Before guys like Joseph Benavidez and Jon Fitch knew limbo, Rich Franklin was the original purgatory in the UFC. He was the middleweight champion for 16 months in the mid-aughts, beginning with a declarative victory over Evan Tanner and ending three fights later where things for all men come to an end ... with Anderson Silva.
Back in the day when immediate rematches were hard to come by, Franklin had to beat Jason MacDonald and Yushin Okami to get a chance at reclaiming his belt. “Ace” finally stepped in with Anderson Silva again at UFC 77, in a conflict that was dubiously dubbed “Hostile Territory.” That is, at least for Silva. Franklin was in the friendly confines of his native Cincinnati, eschewing his trademark Neapolitan trunks for those sporting Bengals colors. It was a homecoming full of furnace warmth.
Until he was being fetched back into consciousness with smelling salts.
For the second time, Silva made quick work of Franklin -- near mirror annihilations, primarily from the clinch -- and the former champion found himself in career limbo. The aftermath was unsettling, just as it has been throughout history with boxing’s newly obsolete. The cold question of “what now?”
Half a century ago, boxing heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson lost his belt and subsequent rematch to Sonny Liston via decisive first-round knockouts. Franklin had to come to a similar realization that Patterson did back in the day, which was this: Nobody wants to see a third match of a one-sided series. That’s a hell of a thing to come to grips with for a one-time champion. In Patterson’s day, you just fought on. In the rapidly changing, modern day UFC, Franklin at least had some options.
That’s why after he beat Travis Lutter in his last 185-pound bout, Franklin decided to move up to light heavyweight and make a run there. It was with reluctance that he did so -- remember how precise he was with weighing out his food? -- but the gatekeeper gig wasn’t for him.
Problem is, he’s been a sort of passing tourist ever since.
Over the past few years, Franklin has gone 3-3 outside the middleweight division (2-2 at 205 pounds, and 1-1 as a 195-pound catchweight). His latest, a loss to Forrest Griffin at UFC 126, left a lot to the imagination. But what was concrete was that Franklin was no longer a threat to anybody’s title. To frustrate matters, he underwent shoulder surgery and has been on the sidelines for more than a year. A lot of thinking goes on when a year passes off the calendar like that.
Now, to the consternation of dudes like Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Franklin is turning back up as a middleweight again at 37 and a half years old. He’ll face a state-of-the-art action kicker in Cung Le, who only fights one way (thrillingly). If you liked Franklin/Wanderlei Silva or Le/Wanderlei Silva, then you’ll love Franklin/Le. Noses will almost certainly be smashed and further reconfigured into sharp right angles that only a math teacher can appreciate.
It’s the kind of fight that is only a fight. No context needed.
And that’s where Franklin should be for his divisional homecoming. Forget a title run at this point, he wants fun (wholesale violent) shows in the twilight of his career. He doesn’t want to be smothered by Forrest Griffin for large segments of an event; he wants to be in fights like his one with Chuck Liddell at UFC 115, where a broken arm means you throw your good one and hope for the best. He wants to stand and bang. He’s old school. In fact, he’s one of the last of the surviving old guard. Stand and trade in each other’s wheelhouse? Now you’re talking. Surely there’s another Nate Quarry out there to add to his highlight reel.
Le provides this chance. And you never know -- Dan Henderson began bouncing around weight classes at 37 after losing to Anderson Silva, too. His emphasis has always been to put on fights that fans want to see and let title shots fall where they may. Now at age 41, Henderson is accomplishing both with no signs of slowing down. Mark Hunt will be 38 next week and yet is looking 25. Randy Couture didn’t get rolling until he was in his late 30s.
Maybe Franklin finds a similar resurgence. And, if not, bring on Le or guys just like him, and that’s good enough.