Rich Franklin (28-6-1) knows he must be close to retirement because people keep asking him about it. For the last two years it's come up in nearly every interview, he said, and that tells him something, even if it's something he might not want to hear.
"It almost mentally puts you in the mindset that, every time you get asked about it, you come to the realization that, hey, I can't outrun father time forever," Franklin said. "You go through this kind of subconscious preparation of readying yourself for retirement."
And yet, Franklin is still here. So is Wanderlei Silva (34-11-1, 1 NC), his new opponent in the main event of UFC 147. Both have been in the sport for years, and neither has any realistic hopes of regaining a major title. They won't even be fighting in an actual division when they meet in Brazil on June 23. The late-notice reshuffling of the card has resulted in another catchweight match-up between them (Franklin defeated Silva via decision in a 195-pound catchweight bout almost exactly two years ago, at UFC 99), making it even less clear what these two are fighting for now.
It's a little like watching two men tread water. Neither has enough left in him to swim for shore, so now it's a battle just to stay afloat and keep drawing breath. Even Franklin -- a former UFC middleweight champion -- admitted that he could probably walk away from the sport right now and feel satisfied with his accomplishments. It's just that, to hear him tell it, he doesn't know what he would do if he weren't getting up and going to the gym every day. Maybe he also doesn't know who he would be.
As retired UFC welterweight Chris Lytle told me once, it's the identity that's the hardest to give up. After a decade or more of fighting for a living, it's not only how others think of you, but also how you come to think of yourself.
"Everybody knows, that's Randy Couture the fighter. Or that's so-and-so the fighter," Lytle said. "That becomes who you are. A lot of people can't understand that."
The 37-year-old Franklin sure can, and so can Silva, who'll be 36 in July. Both have stood on the mountaintop in this sport. Both now seem to be on the way back down, but are determined to slow the descent as much as possible. Silva appeared to be all but finished before his last fight, when he took on Cung Le at UFC 139 in November. The knockouts were piling up. He looked to be going down easier and easier. Fans and even fellow fighters had begun to ask, when is enough going to be enough for this guy? His answer always seemed to be: later.
"I don't know how long, but I can do it right now," he told me a couple days before that bout with Le. He turned out to be right. He knocked Le out in the second round, and right away it was clear that Silva wasn't going anywhere just yet. Not willingly, anyway.
It's strange to see fighters of that era facing the very real and totally inescapable fact of retirement. Both Silva and Franklin came up back in the days when MMA was all about the UFC versus Pride, back when this sport was just beginning to crawl out of its own primordial ooze and into the national consciousness. That seems like another lifetime now, back when Silva was knocking people through the ropes in Japan and Franklin was showing off his stuff against a decrepit Ken Shamrock on Spike TV, which was then an unbelievably huge deal for the UFC. Now Pride is long since dead and buried, the UFC is on FOX, and there's a pay-per-view event seemingly every other weekend. Still, Franklin and Silva are hanging around, doing the best they can, trying not to find out what life after fighting will look like.
Maybe the hardest part is knowing when it's time. Kenny Florian, who was just beginning his UFC career when Franklin was entering the most successful phase of his, recently hung up the gloves due to a back injury that wouldn't allow him to keep training and competing. He just couldn't go hard anymore, he said, so it was best not to go at all. That's some uncommon sensibility right there, especially in this business, where fighters come to regard injuries as a way of life. Guys like Franklin and Silva keep patching themselves up for one more go, even though it's not clear where that go is going.
Can they still put on a show, these two battlers from another era of MMA? Probably. They managed to hang around this long in part because of their ability to entertain, and there's no reason to think that they can't do it again here. There is some genuine, morbidly captivating appeal to watching the two men in the water-treading contest trying to force one another under, as if doing so might result in a new burst of energy for the one who remains above the surface. But the end is coming for both of them, and they know it. With all they've done, they could go proudly whenever they feel like it. They just don't want to go yet.
"I think one day, honestly, I'll just wake up and think, you know what, I've had enough," Franklin said.
But that's the thing about 'one day,' a period of time that exists in a purely hypothetical future. The only thing you know for sure is that it isn't here yet.