All eyes on Franklin for UFC 77

Special to Baltimoresun.com

There was a time a few short years ago when almost no one in Cincinnati had heard of Rich Franklin.

That's not the case on this day as a room of reporters, publicists and cameras is locked in on the former UFC middleweight champion as he steps onto a faded blue wrestling mat on the floor of a hotel conference room in the Cincinnati Westin and begins jumping rope. They are all gathered here because of him. And they are all asking the same question -- can the Cincinnati native reclaim his title against the man who brutally took it away from him only a year ago?

Franklin had won eight straight fights, including two title defenses, heading into his UFC 64 bout against Brazilian Anderson Silva last October. Silva controlled Franklin in the clinch early in the first round and pummeled the champion's face with a flurry of devastating knees until Silva was awarded a technical knockout at 2:59 of the first round. Technically speaking, Franklin had his face smashed in.

"Rich Franklin has always been the same fighter in every fight he's been in, but he did not look like the same Rich Franklin that night," UFC president Dana White said. "The question is, is Anderson Silva that nasty that he made Rich look bad, or did Rich just have an off night?"

That question will be answered Saturday night at UFC 77 in Cincinnati when Franklin will again face Silva and try to recapture his middleweight championship. In preparing to fight Silva in his hometown, Franklin and his team decided to spend the past three weeks training in the mountains of Wyoming to avoid distractions.

"With the fight being here, it was going to be very problematic with the tremendous local demand, so we went out to Wyoming a month before the fight and flew in the week of the fight like we would if it was in any other city," Franklin said.

The Wyoming sessions afforded Franklin the advantage of training at an altitude of 10,000 feet, but the biggest benefit came from what he avoided by heading west -- the grind of his everyday routine. Phone calls. Bills. Agents. Publicity. And a city full of Franklin fans excited for his homecoming.

One of his training partners and corner men, fellow Cincinnati native Jorge Gurgel (who is fighting on the undercard), said training in Wyoming was the right decision for Franklin.

"Especially for the mental peace of mind we got from being away from everything and being able to focus only on getting ready physically and mentally, it was the best thing we've ever done," Gurgel said.

Dealing with his star status locally is a relatively new problem for Franklin. He recalls doing an interview with a Cincinnati sports talk show host a few years ago and telling the host that he got recognized in other cities but not his hometown.

"In the last year and a half, that's completely changed," Franklin said.

Before he was a UFC champion, Franklin taught math at Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati. When he made the decision to leave teaching and devote himself to mixed martial arts (MMA), Franklin thought he'd be back in the classroom in a year. Instead, his decision blossomed into a career.

"I guess my whole motivation at that point in time was not to be the person sitting around at the age of 60 saying 'Oh, I could've done that,'" he explained.

Franklin found success in the Octagon, yet his popularity didn't start to rise until he became a coach on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV.

His MMA fame skyrocketed in the following months, but even now that he's a household name in the UFC, Franklin says fans don't always get to see the real Rich.

"I think that from my public persona, a lot of people think I'm really serious and I'm not," he said. "I'm really a big goofball and it's amazing because I meet people and they think I'm the kind of guy waking up at 5 a.m. every morning and drinking raw eggs."

Those close to Franklin echo that sentiment. Gurgel said Franklin is at his funniest when he tries to sing. Franklin mainly sings along with whatever's on the radio, and in Wyoming, that meant a steady diet of country music.

"He's a horrible singer. He tries man, he tries, but he's as bad as it gets," Gurgel said.

Praised for his genuine approach to fans, Franklin's newfound notoriety forced him to make some changes in his life. Everyday errands likes grocery shopping and dining out became harder. Franklin said he's had to stop doing a number of things he used to enjoy, such as going to festivals.

"I can't go to a festival anymore," he said. "I like going to festivals and riding rides, popping balloons with darts and crap like that. But there are a lot of public situations you can't put yourself in anymore because you end up spending the majority of the evening talking to the fans instead of the people you had [intended] to hang out with."

That's part of the reason Franklin spent the weeks leading up to the fight training in Wyoming. Franklin felt he needed to go the extra mile -- or in this case, the extra 1,429 miles -- to stay focused on his rematch with Silva, especially since Gurgel believes it was Franklin's mental game that let him down in the first match.

"It doesn't matter how much you train. If you show up for the day of the fight not ready mentally, you won't perform and that's what happened to him," Gurgel said. "This time, he's got the same set of skills and he's just mentally very strong. He's a mental giant right now."

While most view Franklin as an underdog, Gurgel said he sees Franklin as the favorite in this fight because he has a more complete game and because Silva has shown some weaknesses in his past couple fights.

Franklin is pegged as a 2-to-1 underdog according to the UFC, but Silva has said the match could be one of the most exciting in UFC history, and White thinks the rematch will be a war.

"My gut tells me it's going to be a dogfight," White said. "I expect the city to be crazy."

For his part, Franklin calls UFC 77 "one of the biggest things to happen in the city in a long time," and the pressure is on the hometown fighter to deliver. The UFC wouldn't have scheduled the event without Franklin becoming a top draw and a fighter who White calls "one of the people who helped build the company."

Franklin made sure to tell the assembled media at the Westin that this fight with Silva would be different.

"I feel good about this, I feel good about the fight," he said. "I can't wait for Saturday."

Neither can Silva, who is out to prove his first win wasn't a fluke. Neither can the fans of Cincinnati, who now know who Rich Franklin is. Neither can Gurgel, who is fighting Alvin Robinson on the undercard.

And neither can MMA fans eager to finally answer the question on everyone's mind: Is Rich Franklin good enough to reclaim his title?

Mark Chalifoux is a freelance writer who has written for ESPN.com, SI.com, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Athens News. He can be reached at mark_chalifoux@hotmail.com.

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