At this Saturday's UFC 147 PPV, live from Brazil, Rich Franklin takes on Wanderlei Silva in a main event clash between two MMA veterans. Franklin steps into this fight on late notice, replacing the injured Vitor Belfort and setting up a rematch from UFC 99 in 2009 - an exciting fight that saw Franklin defeat Wanderlei by unanimous decision.
There's no denying that both of these men have a place in the MMA history books. But where exactly is that place? Here, I'll take a look at the career of Rich Franklin to try and figure that out. And be sure to check back tonight for a look at the career of his opponent Wanderlei Silva.
For the past few years, Rich "Ace" Franklin has been a bit adrift in the UFC. Since 2008 he's been moving back and forth between Light Heavyweight and Catchweight fights, exclusively against other veterans in fights that are often exciting, yet lack much purpose in the current MMA landscape. Essentially, he's fighting on the legends circuit, and this will be his 6th straight fight on that proverbial circuit.
But it wasn't always this way.
In the mid-2000's Franklin was one of the best Middleweight fighters in the world. A UFC Middleweight champion with two successful title defenses, Franklin was a tough fighter with big time KO power - power that he most famously displayed against Nate Quarry in what remains an all time great highlight reel KO. And yet even at the time, Franklin had his share of detractors. To understand why, we need to look at his rise to the belt.
Making his professional debut in 1999, Rich Franklin started as a Light Heavyweight competing mainly in the Midwest regional scene. After good wins over the likes of Travis Fulton and Marvin Eastman and an undefeated 11-0 record, Franklin was called up to the UFC in 2003. There, he made his debut against the late Evan Tanner, who, at 27-3, was no easy opponent for your debut. But Franklin scored the upset, stopping the veteran in the first round.
After that win, Franklin spend his next few fights moving back and forth between the UFC and other promotions (a sign of what a different time that was), picking up his first loss along the way to a little known fighter by the name of Lyoto Machida.
In 2005, Franklin got his big break. The UFC chose him to headline the first ever Ultimate Fighter finale. And for his opponent - Ken Shamrock. Really, this was a brilliant piece of marketing. TUF drew in both new viewers and old UFC fans who had gone away, and these people did not know Franklin. But they did know Shamrock, and when Franklin pounded him out in the first round, it announced to a new generation of fight fans that this was a fighter who mattered. Following up the legendary Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight only added more eyes to Franklin vs. Shamrock, and overnight, a star was born. Kind of.
And here is where some of the criticism began. Because it was clear that the UFC had high hopes for Franklin and was, to some degree, grooming him to be a star. Much was made of his work as a teacher in an attempt to move away from the old "No Holds Barred!" MMA image. Franklin was a good speaker for this new idea of MMA fighter as intelligent athlete, and the UFC knew it and pushed him accordingly.
His next fight was for the UFC Middleweight title - this despite Franklin having a UFC record of just 1-0 at 185. The champion at the time was, once again, Evan Tanner. Their rematch was longer, but more brutal than the first bout, as Franklin battered Tanner for 4 rounds, taking his title and leaving Tanner a bloody mess.
Now a champion, Franklin was signed on as a coach on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. To end the season, he would defend his title for the first time. His opponent was TUF 1 competitor Nate Quarry, and again, this was met with some questions as Quarry seemed far too inexperienced in his UFC career to be challenging Franklin. Franklin knocked him cold, followed that up with another defense over David Louiseau, and looked to be on top of the world.
Enter The Spider.
In 2006, Franklin looked to defend his title for the 3rd time against Anderson Silva. No one, including Franklin, was quite prepared for just how good Silva had become. The Spider famously ran through Franklin, crushing him with knees and taking his title away.
Franklin came back with a pair of rebound wins, setting up a rematch with Silva. The former champion had a bit more success this time, but Silva remained a level (or two, or three) above him, defending his crown in front of Franklin's hometown crowd.
And since then, Ace's career has never really been the same. He had one more Middleweight fight, defeating Travis Lutter, but the writing was on the wall - he could beat most anyone at 185, but he wouldn't beat Silva. Franklin moved back up to Light Heavyweight, defeating Matt Hamill before starting his current legends run against Dan Henderson. Prior to that 2nd Silva fight, Franklin boasted a pretty remarkable 24-2 record. In the near 5 years since losing the rematch, he's just 4-3.
So ultimately what is the legacy of Ace? Sadly for Franklin, it will be the pair of Silva fights that primarily define him. None of his wins have the same long lasting impact as the clear passing of the torch we saw in those fights, and none will go down in the history books in the same way.
If it sounds like I'm writing Franklin off a bit, well, I admit, I am. He still has fight left in him, and I suspect he'll beat Wand rather handily this time. But he's not a true contender anymore, and seems destined to remain somewhat on the periphery for the rest of his career.
In the end, I think Franklin will go down as a tough nosed, workingman's kind of champion, and as the man who effectively brought the Middleweight division back to prominence after it languished in the early 2000's. But he'll also go down as a man who made it far, but perhaps not quite to the lofty levels the UFC wanted, never becoming that huge draw they had their eyes on. They set the bar perhaps unrealistically high for Ace, and despite his successes, I don't think he quite cleared it. He's a great fighter, a great person, and a solid champion, yet he's also the first true sacrifice on the UFC alter of Anderson Silva, paving the way for the greatest of our generation to reign. It's a very, very good career, negatively impacted by some tough UFC marketing decisions and the unfortunate luck to be the champion when Silva arrived.
But it's also not over yet. And this Saturday, we'll see what else Franklin has left to add to his legacy.