Ben Fowlkes
Thursday June 10th, 2010

Every company should be so lucky as to have an employee like Rich Franklin. He's courteous, affable, and even the people who don't like him don't seriously dislike him.

Perhaps most importantly, he's the employee who rarely says no, which is what really makes him an asset to the UFC.

Consider how he landed in the UFC 115 main event. After Tito Ortiz pulled out of a fight with Chuck Liddell near the end of their run as opposing coaches on Season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, Dana White went through his Rolodex in search of someone willing to fly to Vegas on short notice and imitate the posture of a coach for a week or so.

He also needed somebody who would fight Liddell after their brief appearance together, despite there being relatively little to gain by taking on a 40-year-old ex-champ with a distinct size and strength advantage.

Franklin, ever the company man, is a nice guy to have around in a pinch like that.

"It was a Wednesday evening and Dana called me and informed me Tito pulled out because of an injury, and so he asked if I could come out to Vegas and coach on the show," Franklin said on the UFC 115 media call earlier this week. "There were two things I wanted to know: Is Tito still going to be there, and did you check with Chuck and his camp to make sure they're cool with this fight? Dana said Chuck was a professional, and I said whatever you need me to do, I'll do."

At 35 years old, Franklin's career legacy is pretty well established. He was among the UFC's first superstar champs at a time when the organization badly needed a photogenic, articulate advocate, but then the dual beatings he suffered against Anderson Silva forced him out of the middleweight division and into a kind of catchweight purgatory, where he's been floating around ever since.

If only the UFC had a 195-pound division, he says now, then maybe he'd have a perfect place to call home. That is, assuming the weight class had a strict 'No Anderson Silvas allowed' policy.

Franklin now finds himself in the same place as several other former UFC champs. He's not ready to retire, and yet it's hard to imagine him winning another title at this point. He's just kind of ... there.

He can still fight, still put on a great show, and his skills haven't wilted to the point where he's putting his health in jeopardy. At the same time, you have to wonder what the endgame is.

Franklin insists he's not looking that far into the future, which is probably necessary in order to keep his focus on Liddell, a man who can still do something terrible to you with one of his looping rights. He also doesn't seem to be bothered by his role as back-up fighter for the UFC, or at least if he is he's keeping it to himself.

But Franklin isn't necessarily fighting to extend the life of his career, as Liddell is. He's also not fighting because he has anything left to prove, or because he can't retire with dignity until he's won a championship. He's already done the things that make a fighting career seem memorable, and he did them with class and grace.

So what's in it for "Ace" at this point?

He said himself that the loss to Vitor Belfort was mainly due to a lack of motivation in the weeks leading up to the bout, adding, "When you walk into the gym and start looking at the clock and counting down the minutes until you leave, that's never a good thing."

That's as true for pre-fight preparation as it is for a career.

While I don't doubt that the desire to keep one's face in good condition -- or, for that matter, the drive to pocket another big paycheck while the money's still on the table -- are powerful enough motivations to make a fighter keep getting in the cage, I do question whether it's enough to make him into the best possible version of himself on fight night.

This is a tough enough business for the guys who know exactly why they're in it. Once that hunger fades, nothing good ever comes of it. For Franklin's sake, let's hope he has reasons he's not telling us about that are driving him to compete at the sport's highest level, and let's also hope they're very good ones.

Regardless of who you are or what you've done, locked inside a cage with Liddell isn't the sort of place you want to be just because you can't think of any better ideas.

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