When high school math teacher Rich Franklin had his first professional mixed martial arts fight back in 1999, he knocked out a guy named Michael Martin in 21 seconds with a swift kick to the head. That fight was in front of a West Virginia crowd exponentially smaller than the crowd who’ll see him fight this weekend.
Since then, Franklin has fought all over the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, plus in Ireland, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Canada. He became one of the most recognizable figures in the exploding sport, winning the middleweight belt and defending it twice before he lost in 2006 to an up-and-coming fighter (and future legend) named Anderson Silva. He watched the sport grow from a fringe sideshow with a barbaric image to a mainstream sport that’s one of the fastest growing in the world. He even is in the middle of having a Hollywood movie made about his life.
Now he’s 38, and he’s nearing the end. He’ll be fighting 40-year-old kickboxer Cung Le in Macau Saturday on "UFC on Fuel TV: Franklin vs. Le," a fight where the main card will be televised at 9 a.m. EST because of the time change. And perhaps it’s appropriate, given everything this company man has meant to his company, that what will likely be the beginning to the final run of Franklin’s career is also the beginning of the UFC’s push into China, the largest untapped market for the sport.
“God’s blessed me with a life I never could have imagined,” Franklin told FOXSports.com.
Franklin remembers the early, early days, before he worked his way up to the UFC. He was talking with someone he’d just met in the stands at a tiny mixed martial arts show near his hometown of Cincinnati. The new acquaintance didn’t know Franklin was even a fighter. Then the announcer shouted: “Rich Franklin, on deck!” Franklin tore off his pants, walked into the cage and fought. Fighting was just that easy back then.
He watched as things grew, with stutter steps along the way. His first fight in the UFC was back in 2003, UFC 42 in Miami. The arena had some 7,000 people inside it, less than half full, because some free concert in the area had siphoned off attention from the fight. Now UFC president Dana White is talking about a 2013 superfight in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, which has a capacity of upwards of 80,000 and is one of the iconic venues in American sports.
Today, UFC fighters are rock stars. Which is great. No one would deny that. It’s what they’ve been working toward since the birth of the sport two decades ago. Yet it’s easy for someone like Franklin to get nostalgic for the days when people just fought for fighting’s sake.
"I’m a martial artist, and I miss the purity of the sport sometimes," he said. "I’d imagine it’s the same feeling a rock star gets, playing in a garage, just him and his friends, playing music together their whole lives, and suddenly they’ve made it and they’re playing the big stage. It’s exciting. You love it. But part of you misses the purity of when it was just going to the gym to work on your technique."
He’s fought some of the greatest the sport has seen. He lost to Lyoto Machida back in 2003, before Machida became the UFC light heavyweight champ. He TKO’d UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock in 2005. He lost his middleweight belt to Anderson Silva in 2006, who hasn’t lost since. He knocked out UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell in 2010 in Liddell’s final fight, he beat Wanderlei Silva twice, and he lost once each to Vitor Belfort, Dan Henderson and Forrest Griffin.
Yet ask Franklin who is the greatest fighter he’s ever stepped into the Octagon with and he doesn’t hesitate a moment: Anderson Silva.
"Anderson Silva might just be from another world," Franklin said.
“I don’t know how he got to this place,” Franklin says of the only fighter to beat him twice. “If we were having this conversation in 2200 B.C. we would be talking about his mother, who dipped him in the Pond of the Gods. But the reality is, Anderson can almost slow a fight down in his mind, see a fight in a different speed than other people see. He sees people coming at him much slower than most people do.”
One more thing Franklin never would have imagined when he was a math teacher in Cincinnati, learning this obscure sport known as mixed martial arts? Living in Singapore.
But that’s what he’s been doing the past month as he’s acclimated himself to Asia and prepared for Cung Le’s unique fighting style. It’s a place where he doesn’t have to worry about getting accosted by fans. It’s a place where he can isolate himself before a fight. Franklin has been to Singapore several times, enough that he knows the subway system and has a favorite blues bar where he can sit and relax after training. A decade of traveling the world for fights is a pretty cool perk for a guy who has witnessed firsthand the explosion of mixed martial arts as a sport.
“I’m almost Singaporean,” he laughed about his frequency in visiting Asia.
Which, like everything about his career, is something he never could have imagined when he taught himself the sport before many people even knew what the sport was.