An Accidental Case of SUPERSTARDOM

The Cessna glided along the Indiana sky at over 10,000 feet, as Rich Franklin prepared to skydive for the first time. To most, it would have been troublesome that a 12-year-old “expert” had prepared his parachute, a bad omen that one skydiver had already broken an ankle, and downright scary that the only other first-time jumper had to go to his reserve chute after his primary failed to open.

But skydiving in those circumstances is exactly what 95% of rational people would never do, which is exactly why Franklin had to do it.


That feeling of butterflies just before the jump, that euphoric nervousness, was the best part; it was what drew him to the edge, leaning out over the side with only a parachute packed by a pre-teen between him and the earth. After a few moments of reveling in his own near-terror, he leaped out, and felt himself fall through the sky. After a few moments of free-falling, he stabilized himself and prepared to deploy his chute. After the initial apprehension, he was perfectly composed; he had faced his fear and won.

And a single thought ran through his mind: that feeling of living on the edge, he needed more of it.

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In April 2005, in front of over 3 million viewers watching the sport live on cable television for the first time ever, on the night that mixed martial arts and the UFC became a certified American phenomenon, the main event featured an unlikely participant.

Less than two years earlier, Rich Franklin had been teaching math at Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati. He had a masters degree in education, was smart and well-spoken, and the UFC anxiously fed his story to the buzzing media.

Everyone wanted to know: how had he gone from the classroom to the cage?

Hard work was the simple reply. But it wasn’t the complete answer.

Franklin had not planned it this way. In truth, he had not planned much at all. He never really set out to become a teacher, it just sort of happened. It was never his goal to be a professional fighter, it just kind of evolved. Sometimes, one thing just leads to another and everything works out. Sometimes, life is that simple even when it seems that there has to be some larger, grander plan.

Usually, when you become a champion of the world at any given athletic endeavor, there is some lead-up to the accomplishment. Perhaps you were gifted from the very beginning like Tiger Woods, a high school phenom like Shaquille O’Neal, or a collegiate superstar like Peyton Manning.

Show me someone who’s stood on top of the world, and I’ll show you how he got there by listing a progression of achievements over time. But what was Franklin’s greatest athletic accomplishment before starting his pro fi ghting career?

“I got to play in a Pee Wee League allstar football game at Riverfront Stadium when I was in fifth or sixth grade,” he says with a laugh after thinking for a few seconds.

How could that be? Did he eschew sports altogether? No, he played football, baseball, soccer, even basketball. He just never managed to distinguish himself in any of them.

Yet on that April 2005 card, the most important card UFC had presented up to that point, there he was, standing across the cage from Ken Shamrock, flirting with athletic stardom.

“I didn’t grow up being a phenomenal athlete,” he says. “Sure, I thought about being famous like everyone else. I thought about being a sports hero, but I never thought it could be a reality. Fame and celebrity status is not something I pursued. It is something bestowed upon me.”

If that sounds like humility, Franklin certainly practices his share. He is a man of faith, a Christian who often wears Psalm 144, Chapter 1 on his T-shirts as his enters the octagon. That passage reads: “Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.”

It is of course, a perfectly fitting phrase for a mixed martial artist to embrace, but for Franklin, it is more than that. It is his personal truth.

“Quite honestly, I think God had a hand in my success,” he says. “Physically, I bloomed later than others and I was blessed with great coaches and talent, but for me to be so arrogant to take all the credit myself is insane. To think I have completely constructed everything and not think that God had a hand in it…look, things like this don’t happen to people every day.”

It is true to a large degree. When you look at elite-level fighters, most of them have some background upon which they built their careers. But when Franklin began training, he was already 20 years old, after being intrigued by the early UFC pay-per-view broadcasts. His first Jiu-Jitsu coach was a blue belt (just one level above the starting white belt), and when he hit his ceiling there, he and close friend Josh Rafferty (who also later fought in the UFC) taught themselves through instructional tapes.

When you ask him what the defining moment was in his life prior to his pro career, he lists an academic accomplishment.

So how did he get here? He adapted.

It was a trait he would learn early in life. Born in Covington, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati and across the Ohio River, he moved often after his parents’ divorce when he was just five years old. While he never found himself too far from the neighborhoods he previously inhabited, it still forced him into new and sometimes unwelcome situations.

“My whole life, I’ve viewed myself as a beat-the-odds kind of guy,” he says. “As a child, when you move around a whole bunch, when you come from a single parent home and switch neighborhoods every six months, it’s really difficult to stay on track and to break out of that lifestyle. The goal in my life was to take what I started with and improve upon it.”

By the time he was in Harrison High School, in Ohio, he’d gained a bit more stability, but there was no trace of the “Ace” to come down the road.

In fact, he says he just recently received an email from a former classmate who stumbled upon one of his matches and wrote of her shock in what “Little Richie Franklin” was now doing for a living. Perhaps she’d remembered him from his senior football season, of which Franklin says, “If I tell you I logged thirty minutes of playing time for the whole season, that’s probably overestimating it.”

Though he loved the sport, it was a dead-end. Education, he decided,
would be his next destination. And it was there, at the University of Cincinnati, where he would learn his greatest lesson.

Strange, but true: Franklin’s life as a fighter – his life as he knows it – might not have been possible if it had not been for the words of a college professor.

He was a sophomore, taking his first abstract math course. And for the first time in his life, he couldn’t comprehend what he was supposed to be learning. He’d always been a math whiz, but his mind was failing him. He was beaten, defeated not only in the course, but in his academic life. The morning of the final exam, he skipped it, fully intent on dropping out of college and perhaps becoming a fireman.

He stopped by to see his teacher, Dr. Donald Wright. The professor, knowing Franklin had played football in high school, compared his situation to a fourth-quarter, fourth-down while trailing.

“You don’t just quit, do you?” the professor asked him.

“No,” Franklin said.

It was a lesson not about math or academics, but about life. In difficult times, you either surrender, or you fight, and he immediately knew which he would do.

By the time he graduated, he would receive an excellence award from the mathematics department and be on his way to a master’s degree.

Challenges would become a recurring theme from then on. A self-described adrenaline junkie, he has gone cliff-jumping and skydiving and he’s known to drive his four-wheeler a bit too fast. But it’s not only the pursuit for excitement that fuels him, he also believes in bettering himself. He is currently learning to play the drums, as well as learning to speak Portuguese with the help of close friend and fellow UFC fighter Jorge Gurgel.

But of course, the biggest challenge of all was getting into the ring in the first place. Accomplished basically on a dare, Franklin participated in his first amateur fight in Muncie, Indiana, winning easily. He kept fighting because he kept winning, and he kept winning because he was willing to push himself further than the man standing across from him. Within a few years, he was 12-0, had debuted in UFC, and was contemplating fighting full-time.

In passing, he asked his manager, Monte Cox, “What do you think about me fighting full-time?”

Cox replied, “I think you’d be really good at it.”

And he jumped out of the plane again, fully confident that his parachute would open. One fight turned into another, one training session melded into a succession, and he was soon among the best in the world. On June 4, 2005, he battered Evan Tanner into a TKO win to become the UFC middleweight champ. His parachute was golden.

He would hold on to the belt for almost a year-and-a-half, until losing to Anderson Silva last October. The loss dazed him. Afterward, he sat in his Mandalay Bay hotel room and stared out the window for two days, wondering what went wrong but coming to no real conclusions.

You don’t just quit, do you?

There were still challenges to face, he realized, and as the fog of a single failure began to lift, he got back to work. He’s won his last two bouts, and his championship rematch will take place in October in Cincinnati, the town he still calls home. The pressure will be magnified by the home crowd, and at times, his mind might wander back to doubt.

Then the bell will ring, and as Anderson Silva walks across the octagon to confront him, Rich Franklin will be drawn to the edge again. He’ll feel a hint of nervousness and maybe a twinge of terror – the good kind, like just before you jump out of an airplane.

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