During the same sports week that’s seen 37-year-old R.A. Dickey throw back to back one-hitters for the New York Mets and 39-year-old Juwan Howard win the first NBA championship of his 17-year NBA career, 37-year-old Rich Franklin takes on 35-year-old Waderlei Silva in a much-anticipated catchweight UFC bout down in Belo Horizonte, Brazil on Saturday night.
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The main event of the UFC 147 card, Franklin-Silva II is a rematch of their celebrated UFC 99 slugfest in 2009. In that bout, the older Franklin outmaneuvered Silva and won by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28). Three years later, Saturday’s fight has taken on a different vibe in the days leading up to it than the first one fought in Cologne, Germany.
“There’s so much love for both of us here this week,” says Franklin, who hasn’t stepped into the Octagon since his UFC 126 loss to Forrest Griffin in February 2011. “We’re in Brazil. These are some of Wanderlei’s biggest fans. And yet, when I left the training session on Tuesday, there were a crowd of probably a thousand fans cheering me on. There’s so much respect and appreciation for what both of us have done and for what both of us have done for the sport. It’s incredible to see the outpouring from the fans.”
Franklin pauses, almost as if he’s letting the thought soak in, and adds, “It’s just amazing. It really is.”
If Franklin sounds reflective, perhaps nostalgic, it’s for good reason. At 37, the former math teacher and longtime fan favorite knows that he can’t do this forever. There will only be so many more trips to Brazil; so many crowds of thousands watching him.
“You look at a guy like Randy Couture, and how he was fighting professionally until he was 44 years old, and wonder if you can do it like that, too. But being realistic,” Franklin begins his comment, only to stop and start over, “You want to do it as long as you can, but with today’s young fighters and how great and big the sport’s gotten, it’s just not realistic to think we all can do this until we’re 44 years old.”
For Silva, Franklin’s 35-year-old opponent, this week is a homecoming of sorts. Silva splits his time between Las Vegas and Brazil and the crowd Saturday night will undoubtedly be in his corner. He’s given no indication that the end of his fighting career is near, but he has taken on different interests in recent years.
His son Thor is eight years old and starting to get serious about mixed martial arts. His Wand Fight Team Training & Conditioning Center in Las Vegas is a blossoming business and passion.
“In our gym, we’ve seen a lot of guys who’ve come in who’ve never respected their moms. They’ve never respected their dads. They don’t respect their teachers. They don’t respect their bosses,” Silva explained earlier this week. “But, then they come in the gym, and you start to see a change in their lives. They learn order. They learn respect. They learn discipline. Watching those changes in a young man — that’s what’s really special.”
These aren’t the sentiments often shared by 20-year-old fighters just getting their feet wet in the sport. They’re the sentiments of two of the more revered legends of the UFC; guys who’ve done and seen just about all there is in MMA.
Guys who’ve learned some things along the way.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s the best part of Fight Week?’ ” laughs Franklin, “I try to be positive, but I’ll tell you — there’s no good part of Fight Week! You’re anxious, you’re on a strict diet, you’re training. It’s not all that fun. And here I am in Brazil this week, thinking I’ve got the Portuguese language down, and I’m grocery shopping the other day and realize I can’t read the nutritional facts on some of the food labels. There’s always something, you know?"
After a shared chuckle, Franklin explains, “But I’ve done a lot of Fight Weeks and the routine is now just that — a routine. You only learn that with time and experience.
“If I have any regret or any piece of wisdom for younger fighters — it’d be to not over-train. I over-trained when I was younger. I was in the gym seven days a week, going full bore during every session. It wears you out. I can’t do that now, obviously. You’ve got to know your body and go at the right pace. Fortunately, I do.”
Cung Le is 40 years old and still very much in the fight game. He says that there’s a veteran savvy in the Octagon that he shares with Silva and Franklin that some of the younger guns of the sport just don’t have.
“Listen, there are a million advantages to being young. You recover faster, you’re quicker, you’re usually stronger," Le said. "But knowing yourself and your own limitations — that comes with age. And that’s so valuable.
“I can’t speak for other fighters, but for me, I never really partied throughout my life. Not in college; not as a professional. That and just knowing what my body can do and having that knowledge and the experience have definitely enhanced my career."
“We have a saying in our camp,” says Franklin. “It’s ‘Work smarter, not harder.’ If you can maximize your training sessions to get the most out of them and your body, you’re going to have a much longer and more successful career as a fighter.”
Le says that he’d injure himself while training more than during actual fights. He’d go too hard.
“When you’re in your 20s, you think ‘The harder you push, the better you’ll be,’ but that’s the wrong mindset," he said. "I took today off. I needed a day to rest my body. At 40, I know when I need that day off. I can tell. And that’ll benefit me in the long run. I never would have taken a day off 10 years ago.”
The last time Silva and Franklin went at it, they fought at 185 pounds. Silva reportedly cut 12 pounds the week of the fight. They’ll be fighting at 190 on Saturday. Franklin says it’s “indescribable” how different it is to fight at 190 from 185. Fans of both fighters are eager for a rematch between the two legends, regardless of the weight they’re competing at. That excitement’s fueling both fighters this week.
“The energy will be fantastic. The adrenaline will take over,” says Franklin.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a big fight, and it’s always great to fight in Brazil,” adds Silva.
Both warriors acknowledge that they can’t fight forever. And though their fans will always be in their corners, there’s only so many fights that two guys in their mid-to-late 30s have left in them.
“I’ll certainly be watching,” says Le. “And I know I’m not the only one who will be. They’re two excellent fighters. They’re both huge fan favorites. It’ll be a great fight.”
If R.A. Dickey and Juwan Howard started the week in sports, it’s only fitting for Franklin and Silva to finish it.
MMA fans — young and old — should savor the opportunity.