Franklin returns to changed landscape

When last Rich Franklin fought in the UFC, the light heavyweight title was still securely fastened around the waist of Mauricio Rua, Dan Henderson was still training for his Strikeforce championship bid against Rafael Cavalcante and Rashad Evans had just seen his immediate title hopes dashed by injury.

Fine, with regard to that last one maybe some things never change, but if Franklin returns on schedule from shoulder surgery this summer -- as his manger said this week that he will -- it’s safe to say he’ll face a 205-pound landscape that has shifted dramatically in his absence. When the former middleweight champ does get medically cleared, what options will be available for him in the cage? And how long will the 37-year-old look to stick it out on the active roster?

For Franklin, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is, there will arguably be more viable and marketable matchups for him in the light heavyweight division come summer, 2012, not only against previously scheduled opponent Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, but with guys like the resurgent Tito Ortiz and the newly re-re-acquired Henderson.

The Ortiz bout just makes too much sense not to book and after Hendo took a hotly contested split decision victory over Franklin back at UFC 93, it’s doubtful either would argue with a redo, under the right circumstances. “Ace” was already signed to take on Nogueira at UFC 133 prior to his injury, so why not make that fight happen, too? In theory, those matchups would give Franklin a nice three-fight landing strip on which to close out his legendary career, assuming that’s what he wanted to do.

The bad news is, the top of the division has only gotten younger and more crowded since he’s been gone, with Jon Jones currently appearing to have the title on lockdown and challengers already stacked three deep in Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and perhaps the winner of Henderson’s UFC 139 bout against Mauricio Rua. With an upper echelon that stacked and that dangerous, it seems like we’ve probably seen the end of Franklin as a legitimate championship contender, no matter who much longer he sees fit to keep his fighting life going.