COLOGNE, Germany – Rich Franklin was not surprised by a lack of understanding about mixed martial arts by German journalists. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is putting on a show in the country for the first time, and many in the media have had little exposure to the sport.
So the former high school math teacher, one of the UFC's biggest stars and brightest minds, knew he'd have some educating to do.
Franklin, though, never anticipated the firestorm that awaited him when he arrived in Cologne last week to make final preparations for his main event bout against Wanderlei Silva on Saturday at UFC 99 in Lanxess Arena.
City officials restricted entrance to the event to adults, 18 and older. The media, which Franklin had found in a March promotional tour to be open-minded if lacking understanding, had been whipped into a frenzy, as if the fight card might somehow signal the beginning of the end of civilized society.
One newspaper in Frankfurt reported that the fighters competed with bare hands and that fighting to the death was within the rules. The UFC had to resort to sending legal letters to numerous news outlets demanding corrections or retractions.
Most veteran fighters have been through it before. Franklin will be fighting for the third time in Europe and, because of his eloquence and visibility as one of UFC's marquee names, he's often found himself defending the sport and becoming a spokesman for it.
The last thing he expected, though, was calls for the event to be banned in Germany.
"Being here, it's been kind of an eye-opener because it's kind of a rewind of the U.S., from 12, 13 years ago," Franklin said.
Thursday's final pre-fight news conference at the Hyatt Regency lasted an hour, with most of the questions not about the fights, the fighters and the tactics they'll use, but about the media and the governmental attitude toward MMA in general.
An incorrect perception seems to exist among those who don't understand the sport that the intent is to maim or cripple an opponent and that the fighters are bloodthirsty Neanderthals.
NFL players try to hit their opponents as hard as they possibly can, but not one of them would want to injure another. The same is true in MMA. The point is not to injure, but to win. While injuries can occur in the pursuit of victory, it's not the objective.
"I was interviewed by German media (Wednesday), and they asked me a question about the sport being dangerous," Franklin said. "It's amazing to me, the idea of danger that people have in their head. I was picked up at the airport on Saturday morning and when we got on the Autobahn, we were doing about 240 to 250 kilometers an hour to get to the hotel. I didn't mind. The driver asked me if I wanted him to slow down and I said, 'You can speed up if you want.' But to do something like that in the United States is completely absurd.
"Going that fast, to think about the danger you're imposing upon yourself and other drivers, but that's the way things operate here. Now, their highways are safe. I didn't feel unsafe doing that speed. All the other drivers know what's going on. They're all educated about how to drive at that speed. But if you tried to do something like that in the U.S., it would be very dangerous."
Franklin pointed out that he rarely thinks of being injured, though he's aware he takes a risk each time he climbs into the cage.
"It's the same thing when you get into your car," Franklin said. "There's a risk of getting hurt, which is why you put your seat belt on, to try to minimize it, but it's not something you think about consciously every day."
It takes a certain kind of person who is willing to risk getting kicked and punched in the head, but the fact is that there have been only two deaths in MMA and only one of those was in a sanctioned fight. There has never been a death in UFC competition and no injury more serious than a broken arm. And because of the grappling and wrestling aspects of the sport, there is far less risk of brain injury than there is in a sport like boxing.
Still, Franklin hears about the sport's dangers not only from those in countries like Germany, which are just now being exposed to the fights, but also from fellow athletes who are in awe of what he does.
"I've run into athletes in other sports, football players, and they're like, 'Oh my God, you're crazy. You're crazy for doing what you do,'–" he said. "And I always say, 'You know who is crazy? Bull riders are crazy.' There's no referee where you can tap out once the bull starts bucking you off. Motocross riders are crazy. I don't know who thought it was a great idea to go upside on a motorcycle 70 feet in the air, but somebody did and these guys do it and they're good at it. I love watching it, but would I ever do it? You bet your ass I wouldn't.
"There are things out there that, in my opinion, are way crazier than what I do. But you take a motocross guy who looks at what I do and he says, 'Heck no, I don't want to get punched in the face.' If I get knocked out, I usually wake up 15 minutes later and say, 'Man, did I lose?' Those guys, if they're upside down on a bike and something goes wrong, they usually wake up a week later with 70,000 things in their body broken."
The hysteria will die as understanding of the sport grows, which is why Marshall Zelaznik, the UFC's U.K. president and the man overseeing the company's development in Europe, didn't want to make too much of the criticism and the outrage.
He simply advised letting the event speak for itself. It was a good point, but he's helped greatly by having a spokesman like Franklin.
"I understand someone who doesn't like the sport," Franklin said. "That's their prerogative. Not everybody likes every sport. Different people have different tastes. And I realize that when you lack education about something, you may have some misperceptions.
"But it's been kind of strange hearing what's been said here over the last few days. We've made a lot of growth with this sport and introducing it to people and explaining about the athletes and what we do. But this also shows there is a lot more work to do in that regard."
- Rich Franklin