Chael Sonnen has said it in the past. When you are a professional mixed martial artist, your eyes should always be locked on winning the belt. That is a notion Rich Franklin subscribes to, and while he may be 38 years old and six years separated from the middleweight belt, his goal has always been about getting the UFC gold.
Earlier today, Franklin squared off with former Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le and now finds himself impossibly far from that goal.
The UFC's matchmaking, whether intentional or not, has been a huge thorn in the side of any title aspirations Franklin may have had through the years. Since being pressured by UFC brass to leave behind the middleweight division in 2008, Franklin has been bouncing between weights and between fighting other title contenders and gimmicky opponents. During that stretch, he's gone 3-3.
His losses, for the most part, come with asterisks next to them. He lost to Dan Henderson in 2009 via split decision in a very close fight. His 2011 bout with Forrest Griffin really should never have happened, given Griffin's absurd size advantage. Vitor Belfort knocked him out in 2009, but Franklin looked uncharacteristically tentative and was caught with a glancing shot behind the ear, which led to a signature “Belfort Blitz”.
His wins, meanwhile, have all come from him stepping in on varying levels of short notice to fight other veterans, beating Chuck Liddell and twice out-pointing Wanderlei Silva. His bout with Cung Le was in this same niche.
While Franklin has not been fighting amazing opponents, he has shown that he remains a very formidable fighter. His second fight with Wanderlei Silva was a five-round war in which he showed very, very strong cardio for a middleweight (never even mind a 38-year-old middleweight). He has shown amazing heart, gutting out a badly-broken arm against Chuck Liddell en route to a knockout victory.
Cung Le, though, is a world-class kickboxer. He is not a heavy-handed wrestler like Cain Velasquez or Dan Henderson. He is not a “solid striker” like Michael Bisping or Brian Stann. He is not a “knockout artist” like Vitor Belfort.
Cung Le is a world-class kickboxer, and when he identified that Rich Franklin was not moving his head as he kicked, he capitalized with a perfect punch, knocking him out cold.
Now, the loser of the day's main event is waiting for his plane back to Ohio, still without a winning streak since he beat Matt Hamill and Travis Lutter in 2008. He will be returning to the United States as a mid-tier fighter in a division that is, at this time, more competitive than ever, with its longtime top two fighters (Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen) both otherwise occupied.
Franklin's next opponent? Unclear. However, there are few other wily 185-lb. veterans that would benefit from fighting him. Established middleweights Vitor Belfort, Yushin Okami, Alan Belcher, Tim Boetsch and Michael Bisping all have fights booked. Jake Shields, who would be a great opponent on paper, is suspended at this time.
Fighting an up-and-comer like Tom Lawlor or Chris Camozzi just plain cannot sound appealing for the man who is the clear-cut No. 2 middleweight of all time, and who has fought the likes of Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva and Ken Shamrock. So what is Rich Franklin to do?
Unfortunately, the best answer for Franklin is to retire. It pains me to say this, as Franklin is likely in my top five favorite fighters.
The thing is, Franklin has always been a competitor with his eyes set on the top. Tragically for him, at age 38, with one of the longest injury histories imaginable, and in a hyper-competitive division, the summit is unquestionably out of reach at this point.
It would take at least a year-and-a-half for Franklin to return to title contention, and another year for him to actually get on a streak to warrant a title shot. Considering Franklin had just one bout each year in 2010 and 2011, it would be a tall order at this point to fight more than twice in that stretch of time, never mind win against top opponents.
Franklin still has the tools to win fights in the UFC, and is undeniably one of the best the promotion has ever put front and center. He would be favored over most of the promotion's middleweights and many of its light heavyweights.
The thing is, winning fights has always been a means to the end of being a UFC champion for him. That isn't going to happen now. Because of that, it's time for Rich to hang up those brown and pink shorts and know that he is ending his career as one of the greatest to ever enter the Octagon, both as a person and as a fighter.