There was a time when Rich Franklin was one of the most dominant fighters in the world. In 24 fights he had only been defeated once, held the middleweight belt, was unbeaten inside the UFC and riding an eight fight win streak.
Then along came 'The Spider,' a relatively unknown Brazilian called Anderson Silva who had been fast tracked to a title shot after beating Chris Leben emphatically in his UFC debut. The rest, of course, is history and Silva is now widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet while Franklin's name barely even merits a mention when fight fans are discussing the 185-pound title picture.
Franklin's legacy as one of the most successful middleweights of all time was already secured but by beating him not once, but twice, Silva effectively cast him into the MMA wilderness, expelling him from the weight class which he had made his own and forcing him to bounce around between 195-205 pounds, often accepting fights against much bigger men.
Had Franklin been given the choice he would never have left the middleweight division but he posed a problem to the UFC who decided they could not afford to risk having him kill off any new contenders who might emerge for Silva's crown.
"The UFC knew they couldn't market a third fight between me and Anderson and that is why I was encouraged to move to 205 even though many of the fighters there are much bigger than me. I have spent the last couple of months losing the muscle it took me years to put on and now I am back at 185 I want to make a run for the title."
Bar the two losses to Silva, his record at 185 is immaculate.
As a middleweight he is 8-2 with nine of those fights inside the UFC and five of them for the middleweight title. By contrast, the current number one challenger, Chael Sonnen's tally as a UFC middleweight, stands at a much less impressive 6-3.
With the likes of Mark Munoz, Michael Bisping, Hector Lombard and Brian Stann as well as Sonnen in the UFC's middleweight division there should be plenty of big fights out there for Franklin but first he has to get past the not inconsiderable challenge posed by Cung Le.
"Obviously Cung is a crafty striker to say the least…effective and unorthodox. Many people overlook his wrestling game, which makes his striking so effective. He is difficult to take down. He wasn’t Strikeforce champ for nothing."
In order to prepare for this fight, which will be Franklin's first for almost 18 months, he has taken the unusual step of relocating his training camp to Singapore. He will spend eight weeks at Evolve MMA working with the decorated team of trainers there under the supervision of Chatri Sityodtong and Heath Sims.
While elite Asian mixed martial artists have been heading to the US for years in search of superior training it is very unusual for a fighter to move in the opposite direction. Franklin says that he made the decision in conjunction with long term trainer Matt Hume after visiting Singapore for the first time last year.
"I did a seminar with Matt Hume at Evolve a little over a year ago and I was very impressed with the instructors and facility. I thought it would be a good idea to get a fresh perspective for this training camp and a lot of the trainers here are world champions in things like boxing, Muay Thai or BJJ, there are not many places in the world where you can find all of that under one roof."
Le's Sanshou based style of standup is very unusual and he has an arsenal of unconventional strikes which he has used to devastating effect throughout his MMA career. It is difficult to find sparring partners who can even emulate his style and this is something Franklin admits he has discussed.
"Chatri and I spoke about bringing in a training partner specifically to mimic Cung but because the Muay Thai and boxing trainers at Evolve MMA are so experienced I don't think it will be necessary. They are world champions, some of them have been training in stand up fighting for more than two decades and they all have hundreds of fights and will have no difficulty impersonating him if asked to."
Le came very close to stopping Wanderlei Silva with strikes in the first round of their fight but faded in the second stanza. Franklin has plenty of experience from facing some of the best all time strikers in MMA such as Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort, Anderson Silva and Chuck Liddell but he says he is not underestimating his next opponent.
"Having faced stand up fighters in the past is not the key to my confidence because they were all different fighters than Cung, and I am a different fighter than I was when I fought each of them. I am not expecting him to get tired, in fact I am preparing for a Cung that has better stamina than myself. All of my fights in the UFC were a test…none of them were easy fights and this is no different."
Franklin was originally scheduled to face Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 133 in August, 2011 but the fight was cancelled and the following month he tore his labrum in training.These two factors have contributed towards the longest break between fights since he started fighting in 1999 but 'Ace' says that even after such an extended period on the sidelines he doesn't feel any additional pressure to perform.
"There is always something riding on a fight, a title opportunity, a winning streak, a break after a long return or even a contract renewal. If you let these external circumstances affect your nerve, you will always fail."
One intriguing possibility is that Anderson Silva, who is only a few months younger than Franklin, will either retire before him or move up to 205 lbs. The coast is far from clear because two of his recent losses were to fighters who could make 185 lbs (Dan Henderson and Vitor Belfort) but Franklin is not spending too much time contemplating what would happen if the champion vacated his belt.
"I don’t lose sleep either way. If I make it to the title again I will cross that path when I get there…whoever holds the belt. Just remember, I actually have to beat Cung before any of this other stuff is even possible but there are a lot of exciting match ups at middleweight."
It's not impossible that Silva will lose his title inside the cage, although such is the aura of invincibility surrounding him it seems improbable at present. Whatever happens to the title itself Franklin, who says he hasn't even thought about retirement, is determined to spend the remainder of his career competing as a middleweight.
By Franklin's stellar standards the stint away from 185 lbs has not been the most successful and he has gone 3-3 in his last six fights. Now that he is back where he belongs he wants to carry on where he left off by dominating the middleweight division and a win over Le at UFC 148 would be the perfect place to start.