Elbows In

Hermes Franca throws wide, looping punches. “He wings it,” says his boxing coach, Lou Martinez. Opponents see them coming, but sometimes can’t do anything to avoid the impact. Watch the tape of Franca’s third-round KO of Spencer Fisher and you’ll understand.

While occasionally the technique will prove successful, or like in the win over Fisher, even earn a title shot, that kind of striking leaves a fi ghter vulnerable to counters; it’s high risk, high reward. Martinez is working to improve Franca’s striking game, to bring punches straight from the body. “He’s a powerful guy when he does connect,” says the Palm Beach Boxing Club owner, but Franca’s right hand is telegraphed, obvious.

Tightening Franca’s standup is just one part of the fi ghter’s return to the UFC after his suspension in July 2007. “What happened to me happened to a lot of good guys, and they’re back. The UFC has no reason to kick me out,” Franca explains. After his failed title attempt against Sean Sherk at UFC 73, the Brazilian-born fi ghter tested positive for banned substances.

In a sport where suspicions abound over the use of steroids, this may not shock many fans. But what happened after the positive test sets the former contender apart from other fi ghters: he admitted his mistake. As Franca shares, “I called the athletic commissioner, and he said, ‘Hermes, you did what no one did.’” An open letter on the Internet apologized to the UFC, fans, students, and family for his choice. It reads, “I offer only an explanation and not an excuse. I made a decision during a diffi cult time in my training for the fi ght that I regret.”

Franca continues his letter to explain a pre-fi ght ankle injury that prevented appropriate preparation for his title shot. A frustrating call to the UFC placed the South Florida resident in a crunch. He explains, “I asked if we could push the fi ght out to the following UFC with the chance that it could happen.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and the promotion respectfully declined Franca’s request. Fearing he might suffer welterweight Karo Parisyan’s fate, losing both the title shot and purse, Franca made his decision. He clarifi es his fi nancial situation that summer in his letter, “I had not fought for fi ve months. Fighting is literally how I put food on my wife and child’s table and how I pay my bills.” So, while knowing he’d be tested after his fi ght with Sherk, Franca injected Drostanolone to speed his ankle recovery.

Franca accepted the $2,500 fi ne and one-year suspension for his error. After that, for many UFC fans, the fi ghter dropped off the map. Of course, when looking at all the other events surrounding his title attempt, it isn’t hard to imagine why Franca garnered such little media attention. In a bizarre scenario for the promotion, both challenger and champion tested positive for banned substances. Sherk campaigned for, and to this day, argues his innocence. As a result, he received only a six-month suspension and the loss of his lightweight world title. Circumstances considered, Franca appreciates his loss. “Thank God he didn’t tap,” the fi ghter says of a tight guillotine he had during the bout with Sherk. “Think. I get the belt and two weeks later I get suspended?”

The road away from last July has been one of changes and growth for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt. Since then, Franca has left Team Armory in Jupiter, Florida and moved into the care of fellow UFC lightweight and friend Kurt Pellegrino. Of the exit and his time with Brazilian Top Team, American Top Team, and the Armory, Franca explains, “I was always helping other academies, now I’m helping myself.”

The shift in philosophy produced Team Hermes Franca affi liations at two martial arts academies in South Florida as well as two in North Carolina. While Franca develops and teaches his own system regularly at the branch in West Palm Beach, Florida, he often travels to the other gyms, leading seminars and working on his DVD along the way. It may seem like a daunting schedule, but Franca explains he’s no longer locked into a permanent teaching routine. He believes the changes will help him as a mixed martial artist, allowing for heavier training camps with the likes of BJ Penn and Urijah Faber before bouts. He says, “Of course, now I want to fi ght. Before, I was teaching. It was hard. Now I have more time.”

Making use of the freer schedule, the 5’9” lightweight works his hands against professional boxers like Kassim Howard and Jameel McCline at the Palm Beach Boxing Club. According to Martinez, Franca can hold his own, and he’s improving. He skates the ring, peppering the air with tight jabs and crosses. But that’s not to say that Franca’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills are neglected. In the spring, the fi ghter led a two-week camp for Americans in his hometown of Brasilia, during which he received the fi rst degree for his blackbelt.

While he sharpens his talents in preparation for a return, the abilities he exhibited when compiling his 18-6-0 record are not being ignored. In an effort to generate income overseas while suspended, Franca secured a release from his UFC contract. Fighting out of the commission’s jurisdiction would cloud Franca’s MMA future stateside, but a free agent with impressive wins over TUF Season 5 winner Nate Diaz, Spencer Fisher, Jamie Varner, Ryan Shultz, and Caol Uno attracted offers from a number of promotions. Franca appreciates the offers, but thought of his wife and child when re-signing with the UFC. He explains, “As a fi ghter, I can fi ght in the street. But as a family guy, when Joe Silva calls, I don’t know if these other shows are going to survive.”

Fortunately for Franca, his next fi ghts won’t be on pavement but back in the Octagon instead. With time served behind him and constantly improving boxing and Jiu-Jitsu games in tow, the Brazilian feels more confi dent than ever. After the events of the past year, he says of his return, “I’ll be more mature. I was nervous last time.” Franca sees the loss to Sherk and the suspension as minor hills on his trek to the title. As he says, “All the other organizations, I got the belt, and almost in the UFC… most of the champs now didn’t get the belt the fi rst time.” Checking his resume, it’s hard to argue with the former WEC, AFC, and Hook n’ Shoot champion.

Back at the gym, Martinez regularly places Franca in a narrow, plywood stall called “Mike’s Alley.” The frame allots only enough room for straight punches, elbows tucked in. The stall keeps Franca from, as Martinez calls it, winging any wide shots.

Franca looks to the future, beyond the fame, money, and sponsorships he tasted last summer. He pictures his homecoming, entering the crowded arena and says, “I know what I’m going to do in the cage now. No pressure.” Like being in the confi nes of Mike’s Alley, Franca won’t throw any looping, overhand rights; from here on, the shots will be tight and crisp, aware of the risks and valuing the rewards.

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