by Tom Hamlin for MMAWeekly.com
It was his first day back in the gym. Months before, he had lost his title to Brazilian import Anderson Silva by vicious knockout. He felt a little nervous lacing up his gloves. His doctor had recently OK’d him for contact, but he still felt uneasy.
After the first punch hit him in the face, he felt right at home. “It was back to business as usual,” Franklin said. “I was a little tentative, but I just needed to get in there and feel that again to get me back to normal.”
When his next opponent, Jason MacDonald, failed to answer the bell for the second round, Franklin was overwhelmed with relief. He was back, celebrating victory in front of an Ohio crowd only an hour and a half from his doorstep. UFC president Dana White spoke of a rematch with Silva in Cincinnati.
First he would have to get past striker Martin Kampmann in the UFC’s aggressive expansion into Northern Ireland this June. Only weeks into his preparation, Franklin got a call from his manager.
“He told me that Kampmann was out,” Franklin remembers. “[The UFC] gave me a choice between Paulo Filho and Yushin Okami. It didn’t matter who it was, it was just another opponent for me. But Okami signed and was ready to go, so we said okay.”
At the UFC 72 pre-fight press conference, Franklin was a little more candid about his reaction.
“It wasn’t the most exciting news I’d ever received,” he said with a wry smile.
Franklin switched gears by changing the tone of his sparring sessions. Wrestlers replaced Muay Thai specialists in the cage and on the mat.
Okami’s Greco-Roman ability and overall strength appear to be Franklin’s main concerns in a style match-up. Though Okami is not a one-dimensional fighter, his fortes could present a huge problem if he is able to execute them tomorrow at UFC 72.
“Everybody knows he’s a strong wrestler,” he says. “My concern is that he’s going to try to close the distance and take me down to say a ground and pound victory. Not let me initiate and set the pace. I know that he’s a big 185-pounder. Both of [Okami's opponent's] corners talked about how strong he was. He knocked Mike Swick out of the division and he was one of the top contenders.”
To Franklin, the distance between him and Okami isn’t that great. “He’s a lot like me, there’s nothing really tricky about what he does, it’s just that he’s really good at what he does.”
The physical aspects of the fight appear to be out of the way. “My body has adjusted as far as the time schedule,” Franklin told reporters. “My weight is on track and my water’s fine, which I thought was going to be the biggest issue with traveling. So everything seems to be going well.”
Franklin’s state of mind is the greatest variable in this fight. What some looked at as a tune-up has morphed into a title-worthy test of Franklin’s resiliency. Will he go back to that first day of sparring?
“Mentally, I’ve made the adjustments I need to make and I’m where I need to be,” Franklin said stoically. “I’m excited to be a part of the expansion. I wish it was to go on a vacation, but I’m excited to be a part of it.”