By the time most fight fans so much as heard his name, Rich Franklin was already somebody. He had a successful UFC debut with a first-round TKO of Evan Tanner, then went on to shine at the very first Ultimate Fighter Finale, where he knocked out Ken Shamrock on Spike TV before claiming the UFC middleweight title in his next fight.
But if you hopped in a time machine and told the Rich Franklin of 1993 -- then a senior at William Henry Harrison High School in Ohio -- that this UFC stuff he was watching with his friends would eventually become his career, he probably would have laughed in your time-traveling face.
"I had no aspirations of becoming a pro fighter or anything like that," Franklin says now. "But I saw the first UFC and I was immediately hooked."
Sure, he did a little karate. He was even his sensei's star pupil, and he felt pretty good about it. But in Franklin's mind, that was as far as it went. He liked sports, and he also felt like he should know how to defend himself. That's why, when he saw the UFC for the first time in November of 1993, it was an eye-opener.
"I remember thinking, if I ever get into a fight on the street I'd better know how to fight on the ground, because clearly some people know a lot more about it than others. So I started doing jiu-jitsu."
Fortunately, there was a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu chapter in Cincinnati. As a college student studying to be a high school math teacher, Franklin began learning the finer points of the ground game. One thing led to another, and soon he added some kickboxing into his regimen. It was fun, and that was enough. At least for a little while. Then his friend, Josh Rafferty (later a contestant on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, put a simple question to Franklin.
"He said to me, 'Look man, all you do is train, go to school, come home, and train some more. You train all day, so why don't you try one of these fights and see if the training you're doing is actually paying off?' That's why I took my first fight."
But this was still Ohio in 1998, so it's not as if there were major MMA events taking place every weekend. What few there were in the region weren't exactly advertised on TV, either. Franklin and his friends had to ask around, but eventually they heard a rumor that there were regular fights at a gym in Muncie, Indiana. Franklin and Rafferty made the drive and sat through the entire event, which ended with a 6'2", 260-pound self-described "Meat Truck" by the name of Kerry Schall putting a beating on some football player.
"I looked at Josh at the end of the night and said, 'You know what? I think I could do this. Let's give it a shot.' We saw a flyer as we were leaving for another show about three months later and we decided, okay, this is the one we'll train for."
The good news was that training for an unregulated amateur fight in a gym in Indiana in 1998 was that you did not need to worry about cutting weight. You also didn't need to worry about seeing a doctor or passing medicals. You simply called up the promoter and told him you wanted a fight, and then you called him up two weeks before the fight to reassure him that you weren't going to back out. Then you showed up on fight night and waited your turn.
The bad news, Franklin soon realized, is that you had no idea who you'd be fighting. This hit home as he was sitting in the audience watching the night's first few fights and talking with Schall, who he recognized from the previous event he'd attended.
"We introduced ourselves and Kerry said, 'Oh, you're the guy I was supposed to fight tonight, but I had to pull out because I'm sick,'" Franklin recalls. "I was like, really? They were going to put me against this big guy? He was at least 50 pounds heavier than me."
But before he had too much of a chance to dwell on the implications of this revelation, the announcer called his name and summoned him to the cage. As Schall would delight in telling people years later, after he and Franklin had become good friends, when Franklin heard his own name he simply stood up, pulled off his tearaway warm-up pants like a male stripper, and strolled into the cage, ready to fight.
The other guy, as Franklin remembers it, was not quite as excited about the whole deal.
"He looked uneasy. As soon as we stepped in the cage, he looked like he didn't really want to be there. I looked at his demeanor and his posture and I was like, I got this one in the bag. He was in something that he did not want to be in."
As soon as the action started, Franklin realized why. His opponent that night -- Franklin swears he was known only by the name 'Seymour' ("I guess he was like Madonna or something. He just had the one name. He was Seymour.") -- didn't seem like he was quite ready for an amateur fight against a man who had five years of experience in both grappling and striking at a time when most fighters still specialized in one at the expense of the other.
But even though he quickly saw that his skills were ahead of Seymour's, Franklin wasn't totally sure what to do about it.
"This is how dumb I was: we come out and we're mixing it up, and I end up taking him down. I'm kind of cross-mounted on him and I have a submission, but I let it go and go to another submission, and I have a shoulder lock almost completely locked out, but then I thought, you know, I trained all these months, all these years, for a 30-second fight? I'm going to let him up. So I just let it go, and the crowd -- all 200 of them or whatever it was -- went from screaming and yelling to completely speechless."
Franklin released the submission and stood up. He indicated to Seymour that he, too, should get up. This seemed to confuse everyone -- especially Seymour -- and even Franklin soon had second thoughts.
"He got up and we mixed it up on our feet some more, but it was clear to me that I was just a step above this level of competition. At that point, I started to feel a little bad. Like, why didn't I just finish him when I knew I had him beat? This is kind of a jerk thing to do."
So Franklin handed out a tough dose of mercy in the form of a knee to the gut. Seymour collapsed on the mat. The ref stepped in and waved it off. A little over two minutes after it had started, his first MMA fight was over. After the way it had gone, he wasn't quite sure what to think about it.
"I thought it would just be that one fight. Then a couple months later somebody asked me about doing another one and I thought, why not?"
Part of his enthusiasm was just a consequence of being an ignorant youth, he says. "Early in my fight career, I really thought I was the baddest man on the planet. I was young and stupid."
But it was also the fact that, for one reason or another, the high school math teacher didn't fully appreciate the risks he was taking.
"It wasn't until my third amateur fight, where I kicked this guy in the jaw and broke his jaw in like three places -- hurt him pretty bad, actually -- that I finally took a step back and realized, hey, that could have been me. These are the consequences of fighting, and you never know who you're getting in the cage with. From that point on, you start thinking about it a little more. The reality of things starts weighing on you a little more."
Shortly thereafter the local promoter pulled Franklin aside and politely suggested he find a bigger organization to compete in, one with fighters who might give him more resistance. That's when a different promoter offered him a couple hundred dollars to fight in his event, and a light bulb went off in Franklin's head.
"I was like, whoa, you can actually make money fighting? That's where it first clicked."
Gradually the purses and the events got bigger, and in his fourth year of teaching Franklin decided to give up his full-time job at an Ohio high school in order to pursue fighting as a career.
"Before that I'd make a thousand bucks here or there and have a little extra money to buy Christmas gifts or something. But to do this and really make money at it? That was a pretty wild idea. The sport was only just then evolving to the point where people were starting to make real money at it," he says now. "That fourth year I took like three fights and I won and ended up quitting my job. Seems like it all panned out pretty well."