How Rich Franklin became the Anthony Bourdain of combat sports

Where in the world is Rich Franklin?

Depending on when you ask that question, the answer might be Singapore, Mongolia, Australia, Myanmar, Pakistan — any far-flung corner of the planet you can imagine. As the President and host of ONE Warrior Series, the former UFC middleweight champion is almost always on the move.

It’s a life he never would have imagined for himself when he was still living in the US, at the height of his career with the UFC.

“I went to university to be a high school teacher,” the UFC Hall of Famer told BJPENN.com with a laugh. “When you look at the path of my life — where I’ve been and what I’ve done — I never would have dreamed my life would play out this way.

“It’s a really cool position to be in.”

ONE Warrior Series, for those unfamiliar, is equal parts travel show and ONE Championship talent-scouting program. It’s a bit like a combination of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series — and it’s all available for free on YouTube.

“The concept of this whole thing was kind of modeled after Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations,” Franklin said.

“Part of my job is to unearth the culture,” he continued. “That can be anything from different customs to different types of food, different sports… Then of course you have the athletes. On that side of things, you tell the story of the athletes, whatever their story may be: what life is like for them, struggles they’ve had in the past, and how those things relate the martial arts game.

“You get people from all walks of life. It’s really amazing.”

Unsurprisingly, Franklin enjoys his work. In fact, he loves it.

When the idea was first broached in the earlier chapters of his ONE Championship career, however, he was hesitant. It sounded like a lot of work, and he was already busy enough.

“When I first relocated [to Singapore], I was handling several different things for the company,” he said. “The company was using me in a lot of different ways all over the place and I had all these responsibilities, and then the CEO, Chatri, he comes to me and he says, ‘I have this idea.’ It was pretty much the framework of what we’re doing now. When he told me this, I looked at him, straight up, and I said, ‘absolutely not.’

“I had so much on my plate at the time, I just couldn’t handle one more thing,” he continued. “[Sityodtong] just kind of patted me on the shoulder, and was like ‘yep, you’re going to do great.’”

The rest, as they say, is history.

ONE Warrior Series is now in full swing. The show is taking Franklin all over Asia, and increasingly further afield in search of undiscovered martial arts talent.

Over the course of each episode, he gets to know local, up-and-coming athletes, and if he likes what he sees, he signs them to ONE Warrior Series, which is effectively ONE Championship’s farm team.

The fighters that perform well in ONE Warrior Series then graduate on to the main ONE Championship roster with exclusive contracts worth north of $100,000 USD in sum.

Rich Franklin takes great joy in being able to hand out these life-altering contracts, though it is not always easy to decide who gets them and who doesn’t.

“Doing this show there can comes with a tremendous weight,” he said. “Oftentimes you have these matchups where I went to one athlete’s village and spent several days with him, and then I went to another athlete’s town and spent several days with him, and I’m sitting there scratching my head, knowing their backstories, knowing both of these guys came from poverty and they’ve sacrificed everything; that this is their escape…

“You see two guys like that get into the ring, and you hate seeing it, because somebody has to lose. That’s the reality of it. When you get to know the guys, you just want everybody to succeed. So it does feel good to give out these contracts, but at the same time, there are more people not earning contracts —that’s pure statistics — so there’s a real sense of responsibility with that.”

While not every athlete featured on ONE Warrior Series ends up signing a contract, many do, and some become bona fide stars for the promotion. There’s no better example of that than Thailand’s Stamp Fairtex.

Stamp, who grew up working on a fruit farm in a family of Muay Thai fighters, is now the ONE atomweight kickboxing champion and the ONE atomweight Muay Thai champion. She’s also 3-0 in MMA, and hurtling towards a shot at Angela Lee’s belt at a breakneck pace.

To see ONE Warrior Series graduates like Stamp succeed at such a high level fills Franklin with pride.

“I’m like a proud papa,” he joked. “My entire team, even the production people, everybody, we all become invested in [these athletes].

“There’s a personal feeling of pride, but then secondly, there’s this point where we can actually step back and, as a team, collectively give ourselves a pat on the back because we’re doing our jobs when people are rewarded contracts and they come through to ONE championship and they’re winning. We’re finding the right kind of talent that we need to find.”

Suffice it to say that ONE Warrior Series has been tremendously successful so far. Rich Franklin expects more of the same in the coming years. That means more adventures in new destinations, and more undiscovered athletes migrating to ONE Championship and dominating.

“I’m hoping that if you were to fast forward the clock five years from now, every champion that holds a ONE championship belt will have come through ONE Warrior Series,” Franklin concluded.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/14/2019. 

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UFC Sao Paulo | Pro fighters make their picks for Jan Blachowicz vs. Ronaldo Souza

In the main event of UFC Sao Paulo, Jan Blachowicz is looking to make it two in a row when he welcomes Ronaldo Souza to the light heavyweight division. Heading into the fight, Blachowicz is a -200 favorite while ‘Jacare’ is a +160 underdog.

Ahead of the action, BJPENN.com reached out to several pro fighters to get their predictions. The majority are leaning towards Blachowicz and some see the Polish fighter getting another knockout win. Many also believe the size difference will play a factor.

Here’s what they had to say.

BJPENN.com Fighter Picks: Jan Blachowicz vs. Ronaldo Souza:

Johnny Walker, UFC light heavyweight: I think Blachowicz will win. Maybe he can knock out Jacare just like the last fight against Rockhold.

Curtis Millender, Bellator welterweight: I think Jacare. I think he will be able to get Blachowicz to the ground and submit him.

John Salter, Bellator middleweight: Jacare doesn’t have a whole lot of holes in his game and has good striking and obviously the jiu-jitsu. I think Jacare will win.

Steven Peterson, UFC featherweight: I want to go with Jacare, but he hasn’t looked too impressive in his last few outings. Going against a powerhouse striker in Blachowicz, I think Jacare will have trouble setting up his takedowns and I think the power strikes will be too much for him. Jan Blachowicz by TKO in round one.

David Zawada, UFC welterweight: I think Blachowicz gets it done. He is the better striker, it will be a hard fight for him. Jacare has a lot of experience and is good on the ground. Blachowicz will be stronger and bigger and get the win.

Andrew Kapel, Bellator middleweight: A lot of people sleep on Jan. Jacare is a legend and is on the backside of his career with wars and is durable. I think Jacare could put Jan on his back, and Jan is a big boy and will be able to get up. I think Jan will win the fight, but I don’t think he will be able to finish the fight.

***

Fighters picking Jan Blachowicz: Johnny Walker, Steven Peterson, David Zawada, Andrew Kapel

Fighters picking Ronaldo Souza: Curtis Millender, John Salter

Who do you think will win the fight between Jan Blachowicz and Ronaldo Souza at UFC Sao Paulo? Let us know in the comment section.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/14/2019.

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Jake Shields not retired but not looking for fights

Jake Shields is keeping his options open.

The 40-year-old has not fought since October 2018 at PFL 10 when he lost by TKO to Ray Cooper III for the second time in the year. He wanted to try out the tournament format, but at his age, he said he didn’t know if he wanted to fight so often to do it again.

Since then, he has been pondering his options but is not ready to retire. Yet, he doesn’t know if he will fight again. Instead, he wants to focus on jiu-jitsu and grappling matches.

“Yeah, I haven’t been fighting, but I haven’t retired so it is a possibility,” Jake Shields told BJPENN.com when asked about fighting again. “I’m not really sure if I will fight anymore at this point. I’m not looking for fights as I’m focused on grappling but if there was a fight that interested me, I’d consider it.”

In his career, Shields was one of the best grapplers in his era. He translated that success into the cage where he was the Shooto welterweight champion, Strikeforce middleweight champion, Elite XC welterweight champion, and challenged for the UFC’s welterweight title.

He fought Georges St-Pierre in one of the biggest events in promotional history. The pair fought at the Rogers Center in Toronto, Ontario where 55,724 people were in attendance.

Shields has had some great moments in his MMA career, and if he returns, it also doesn’t have to be with PFL as he revealed he is no longer under contract with the promotion.

“No, I am not under contract with the PFL. I can go wherever now,” Shields said.

If something comes up that Shields likes, we might just see him back in the cage. For now, though, he is just focusing on grappling and training with the Diaz brothers in Stockton, California.

Do you think we will ever see Jake Shields fight again?

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/13/2019. 

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Kevin Lee eyes early 2020 bout with Paul Felder or Conor McGregor

Kevin Lee returned to the win column in a big way at UFC 244, when he knocked Gregor Gillespie out cold with a head kick in the first round. The win snapped his two-fight losing streak and put him into the top-10 of the lightweight division.

For Lee, the exact head kick was not planned, but after a few exchanges, he knew the opening was there but was hesitant to throw it due to an injury.

“I feel like every single thing I threw in the fight was something we trained for. For this one, especially the head kick, I hurt my ankle like a week before the fight,” Kevin Lee said to BJPENN.com. “I told Firas, if I’m going to throw one head kick, it will be the left one cause it was hard for me to plant it and throw the right. So, I said f**k it, I’m going to hit him with the injured ankle. The ankle was a big problem, and it got to the point, where I didn’t know if I was going to take the fight. I could barely walk a week before the fight, but it was getting better and better each day.”

Heading into the fight, Lee was an underdog, which he didn’t agree with. He believed people were overlooking him, and knows this win will get momentum behind him again. The win also proves to him that lightweight is the division for him. Especially after what he says was a good weight cut and recovery where he added that he weighed around 180 pounds on fight night.

“Of course. I felt it, a lot of other people felt it, too. A lot of people wrote me off and they took me out of a lot of conversations that I should have been in,” he said. “I just let my actions do the speaking for me. I’ve been top-five, I’ve been top-one to me. I haven’t fought anyone at 155 that has really beat me.”

Now, with the momentum behind him, Lee is looking to return in early 2020. He wanted to return fight on UFC 245 but says that is not an option anymore. Whenever he makes the walk to the Octagon next, he hopes his opponent will be Paul Felder or Conor McGregor.

“If it was up to me, I would have liked to fight on UFC 245, because that would have been fun. But, I am starting to get a little name behind me so it is looking like early 2020,” Kevin Lee explained. “Which, is fine. It just gives me more and more time to build. A lot of these guys should have got me when I was young. Now they are letting me mature and getting into this thing.

“Look, Islam would have been a huge fight in Russia, but the fact that he said no, I’m looking for other fights now,” Lee added. “I know Paul Felder is looking for a fight, they are looking for someone for Conor McGregor on Jan. 18, that isn’t set yet. They are talking about ‘Cowboy’ but no contract have been signed. I don’t know, there is a lot of options.”

Although Kevin Lee wants a fight with McGregor, he doesn’t believe he will get it. He knows he would beat the Irishman and the last thing the UFC wants is McGregor to lose again.

“I am not even going to call for it. I’m not going to call Dana and ask to give me that fight because I know it and anybody that follows the sport knows I beat him,” he said. “The UFC doesn’t want him to take a loss or lose because they lose that cash cow. They have put a lot of money and time into him. But, from a competitor standpoint, I feel like that is something he should entertain. If he wants to fight for a title, and fight Khabib, he will need to fight tough wrestlers. What makes sense, my honest opinion is that fight should happen. But, he is going to duck me, he is going to duck Gaethje.”

In the end, if McGregor is not an option, Paul Felder seems like the likeliest option for the Tristar product. As for future fights, he still wants Khabib Nurmagomedov, but bouts with Justin Gaethje and a rematch against Tony Ferguson also intrigue him.

“I like both of those fights. I’m gunning after the gold and they gotta do Tony-Khabib and depending on when they do it, I’m gunning for the winner. However many fights it takes from now and then to get it, so be it. But, if Tony wins, that is a fight I want. Gaethje is a good fight, if I have to go through him to get to the winner of Tony-Khabib then so be it. I’m willing to fight anyone,” he concluded.

Who do you think Kevin Lee should fight next after UFC 244?

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/11/2019.  

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Johnny Walker says he doesn’t feel the motivation to fight: ‘I was sad with a lot of problems’

Johnny Walker says he was not in the right place mentally or emotionally for his UFC 244 fight against Corey Anderson.

In the fight, the Brazilian suffered his first defeat inside the Octagon, losing by first-round TKO. While he is reluctant to make excuses or take anything away from Anderson, he feels he was not in the right headspace ahead of the fight.

“I am always very confident but I don’t feel the motivation to fight. I have been very far away from my family many times and I was sad with a lot of problems with my team, my coach and my life,” Walker told BJPENN.com. “I’m not happy to fight and it is very stressful for fight week. Some things go wrong and it impacts me a lot. I don’t let it try to affect me but I don’t feel very happy to fight or want to win. I just want to go back to my family and recharge my energy. I’m going to make a lot of changes now.”

Walker says he will go home and see his family and make changes to his training camp, the people he surrounds himself with, and more.

He says he needs to find the motivation to fight again.

The Brazilian also believes he did not fight as he should have because he was worried about being taken down.

“I changed my game plan too much for this fight. Everyone said he was a wrestler and wants to take me down,” Walker explained. “Too many people talked to me about him taking me down, so it made me change my game. If I start the fight like I always start and go inside and give my kicks, my knees, my punch, I knock him out. I don’t know why I held myself from going at it. And then this happened.

“A lot of things happened. He can not take me down, I have good takedown defense and good wrestling,” Walker later added. “So, this fight showed me I can defend the takedown because he tried and I stuffed it. I’m not focused on the fight, as well. My mind was not good to fight, I was not excited. But, I will never let this happen again.”

Johnny Walker believes this setback will ultimately be beneficial to his career and his life. He plans on evaluating everything in his life and assures he will be more than ready for his next fight.

“I will learn a lot. Not just the technique and the fight, but about life. Everything can make a difference,” he said. “Just how people talk to you, who is around you. You have to be happy with everything and I want to change everything to make my next fight perfect.”

He hopes time in Brazil will get him motivated again and says he wants to fight again in early 2020. He already has an opponent in mind, too.

“I want the winner of Shogun Rua and Paul Craig at UFC Sao Paulo. I’ll be at the event to watch it and I want to fight the winner,” he said. 

Even though he suffered a loss, Walker is still confident and knows he is coming for Jon Jones and the title in the future.

“I’m 27, I am young and hungry. I need two more wins then I’ll be back in the same place I am now. Two or three more wins and I can challenge Jones,” he said. “I want to fight soon, maybe January, February. I have no injury just want to go to Brazil to see my family, recharge my energy and come back strong again.”

What do you make of Johnny Walker opening up about his sadness and not being motivated to fight anymore?

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/8/2019. 

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Curtis Millender discusses UFC release, reveals he signed with Bellator and has fight booked

It was recently announced that Curtis Millender was released from the UFC after going 3-2 in the promotion. He was coming off back-to-back losses, yet those losses were to Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and Belal Muhammad, who are borderline top-15 fighters.

Millender isn’t upset about getting cut but does have a chip on his shoulder now.

“I think that was the biggest shock for me. Just the body of work that I had in the UFC and when they cut me,” Millender said to BJPENN.com in his first interview since being released. “Even the guys I fought with the exception of dos Santos, they all had lost two in a row before somewhere in their UFC tenure. It was just very confusing for me. I’m not upset, I’m not bitter, but I would be lying if I didn’t have a chip on his shoulder.”

Although he isn’t upset about getting cut, he is confused. He knows he is UFC-calibre and still should be fighting inside the Octagon. Yet he was told the promotion has too many fighters so given he was on a losing streak his services were no longer needed.

“I got a couple of different reasons. They said losing two at welterweight because the division is so stacked. I was told that in July, then they said there were too many guys on the roster,” he explained. “Look, I understand I lost two in a row, but what baffles me is we just saw James Vick basically get murdered four fights in a row. It is crazy, I just don’t understand. Even those two fights I lost, I took both of them on short notice. Three of the five fights in the UFC I took on short notice. I only fought tough guys, didn’t take any easy fights. As soon as I came in I was thrown to the fire.”

Even though Curtis Millender was released, he says he and the promotion are on good terms and there is a chance he fights in the UFC again.

“They told me to win a couple and come back. That is why I only want to fight quality guys and show them the UFC is where I am supposed to be,” he said. “I have never taken an easy fight, my body of work speaks for itself. I just want to keep fighting and get my job back.”

After this twist of fate, Millender had to do what is best for him and he has already signed with Bellator and has a fight booked. He only signed a one-fight deal as he wants to keep his options open but is open to a long-term deal with Bellator if the money is right.

“I will be fighting for Bellator, on Jan. 23. We are working on the opponent as I had some people pull out already. I was supposed to fight Joe Schilling but he pulled out,” Millender revealed. “I’m working on some things and they are finding me an opponent. I have been asking for a fight every week for three or four months before I got released. So, I’ve been ready to fight for a while now.”

This will be Millender’s third stint in Bellator and fifth fight overall, as he is currently 2-2 in the promotion. He is looking at this next Bellator fight as a chance to show Bellator, the UFC, and ONE Championship that he is worthy of a long-term deal, as he is just looking to get paid regardless of the promotion.

“Wherever the best money is. Of course, I want to be in the UFC and be the best in the world and win the belt. But, I have a family to take care of,” he concluded.

What do you make of Curtis Millender being released from the UFC and signing with Bellator?

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/7/2019. 

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Muhammed Lawal believes Greg Hardy beats and possibly finishes Alexander Volkov

American Top Team coach and MMA legend Muhammed Lawal is impressed with the progress Greg Hardy has made in MMA.

The former NFL star is in his first year in the UFC and set for his fifth fight in the co-main event on Saturday when he takes on Alexander Volkov. The fight represents a massive step up in competition for Hardy, who has only fought UFC newcomers and prospects thus far.

Yet, Volkov is far from that. He is the former Bellator heavyweight champion and is a top-10 heavyweight in the UFC. The Russian is 4-1 in the UFC so far including a knockout win over Fabricio Werdum. Lawal believes this fight will really test how good Greg Hardy can be.

He believes his student can pass this test and possibly even finish Volkov.

“I am glad he is stepping up. It is good for him to take this fight. Greg Hardy had no combat sports background and everyone wanted to see him fight ranked guys right away. That is like you grabbing me and saying Mo, go play quarterback for the Cowboys next week,” Lawal told BJPENN.com of Hardy. “Man, I would get burned left and right. People need to realize Greg is a work in progress and learning on the job.

“He is doing his thing and he is ready to fight Volkov and athletically he can win this fight. If he does the right game plan he can stop Volkov. Volkov is a tough fight. Good striking, he beat Werdum, he was beating Derrick Lewis until he got caught,” Lawal continued. “He is a good fighter but so is Greg. Win or lose, Greg will learn from this fight but I think he wins and may finish Volkov.”

This is a huge fight for Hardy, and one that many fans believe he’ll lose. Yet, Lawal and the coaches at American Top Team are confident in his skill set and that he will get his hand raised in Moscow.

Do you think Greg Hardy can defeat Alexander Volkov?

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 11/7/2019. 

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