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Rich Franklin - Gentleman Ace

"I can do all the interviews I want, but at the end of the day, the
fight is what gives me my paycheck, and you have to remember that." Rich Franklin

UFC middleweight Rich FranklinThere are no Twitter wars involving Rich Franklin. No trash-talking battles, cringe-worthy comments, or scandals of any sort. In other words, the former UFC middleweight champion is drama-free, and that’s just the way the he wants it to stay.

“I definitely fall way short of a perfect standard by any stretch of the imagination, so don’t think that, but me and my wife, we’re the kind of people who don’t get involved in that drama stuff, especially in a public forum, and I really shy away from it,” said Franklin, one of professional sports’ true gentlemen. “It doesn’t do any good and it will never solve anything. All it does is draw negative attention towards you and so we avoid it. I use my Twitter specifically for motivational quotes and nutrition quotes and things like that. I have absolutely zero interest in that, so I steer clear of it one hundred percent and always have.”

It’s the way you hope all people in the public eye would behave, and while the aforementioned behaviors can be entertaining for a spell, it’s not something that’s good for young and impressionable minds to see, especially when it comes from those they look up to as heroes. Franklin, at 38, is well aware that his every move, like those of his peers in the upper echelon of MMA, is being watched, and though that could be a burden to carry, it’s something he dealt with even before putting the gloves on.

“My career prior to fighting was being a teacher, and as a teacher, though on a much smaller scale, you are in the public eye with the way you conduct yourself in front of your students or at school functions,” said the former high school math instructor. “Parents see and hear these kinds of things and you actually take classes concerning these topics when you’re in college. So I don’t want to say I’ve been trained to act properly, but I’m very aware and sensitive to those kinds of things and I understand the repercussions. I’m a thinker and then a doer, and a lot of people, they do and say before they think about what they’ve done and said.”

Maybe that’s why Franklin has become the go-to guy for the UFC, not just for high-profile but short notice fights, but to be the fighter who helps introduce international markets to the sport. He’s done it in Canada, Northern Ireland and Ireland, Germany, and has done so again in China, in the lead-up to his main event battle with Cung Le on Saturday. And why not? He’s clean-cut, intelligent, articulate, owner of undergraduate and master’s degrees, and before and during fight week, you will see no tabloid reports of him getting any trouble of any sort. He’s going to talk to the media, make weight, and show up to fight. Again, with Franklin, there’s no drama.

“I do believe that thought is in the back of their minds for sure, if not the forefront,” he said. “They know that there won’t be any drama when they put me on the card internationally. And aside from the drama, I can also present the UFC in a very positive manner to foreign markets that are unfamiliar with mixed martial arts. And every time we go into a foreign market, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We went into Germany and we were educating the German people about MMA, and when we went into Ireland it was the same thing. When we went into Canada for the first time, it was the same thing, and even though there were fans in Canada, there’s still some convincing to do on the legislative side of things with the government. And when the UFC has me talking to the press, they don’t have to worry about what I’m going to say. I believe that’s part of the reason why they sent me to China and why they had me do some of the PR in India while we were over in China the last time. So having me help present mixed martial arts and explain it to the press is very beneficial.”

It can be a draining process, both before and after the event, with the fight itself sometimes being the most stress-free part of the process. But after more than 13 years as a professional, with a good part of nine years spent in the UFC, Franklin has got everything down to a science, never losing sight on the most important part of his fight camp is.

“I can do all the interviews I want, but at the end of the day, the fight is what gives me my paycheck, and you have to remember that,” he said. “I can do ten times as many interviews as the next guy, but if I don’t win fights, then those interviews are all for nothing. So you have to make sure you have your priorities in order when you’re doing this kind of stuff.”

As a for instance, Franklin describes the day of our interview. With a UFC production crew coming into his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, “Ace” got up an hour and a half earlier than usual to hit the treadmill. Next were interviews with the UFC crew and the local newspaper before he hit the doctor’s office to finish up his medicals just before his first training session of the day. Driving home for lunch after that session, he conducted this interview, and after eating it was back to Jorge Gurgel’s school for more production interviews and another training session that was filmed. All this and the afternoon wasn’t even over. And as Franklin pointed out, “I’m seven minutes behind schedule.”

It’s a remarkable juggling act, but Franklin has done it consistently through his arrival as the Next Big Thing after beating Ken Shamrock in 2005, his 2005-06 championship reign, and his subsequent status as a main eventer taking on a consistent and seemingly endless line of big names. And though there was never a public crack in the foundation, did he ever lose his way behind the scenes as he dealt with going from being a math teacher to one of the faces of mixed martial arts?

“I don’t there was a time where it ever got away from me, but I think there was a time when I was heading down that path and I didn’t realize it at the time,” he said. “Looking back now, I can see that. When I won the title, I went from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye, and it’s everything from friends that you used to hang out with that suddenly you don’t have time for, to realizing that you’re having conversations where it’s normal for someone to say ‘oh, so you’re heading to Singapore this week and you’re gonna do a couple weeks of training there before you head over to Macao,’ and then I sit down with my family and I’m like ‘yeah, I leave for Singapore Sunday, and in two weeks I’ll fly out to Macao and fight that fight, and then next day we’re going to jump on a plane and head over to Beijing and see the Great Wall over there before we come home.’ And people in the normal world, they don’t do these things on a daily basis. (Laughs) For somebody to see the Great Wall of China is a bucket list thing, and I’m like ‘yeah, I’m just gonna swing over there while I’m on that side of the world.’ So you find out how different your lifestyle is from everybody else and it really puts things in perspective. But I never let it get away from me. I never got to the point where I was the guy showing up at the family reunion with a Ferrari or something like that. (Laughs) But your life goes from 0 to 100 so quickly that you’re learning how to adapt to that on the fly, and it’s a very difficult transition. It puts a lot of strain on every personal relationship you have, from friends to family to everything in between.”

Yet Franklin survived a key part of being in the public eye that few get a glimpse of until it’s too late. By then, there are highly-publicized meltdowns, a lack of focus that leads to a downfall on the field or the stage, and that person everyone loved at one time turns into a cautionary tale. That didn’t happen to Franklin, and with wins over Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva in two of his last three fights, with the only loss being a close decision defeat to Forrest Griffin, he’s still doing okay for himself heading into the bout with Le, another intriguing matchup in a career packed with them.

And though explaining the sport and recapping his background is a constant in interviews leading up to a fight like this in China, a place the UFC is visiting for the first time, Franklin remains a student of the game who hasn’t lost sight of why he is in Macao this week. And in Le, he will have an interesting puzzle to decipher.

“It’s a style I haven’t seen in the cage, but I’ll say this: most people don’t realize that I started in traditional martial arts prior to doing mixed martial arts,” said Franklin. “I have my black belt in Shorin-Ryu karate and there’s not anything flashy like Cung’s style, but in training for that, you become very familiar with those traditional styles of fighting. So I believe I’m equipped with the tools that I need to defeat a guy like Cung. That’s not a worry of mine. The problem with Cung, he is the kind of person that is very unorthodox. He does bring a style to the table that is different than 90+ percent of the fighters in the MMA game and he has several techniques that are very tricky and sneaky, and things that he can catch you with. So if you’re not executing your game plan, you can get caught. But if I were fighting Anderson (Silva) or fighting Cung or fighting Wanderlei, I can’t sit there and worry about what they’re going to do; I can’t control that. All I can control is my training, my preparation, and my reactions when I get in the Octagon. And as long as I perform to my capabilities, then I don’t have any worries and I’ll be just fine in that cage.”

29 wins don’t lie, and if Le becomes number 30, he’ll join a distinguished crew of fighters that Franklin has vanquished over the years that includes Liddell, Wanderlei Silva (twice), Matt Hamill, Travis Lutter, Yushin Okami, Shamrock, Jason MacDonald, David Loiseau, Nate Quarry, Evan Tanner (twice), and Jorge Rivera. Add in his work outside the Octagon as an ambassador for the sport of mixed martial arts, and that’s a pretty impressive legacy that he’s building. It’s not something he’s really concerning himself with at the moment though.

“I’m not sure if I’ll ever be the guy who thinks about legacy or accolades or any of that kind of stuff,” said Franklin. “I’m not the type of person who lives in yesterday at all. I live for the now and plan for the tomorrow, and I don’t dwell on the past, whether it’s victories or defeats. I rarely look back at things, and I definitely don’t pat myself on the back. I don’t have any kind of ego wall at my house, I don’t have my belts displayed, and I have very few pictures of me hanging on my wall that are fight related. The ones that are hanging are up only because (his wife) Beth put them up, and it’s just the way that I am.

“But I know one thing,” he continues. “I woke up this morning, and I won’t say I was excited to get on the treadmill, but when I put things in perspective, I was definitely more excited to get on the treadmill than I would be if I had to wake up and drive to a bank and work there for eight hours. I’m living in the moment a bit, and I really enjoy doing what I do. I enjoy the competition, and I think that my legacy, and my accolades, and my accomplishments, and all that kind of stuff will be for the fans to talk about, and I try to walk as humbly as I can. When I sit back and think about the things that I’ve accomplished or the impact that I’ve had, it’s the emails that I get that say ‘hey, I read your interview and I really appreciate your walk for Christ,’ or ‘recently I’ve been following you on Twitter, and since then I’ve been following your nutritional advice and I’ve lost 30 pounds,’ or ‘I really appreciate you working with the disabled American vets.’ And I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that I don’t put a lot of weight in things like the belts that I have or the fights that I’ve won or the things that are for me because at the end of the day, I put more value on the impact that I have on other people or the things I do for other people.”