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Ace - The UFC's Toughest Fights On

“You’re standing in the cage and you’ve got two options – you can quit or you can continue going, and I’m not a quitter.”

If you lined Rich Franklin up with some of the more physically or visually imposing figures in the UFC, guys like Brock Lesnar, Wanderlei Silva, “Rampage” Jackson, or his opponent this Saturday night, Forrest Griffin, the former middleweight champion would probably be the last one you would peg as a professional prizefighter. But when it comes to toughness, Franklin has few peers.

There are plenty of examples you can look at over the course of his 11 year career, but the most recent may be the most telling, as he survived a broken left arm inflicted on him by Chuck Liddell last June only to knock “The Iceman” out with his good right hand moments later. Ask Franklin about it, and he’s almost matter of fact about it, as if it’s something all fighters would do.

Anytime that you’re injured, it’s not really a layoff even though physically you’re taking the time off, perhaps mentally you didn’t need it so there’s that part of you that’s always thinking, yeah, my arm is broken but I really need to get back on the wagon and do the things that I need to be doing here. So it’s never the same kind of layoff as if you purposely take a layoff.

“You’re standing in the cage and you’ve got two options – you can quit or you can continue going, and I’m not a quitter,” said Franklin, who also fought through a broken hand and foot over a five round bout with David Loiseau in 2006. “At the end of the day, if I had turned around and looked at the ref and said my ‘arm is broken, I can’t continue’, I think I really would have been kicking myself for something like that in the long run. So basically, you keep going and keep going until you can’t go anymore.”

“In every human there’s the fight or flight syndrome, and you come to a crossroads often in life where you have to make a choice as to whether or not you’re going to continue pushing through something or if you’re going to fold the cards,” he continues. “Some people fold more easily than others, and that’s a situation where I know that even though my arm was in some pain, I had the adrenaline going and all that stuff, so it’s a manageable pain. And when you’re in the moment, all you’re thinking about is that I need to win this fight. And you say well, my arm’s already broken, so what more can possibly be done.”

There are fighters and then there are fighters like Franklin. Everyone who walks up those four steps is courageous, but then Franklin goes and takes that courage to the next level and then shrugs it off as if it’s part of the job. But what the fans and media don’t see is the aftermath, the time spent rehabbing injuries, healing and waiting for another chance to compete. For Franklin, the nearly nine month break between his 2009 bout against Vitor Belfort and the Liddell fight was a good thing, an opportunity to recharge his batteries and live life as a civilian for a while. The three months waiting to heal his broken arm was far from ideal.

“A lot of my leisure time, I’ll do different physical things, maybe something like snowboarding or whatever, or I’ll sit at my house and play the drums here,” he said. “With a cast on, I had nearly three months of not being able to play my drums, so there’s this part of you that sits there almost convincing yourself that it’s wasted time, that you can’t even do a lot of the things that you want to do.”

Injury-induced layoffs can also give you plenty of time to think, to wonder whether the fleeting moments of glory are worth the pain afterward, especially after going through such ordeals several times. Franklin admits to such thoughts, but not after his broken arm. Instead, he refers back to his razor-thin decision loss to Dan Henderson in 2009, when an inadvertent eye poke made him question whether he wanted to continue.

“I had that conversation after the Henderson fight when I got poked in the eye,” he said. “You break a bone, you break a nose, these things heal. You lose a tooth, you get poked in the eye, these are not pieces of your body that can just miraculously jump back if the injury is bad enough. And when I got poked in the eye, there was a period of time there when I thought my vision was going to be permanently affected. And it was scary because I was one of those people that had perfect vision, my eyes don’t get irritated, it bothers me to have to put eyedrops in my eye and all that kinda stuff, so when something like that happens, you start thinking ‘man, all this and I have a possibly messed up eye.’ And you really start to evaluate things. So I’ve had those talks with myself before.”

Such thoughts rapidly disappear though, especially with Franklin’s career still going strong over four years after he lost his title to Anderson Silva in October of 2006. While some former champions fall by the wayside and lose their way, Franklin has retained his popularity and has stayed focused, with every fight since 2009 being a fight fan’s dream fight. The names Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Belfort, Liddell, and now Griffin all dotting his record simply don’t lie. It’s something you don’t see in boxing anymore, a fact not lost on Franklin.

“I remember watching boxing growing up and you have these champions and they would fight a big fight and then after that they would get a couple tomato cans,” he said. “And in boxing, a lot of these guys are only fighting once or maybe twice a year. In MMA, when you get to the top of the heap, you’re consistently fighting the top contenders. There is no ‘let’s give him a newbie or a nobody’. In MMA, people wouldn’t even watch a fight like that. So it’s been that way for me since before I fought Shamrock. My first fight in the UFC was Evan Tanner.”

But fighting killer after killer can wear you down mentally, and Franklin admits as much. Yet at the same time, he likes the idea of having to be “on” every night, and he wouldn’t change a thing, especially since this is what he signed on for.

“In football you have a 16 game season and you can’t afford to lose a lot of games,” he said. “And every game every week is important. Whereas in baseball, you’re playing a 162 game season and if you come out of the season with 60 losses, you’re still having a pretty successful year. So there are certain games that you could probably brush off mentally, or if you lose a game, it’s no big deal – it’s Monday night, we play again Wednesday, we’ll win that game. It makes a big difference and in each fight, you really have to pick yourself up for that fight. And it wears on you mentally, but all in all, this is what I love doing, and what pretty much all the guys who do what I do love doing too, so it comes with the territory.”

And suddenly, Franklin – who has wins over Liddell and Wanderlei Silva sandwiching his loss to Belfort – may put himself in the title picture with a win Saturday night. Just don’t tell him that.

“I keep things in perspective and first of all, I have to beat Forrest to put myself close enough to even start thinking about a title shot and that’s going to be a difficult task within itself,” he said. “Forrest is definitely not a pushover opponent here, so I don’t want to put the carriage before the horse, and secondly, I’m still not ranked in the top ten. So as far as that kinda stuff goes, I’m patient. All I have to worry about is winning, and as long as I continue to win, then I’ll put myself in the position I need to be in in order for another title shot.”

This time around, Franklin has stayed home in Cincinnati with his usual crew of standouts, passing on trips to Washington to work with Matt Hume as he has in most of his recent fights. But there was no acrimony involved in this decision; “Ace” just wanted to stay home.

“It gets difficult to travel all the time,” he said. “It’s a wear and tear on you to be constantly out of town and I had a good setup for this camp. I had good training partners here that would mimic Forrest and that had the same body type and that kind of stuff. And what it boils down to is that there have been fights where I didn’t have the training partners to mimic certain fighters and I was stepping outside the box with different coaching, and Hume is a great coach, so this has nothing to do with that, but with the travel, it gets to the point that for me to be gone for four-plus weeks for a camp, sometimes I’m not sure I want to be gone for that long before a fight.”

With his arm healed, a solid training camp behind him, and the knowledge that an improbable trip back to a world title is within his grasp, the 36-year old Franklin looks to have all his ducks in a row heading into the Mandalay Bay Events Center this Saturday night. All he needs to do now is perform in a fight fans have been talking about for weeks now. Pressure? Come on, this is Rich Franklin.

“I don’t really feel that kind of pressure anymore in my career because time and time again I’ve delivered good fights and it’s really not difficult for me to put on a good fight,” he said. “Win or lose, at least you can say my fights are exciting, and that’s for sure. That’s the way that I fight, and pretty much Forrest fights the same way, so I would imagine that the two of us won’t have a problem putting on an exciting fight for the fans.”