These announcements always bring a moment of pause, reflection, and to an extent sadness. A sign of a time that has passed and memories of how it used to be. Not just for the athlete calling it a career, but for the fans as well, realizing how their lives have changed during it all, and maybe the athlete that influenced their own path.
When former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin, who hadn’t fought since 2012, formally retired earlier this week all those thoughts came flying by at warp speed. From the first time meeting him, to watching him succeed in the octagon. He beat Evan Tanner for the title at UFC 53, doesn’t that sound so long ago? And successfully defended it twice before losing to the then still rising, red hot sensation Anderson Silva. He would get another shot at taking the belt from Silva, but no one was doing that back then.
It wasn’t a deep dive into the history books to review Franklin’s accomplishments, only a decade or less has expired. It was however, a perspective on how far the UFC and MMA have come in a relatively minuscule existence compared to sports established a half century or longer. It was because of a man with the character and ability of Franklin that played a substantial role in bringing attention, not just to what was happening in the cage, but the men who were in there.
Franklin was a poster boy with the power to appeal to those in the mid 2000’s who were getting curious about this sport, still thought to be a glorified tough man contest for many outsiders. It wasn’t wins or losses it was the person that drew the most attention. A proudly proclaimed Christian who had a masters degree from his hometown University of Cincinnati and taught mathematics at Oak Hill High School. A shaper of young minds, with boyish good looks and articulate in describing his thoughts and actions. Franklin garnered positive attention in a galvanizing fashion, without alienating the established fans while enticing newcomers to take a closer look at the men who were shaping a fast growing sport.
He was a pioneer in his own right, as were Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Frank Shamrock, Forrest Griffin, B.J. Penn, and Georges St. Pierre. They added to the foundation laid by Bas Rutten, Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, and others.
From that period only a few remain viable, a then young star Rashad Evans fights tomorrow night at UFC 192. Silva, arguably the greatest ever, has some tarnish on his image as he sits out a steroid suspension. Tito Ortiz a superstar of the time has revived his career at 40 in Bellator. Andrei Arlovski is enjoying a fountain of youth dip in his return to the UFC. Josh Barnett, the kid of the group back then, has had a rejuvenation as well coming off a big win in Japan.
But at the core there are few peers of Franklin’s time and achievement that creates a buzz when their name is mentioned. It’s only natural, as great the athlete the end always comes.
For Franklin it did with the same style and grace he always exhibited in his prime. He exited fighting only A listers, no “throw one in for old time sake.” He would never accepted that. In his final half dozen fights and moves to light heavyweight and catchweight bouts, he record two victories over Wanderlei Silva. At UFC 115 he turned in a classic against Liddell. Sustaining a broken left forearm from a Liddell strike, Franklin countered with a knock out punch with five seconds left in the first round. It was the KO of the night and one for the ages given the circumstances.
Franklin’s mark is indelible. He is a businessman and a sometime actor, still those Midwestern roots have kept him grounded and focused and admired by all who know him.
And we’ll see him again at the UFC– as a member of the Hall of Fame. Fitting for a gentleman and a scholar who helped shape the sport.
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