There are fighters in the UFC now who were barely out of diapers when, almost 20 years ago, Rich Franklin first began to train in mixed martial arts.
Franklin is now 38 and has been fighting professionally since 1999. The one-time high school math teacher has seen the sport evolve, even as he has remained at or near the top of the rankings for more than a decade.
Franklin, who fights Cung Le on Saturday in the main event of UFC on Fuel 6 at Cotai Arena in Macao, China, has been one of the sport's most consistent and well-prepared fighters.
But Franklin is seeing signs of a new generation of fighters who have trained in MMA from the beginning. That is going to make a vast difference in the overall skill set of the fighters in the game.
"The quality of the athletes we get coming into our sport is improving, and it has been that way for a while as we've grown," Franklin said. "But it's especially true now, because you're starting to see athletes come into the sport who have grown up watching it and have seen the UFC since they were children.
"I started training when I was 17, 18 years old. I was doing traditional karate at the time, and I wasn't doing mixed martial arts because mixed martial arts wasn't around. But it slowly began to morph into this mixed martial arts regimen probably by the time I was 20. I've been at this [MMA] for what, around 18 years. But now there are kids who, MMA is all they've ever done."
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The reason that's important is that things that work well for an individual sport – boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu or judo, for example – have to be adapted to work in MMA.
As the next generation arrives, they'll have done so having learned how to mix all the martial arts while they were children.
MMA will thus be second nature to them and they'll turn out to be more fluid, instinctive fighters.
"Being young, you soak this stuff up and your mind focuses in on that,” Franklin said. “As an adult, when you get older, the whole time I've been training, I've been going to college, earning college degrees, working part-time. That makes a difference, because my mind was diverted to other things. As you age, your brain works the same as it did when you were younger and that mental sharpness will bleed over into the physical attributes."
Franklin, though, has acquitted himself more than all right during his tenure. He's 14-5 in the UFC, 7-2 as a middleweight. His only two losses at 185 were in title fights against Anderson Silva, who has yet to lose in seven years in the UFC.
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Franklin doesn't show many of the effects of his lengthy career. He still is the baby-faced, brilliantly conditioned athlete he was when he beat the late Evan Tanner to win the middleweight belt in 2005.
And his body is in prime shape because he's still able to train as ferociously as he did when he was on his way up. He's only had to make one concession to age in his training.
He rests in between workouts to give his body time to recover.
When he was younger, when his coaches would end a session, he'd stick around and do more work. It ultimately took a toll on his body, even though he didn't realize it at the time.
He is an analytical person who is constantly searching for a better way. And while he still pushes himself to absurd limits, he knows more now when to call it a day.
That's enabled him to remain one of the elite fighters even as his 40th birthday draws nearer.
"I understand more the learning process and how one's learning curve works," Franklin said. "Me spending that extra 15, 20, 30, 40 minutes in the gym that I don't need to do is probably going to end up being more detrimental in the long run. At this age, I'm smart enough to know the difference.
"It's amazing to me to hear guys do these interviews and say they're training eight hours a day. I say, 'Really? I hope so if you're fighting me,' because if you're doing that, by the time you get to the fight you're going to be worn out."
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Franklin pointed out that the quality of coaching, as well as the quality of the athletes, is improving. He said that combination in the future should prove to be significant.
"The sport is growing and there is more money and more attention and more understanding of it, and that's all going to help guys to choose MMA rather than some other sport," he said. "I'm really excited about the future, even though I personally am not going to be a part of it for the [long-term], because I think we're now starting to see what this could ultimately become."
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