Just In Trading Shots: Could a guy like Rich Franklin still become a star in today’s UFC? MMA Life

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In an era of over-the-top trash talk and public persona gimmicks, is someone like Rich Franklin right to think he wouldn’t be a star in today’s UFC? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Downes: Ben, something piqued my interest when I read this story on former UFC middleweight champion and current ONE Championship executive Rich Franklin. He’s being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame this summer and he was asked if he could be the same level of star in today’s MMA landscape.

“The way I conducted myself then, no,” Franklin said. “I would have had to conduct myself in a different manner … you don’t have to talk about their families or be blatantly rude or whatever, shoving people on stage. There are ways to create hype around a match. I would have to reassess how I would market myself, I guess.”

Franklin pretty much hits the nail right on the head, doesn’t he? When he was a star in the mid-aughts, trash talking existed, but it wasn’t the obvious facade it is today.

Back in the day, Franklin’s biggest story line was, “This guy used to be a math teacher!” Now, he’d probably have to slap a guy with a graphing calculator to register with fans. Either that or he’d have to take some controversial stance. “I’ve crunched the numbers, Joe, and I can prove once and for all that the Earth is flat.”

My question is two-fold. First, do you agree with Franklin’s assessment of how he’d fare in today’s MMA environment? Second, if Franklin is correct, what does that say about what it takes to get over nowadays?

Fowlkes: In answer to your first question, I guess I can’t really disagree with him. Franklin’s whole thing was being a nice, respectful, soft-spoken math teacher from middle America with a well-rounded game that included a little bit of everything. Trying to imagine that as a formula for stardom in today’s UFC is … difficult. He’d just be another guy in Reebok making 20 grand in base pay on the undercard of UFC Fight Night Moline or whatever.

As for what that says about the current state of the sport, I think we also have to remember that MMA was in a very different place back when Franklin first started to become a thing in the UFC. Remember his breakout moment on the TUF 1 Finale event in 2005? Back then the struggle was convincing people that MMA was a real sport with real athletes, rather than just a bunch of tattooed bar bouncers kicking each other in the nuts.

Franklin was the perfect answer at the time. You could have him beat up Ken Shamrock and then hold him up as proof that MMA had stars even your mother could love. The math teacher thing only sweetened the deal. He had a real job, Danny! And one that required an advanced education! Just try and call MMA fighters thugs once you’ve seen this clean-cut boy from Ohio with the ice cream cone shorts.

That’s not the era MMA is in anymore. We’re no longer struggling just for that baseline acceptance. Now we’re struggling for attention in a fractured, frantic landscape where nothing’s shocking because everything is outrageous. The culture has changed, and not just inside the MMA bubble. A high school teacher who also fights in a cage is no longer a story unless he’s also dating a couple current students.

But don’t you think the pendulum is getting ready to swing back the other way now, at least in MMA? Conor McGregor’s swaggering sales pitch worked on us because it stood out. If everyone’s doing that, though, doesn’t it stop being different? Maybe that’s why Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway managed to get somewhere by being two good dudes who fought their hearts out.

Downes: Timing is everything. I agree that Franklin was the right man at the right time to show a “kinder, gentler” type of cage fighter. He didn’t look like the stereotypical fighter, and he was actually really good. Plus he looked like Jim Carrey. Did you know “Ace Ventura” came out in 1994?!

You’re correct that the swaggering sales pitch is starting to lose its luster, but that’s because the McGregor wannabes are bad at it. They don’t have the same charisma.

At the same time, even guys with mediocre gimmicks appear to be getting more shine than if they were their “natural” selves. We talk about it when people accuse websites of “clickbait.” We have the receipts. Writers and editors know what posts garner the most traffic.

As I take a brief look at the headlines on MMA Junkie right now, I can see which articles have the most shares. It’s not Rizin 15 results or Ben Fowlkes’ “5 biggest takeaways.” It’s “Report: Darrent Till arrested for allegedly stealing cab, trashing hotel in Canary Islands.”

Something tells me that story will outperform our thoughtful discussion by quite a margin, too. Controversy and clowns get the clicks, bruh. You really think that’s going to change?

Right now the market is flush with McGregor clones. It makes sense that someone will come along (eventually) and offer an alternative. That appeal will still be the exception and not the rule. Soft drink companies have invested a lot of time and money in “healthy” drink alternatives. Coca-Cola isn’t going away any time soon, though.

Fowlkes: OK but come on, how is anyone supposed to not click on that Till story? A stolen taxi cab (allegedly)? In the Canary Islands? After getting (allegedly) kicked out of a trashed hotel room with fire extinguishers and what not sprayed everywhere? Danny, that story has everything. Who could just scroll past that?!

But see, my point with Franklin was that he got a lot of attention because he was a man well-suited to the times. The UFC had a need and he was the perfect guy to meet that need. Now times have changed and the sport has different needs, but those can and will change. We might not be bowled over by a fighting teacher anymore, but enough of those Till headlines and we might start to crave more stories about fighters building playgrounds for kids with disabilities.

Controversy will always click to some extent. But when everyone is trying the same few tricks, pretty soon it doesn’t seem so special. Maybe the current era isn’t suited to the rise of the next Rich Franklin, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever come back around.

Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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