After six years in the UFC, Rich Franklin embraces the chance to be one of mixed martial arts' cleaner-cut poster boys. He doesn't even mind when those posters are hanging in unfamiliar cities such as Dallas.
The former high school math teacher from Cincinnati has taken this role for the UFC several times on two continents in recent years. Although the former middleweight champion took a step back with two recent losses, he's still a title contender whose interesting background and gutsy fighting style make him an ideal mixed martial arts icebreaker, whether it's in Germany, Ireland, Atlanta or Big D.
"If the UFC wants to use me as an ambassador, that's fine," Franklin said. "The UFC is doing such a job with expanding that it's nearly impossible to not fight in a new city. I do feel like they kind of put me in that ambassador position, but I don't mind doing it at all."
Vitor Belfort will return from a 4 1/2-year UFC absence to face Franklin on Saturday night in what's expected to be the highest-grossing athletic event in the history of American Airlines Center, the home of the Dallas Stars and Mavericks. MMA has a strong following in Texas, whose fans also will see celebrated Croatian heavyweight Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic against Brazil's Junior dos Santos.
The 34-year-old Franklin (27-4) originally was slated for a rematch against Dan Henderson, who beat him by split decision in Dublin in January. When UFC president Dana White sensed fans weren't interested in that fight, he replaced Henderson with Belfort, the former UFC 205-pound champion who hadn't fought for the league since February 2005.
"I don't think that I could be fighting a nicer guy than Vitor," Franklin said. "But I don't think that's going to make him hesitate from throwing punches or hitting me in the face on Saturday. As a competitor, I just want to win, and it doesn't matter if I'm headlining a show (or) if there's a title on the line. It's not just another fight."
Belfort (18-8) won a UFC heavyweight tournament back in 1997, when the 20-year-old known as "Phenom" was generally considered pretty much unbeatable for a time. Losses to Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz changed all that, and he slipped into stints with Strikeforce, Pride and Affliction before earning his way back to UFC with four straight wins.
Belfort, who trains at Couture's gym in Las Vegas, is humble about his struggles and grateful for another opportunity.
"I'm excited to be back in the organization," Belfort said. "At the beginning it was smaller, and now it's so huge. There's so many opportunities for everybody, so I'm really excited to be fighting the best fighters in the world."
Although Franklin seems most comfortable at the UFC's 205-pound light heavyweight limit, Belfort wanted a lighter limit, and Franklin agreed to a 195-pound catch weight. Belfort plans to fight at 185 pounds in the future, while Franklin will go back to 205.
If Belfort wins, White thinks he'll soon get a shot at Anderson Silva, the longtime middleweight champion who stopped Franklin twice in the past three years.
"Vitor still poses a threat the way he did several years ago with his speed and the explosiveness of his hands, and that's obviously something that we're going to be looking out for," Franklin said. "But more recently, he's become a much more well-rounded MMA fighter, and that's going to obviously pose more of a challenging fight. If I find myself in a little bit of trouble on my feet, it won't be as easy as just taking him down."
Filipovic (25-6-2) hopes to maintain the momentum of his second stint with UFC, which began with a win over Mostapha Al Turk on Franklin's Germany undercard in June. Cro Cop, a dynamic kickboxer and former antiterrorist policeman, is eager to stay active after rededicating himself to training, which included building an octagon at his home in Croatia.
"I feel much more comfortable now in the cage, and I train all of the time in the cage," Filipovic said. "I felt really good in my last fight in Germany, and I think I'm on the right way. I think I'm just like I used to be in my old days."