rich-franklin-21.jpgRich Franklin is the first to admit it: His fighting career is stuck in a strange gear these days. Odds are it will end that way, probably fairly soon, and then the former UFC middleweight champ will have to figure out what to do with himself.

“I swore to myself I wouldn’t be fighting into my 40s,” Franklin, who will turn 39 in October, told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that there’s not time to fight for the title again.”

Two years. That’s what it would take to get back into serious contention at middleweight, according to Franklin’s math. His knockout loss to Cung Le in November? “That really set me back” in terms of becoming the top contender at 185 pounds, he said. He’d need to go on a serious run to put himself back in the conversation, and time is not on his side. Even if he won all his fights, even if he ignored his own deadline and consented to fight past his 40th birthday, he’s not sure he’d like the results.

“If I spent two years doing the kind of training that it would take, I’d run my body into the ground,” Franklin said. “I’d be that guy who can’t run up and down a basketball court anymore, and that’s not what I want to do to myself.”

And so that’s it. Franklin has made up his mind and made his peace with the situation. He will likely never be a UFC champion again, and that’s fine. It’s not ideal, obviously. Franklin still loves to fight, he said, “and if I was five years younger I would make another run at the title.”

“Mentally, I want to be there,” Franklin said. “But physically, it’s not going to happen.”

So now what? That’s the question Franklin faces, maybe even the question that’s been steadily creeping up on him for the past several years. The UFC has been content to use him as a catchweight attraction at times, calling his number every time it needs a game fighter who can be depended upon to deliver some short-notice excitement.

“I was just kind of fighting where the UFC wanted me to be,” Franklin said. “It did get weird.”

Now he’s approaching not only his own self-imposed deadline, but also the end of his current UFC contract. Franklin has “one or two” fights left on his deal, he said, and for now his focus is on finishing out that contract with entertaining, exciting fights. Some have mentioned Michael Bisping as a possible opponent that may fit the bill. Yes, Franklin said, he’d take that fight, though he’d also take others.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be Bisping,” Franklin said. “It could be anybody that would give me a fight like that.”

But if the end is truly near, and if he’s given up hope of working his way back up the ladder for one more shot at glory, why is finishing out the contract so important? Why not just call it quits now, rather than continuing to put his body on the line for the sake of violent entertainment?

For one thing, there’s the money. Franklin has a life to think about after fighting, a business interest in an organic juice chain to finance, and that UFC paycheck is just sitting there, waiting for him to put on the gloves and claim it.

There’s also the chance that, like many fighters who near the end of their time in the sport, retirement is an idea Franklin likes better in theory than in practice. As long as quitting is something you’re about to do, you don’t have to actually do it. Franklin insists that’s not the case for him, just as he insists he won’t be one of the fighters who need to retire and un-retire a few times before it finally sticks.

“When that switch finally flips in my head and I decide, OK, I’m retiring now, I won’t fight anymore,” Franklin said. “I know how I am. My whole life has been this way. When I taught high school for a living and I quit to fight, I didn’t go back. I didn’t go visit the teachers I taught with. I mean, I might’ve gone back once or twice for things, but I wasn’t that guy walking through the halls going, ‘Man, I miss this place.’ I’m very good at compartmentalizing things, and it’ll be the same with fighting. How I’m going to handle myself on a day-to-day basis, that’s a different question. I don’t know how I’ll handle that.”

He’s not alone there. Even the fighters who walk away with plenty of money and no regrets inevitably face a radical change in their day-to-day existence. In their old lives, they never had to wonder what they were going to do when they got up in the morning. It was only a question of which workout at which gym. But once they call it quits, as Franklin explained, training goes from being a job to being a hobby.

“I’m not sure what I’ll fill the rest of my time with because I don’t love anything as much as I love fighting,” he said.

Maybe that’s why finishing the contract seems important to him. It’s not that it necessarily has to be done. Fighters retire while still under contract all the time. The UFC is happy to let them do it, though it does usually find a way to subtly remind them that this legally binding piece of paper won’t magically disappear when they say the words. But, Franklin admitted, maybe completing the contract would give him a sense of closure. Maybe it’s more about tricking his own brain than fulfilling his agreed upon duties.

“Honestly, I guess it’s not that important,” Franklin said. “The thing is, if I went to the doctor today and the doctor told me, ‘Look Rich, you need to stop fighting right away,’ I might think, well, maybe I wanted to try to fight one more, but quite honestly it’s not that important. I’ve had a long career, a successful career, and I’m happy with where I am. It’s not that big of a deal, so if I was unable to finish the contract, that’d be OK, too.

“It’s not an issue of desire,” Franklin added. “It’s an issue of making intelligent choices. It lets me know that, this is my definite stopping point. I will not go beyond this, for sure.”

Once he reaches that point, how will his time as a fighter be remembered? Will his reputation as the UFC’s company man live on? Will he be known primarily as the last middleweight champ before Anderson Silva‘s reign atop the ranks began? Will we remember these years toward the end, when he fought whomever the UFC had for him and didn’t worry too much about where it was all leading? Franklin isn’t sure.

“I think I’ll be remembered as a talented fighter who put on good fights,” he said. “Realistically, I don’t really care. And I mean that in a good way. Fans formulate their opinions of you, and you don’t really have any control over what their opinions are. I mean, I’d love to be remembered as the best guy who ever walked into the cage, but that’s not going to happen. I was beat twice by the same guy for my title, and I was never able to recapture it.”

And if that guy happens to go down as the greatest middleweight in MMA history, if not the greatest fighter the sport has ever known, would that at least take some of the edge of it?

“Yeah,” Franklin said. “That’s better than being beaten twice by some guy who was just a half-ass fighter. There’s some consolation in that. I guess there is.”

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