without the UFC, this sport wouldn’t be where it is today,” he says. “And you know what you need to get that stuff done? Company men.”
Franklin has made plenty of money for the UFC, and he has made a lot of money with the organization in the six years he’s been punching the clock. In his first fight against Jorge Rivera at UFC 50, he made a few thousand dollars in his submission win. This past June, he cleared $140,000 in his fight against Chuck Liddell (reported), in a bout he took because the UFC needed a replacement for the office reprobate, Tito Ortiz.
“I felt bad that Tito got hurt while on The Ultimate Fighter 11, but they called me in to build a fight between the coaches,” he says. “It’s an example of me being a company man, sure. But I think people were more excited to see a fight between Chuck and I anyway.”
“I was skinny—really skinny in high school,” Franklin says after a meal of sashimi at a Loews hotel in Santa Monica. He says he weighed 155 pounds in his graduation picture, and therefore, no, he didn’t fight much back then, and if you saw him “You’d know why.” People in the atrium are giving him the surreptitious leer, the double-take that always betrays somebody trying to place a familiar face. Franklin smiles at them, says hello, and keeps talking.
“Actually, I’m quite proud of that picture,” he says. “Most people might be embarrassed by something like that, but I look at it as, do you know how difficult it was, coming from that starting point, to be able to do this?”
In the same breath, he lets it be known that he’ll never share that photograph (he’s not that proud), but his larger point comes through: the path to becoming a prize-fighting champion is as improbable as it is gratifying. By the time he was thrashing Ken Shamrock at the first Ultimate Fighter Finale, he’d already beaten the odds and made a case for sticking to the commonly mentioned (but seldom practiced) mantra of following your heart. By the time he beat Tanner for the belt, he was a protagonist in a ridiculous story that began in a unheated/non-air-conditioned 12×15-foot lawnmower shed, just him and his buddy Josh Rafferty training together with a goal of making it to the UFC. By the time he lost the belt, these things came crashing back to him, so as to form a new appreciation for “The next time I win it.”
You might know the rest of his story, but the Cliff Notes start like this—he didn’t come from much. He moved around a lot in Northern Kentucky and the Cincinnati area, idolizing Barry Sanders, the Bengals, and the Reds. Though his family was poor, they instilled their Christian beliefs in him, beliefs he holds to this day. To attend college at the University of Cincinnati, he earned scholarships and relied on grants. “I fell into that nice little niche of being the smart, poor kid,” he says, “which is great, because the government likes to help people like that.” Boom. He became the first Franklin to earn a college degree. It was in mathematics.
While working “a professional job, with retirement, a 401K and all that crap” as a math teacher, he began fighting. He gave up his security, and went for it. “My dad had a little bit of a problem with that,” he says. “But you’ve got to remember that MMA was way more underground than it is today. So when you tell people you’re going to quit teaching to become a professional fighter, well…”
Trying to make himself memorable outside of his performances—he was 14-0 by the time he lost to Lyoto Machida in Japan in 2003—he fought in pastels. Who can forget the lime green trunks he wore against the man of 100-plus fights, Travis Fulton. “We got the material at Michael’s fabric store,” he remembers.
When his name got bigger, he made a clothing brand called American Fighter,and he chose to wear the Neapolitan colors that he has become synonymous with—pink and brown. Why? “Because, take a well-known fighter—let’s say, Sean Sherk—and tell me, what are his fight colors?” He’s used to the silence he gets
when asking that question. “Exactly.”
American Fighter is one of those big small companies, based in his hometown of Cincinnati, with five total employees. As a brand, it is also involved in philanthropic pursuits. It’s part of the reason he’s in Los Angeles. Oh, and he went and attended the premiere of Hamill, the cinematic biopic on his friend and deaf MMA fighter, Matt Hamill. He has a part in it.
“My part was really small, and I was curious to see how it would turn out, because I was on set for such a short amount of time,” he says. “They did a great job at it. And hey, they didn’t edit me out, right? What a waste of film.” He laughs.
He’s also in a Christian-based film, The Genesis Code. And he’s supporting troops and making appearances and coaching The Ultimate Fighter on two day’s notice. And he’s getting ready to fight one of the sport’s biggest names in the former light heavyweight champion, Forrest Griffin. It’s the life of a bona-fide company man with a flair for pointing out the harmony in chaos and dramaturgy.
Cedric Ceballos begins a monologue,working fight metaphors into the greater causes that everyone has gathered for. It’s clear he’s getting ready to call Franklin up to accept his award on behalf of One Hope, the American Red Cross, Hope-North Uganda, and other causes. Right before he does, though, Rich turns to his manager and says, as if ignorant to what’s happening, “Hey, I’ve got to go take a piss, I’ll be right back.”
Stewart’s eyes get big, and he begins to stammer something along the lines of “Are you crazy, he’s talking about you!” But Franklin is already laughing, satisfied to get his business manager’s goat (yet again). That’s what he does.
Ceballos calls Franklin up, he accepts his award, and says a few words—“I feel so inadequate speaking into the microphone after Ced,” he says, using a high pitched voice for effect—and that’s that.Even though a good portion of the crowd knows he’s a prizefighter and a Good Samaritan,when Ceballos uses the word“warrior” to describe Franklin, it goes beyond what just about anyone but a fighter like him can know.
It’s easy to think back several months to his fight with Chuck Liddell. He took the fight dutifully as a company man and spoke with absolute sincerity and reluctance about not wanting to be the one to retire “The Iceman.” Yet, he did what he had to do. In the fight, Franklin took that big kick that broke his left forearm and could feel “the bones scraping again steach other in the arm.”
“I knew it was broken,” he says, “and it really took me out of my game plan, because I kept thinking to myself, what am I going to do next? Instead of fighting to win the fight, I started going into survival mode.”
What he did next was keep fighting. He kept his cool. When he got caught again by another kick late in the round, he landed a short right counter while fading away that dropped Liddell and an entire legacy all at once.
“He thought he had me hurt at the end of the round, and like vintage Chuck, he came forward heavy,” he says. “And so, I remember leaning…and I’d worked on a bunch of stuff with [boxing coach] Rob Radford, and we worked on covering with the shoulder and keeping my shoulder tight. I just remember rolling forward with my body on that right hand and it connecting. It didn’t hit hard, butit just had that feeling of knowing you did some damage. I followed up because, with my arm, I did not want to leave anything to chance.”
That was the latest in a long line of such fights—34 in all—he’s put on in his career. It’s the kind of performance that leads to celebrations in his honor in Malibu Canyon, and makes him one of the most famous fighters of his day. One would think that from time to time, a party is warranted.
“People always say to me, ‘Man, what do you do after the fights? How do you party?’” he says. “I’m like, well, last time I partied at an emergency room in Vancouver. The time before that I think I was partying in an ER in Germany. And I remember one time partying at an ER in Ireland. It’s the story of my life.”
Not the entire story. That remains to be told. “I think the highlight of my career is tomorrow,” he says. “I believe that.”
But that’s not what’s on his mind after the ceremony finishes up. Right now, he’s thinking about Pacquiao. He wants to see the fight. He goes back to the room with the television and is followed by a herd of people, most with glasses of wine in hand. Rich doesn’t drink. But when Pacquiao is picked up making his way to the ring, just where we’d left off as promised, he’s feeling it. He has the cold chills. It’s that For Those About to Rock moment.
As Pacquiao enters the ring, everybody lets up a wild cheer for the champion. It’s such a commotion on that Malibu hillside that, for a split second, it’s sobering to remember that there’s one person in the room who truly knows what that feels like.
And without saying a word, perhaps for the first time all night, Rich Franklin’s voice is heard.