Rich Franklin learned how to become a fighter, thanks to videos from Mixed Martial Arts bouts and a shed in a friend’s Harrison backyard.
That’s the way he trained before he had his first pro fight in 1999, when he was a math teacher at Oak Hills High School.
“At that time it was the wild, wild west of MMA,” Franklin said. “It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to go to an amateur show, fight someone who was 20 or 40 pounds heavier than me, have on unregulated gloves and without the appropriate medical staff.
“Fortunately the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) at that time moved towards sanctioning rules and it really brought the sport under a ruling system.”
After his first pro fight, Franklin, now 38, continued a UFC career that has earned him national recognition. In June 2005, Franklin won the UFC Middleweight Championship and defended the title twice before losing it to Anderson Silva in 2006.
“There was a point in my life when I would put my signature on a piece of paper and gave it to a kid and he wouldn’t want to take it home,” Franklin said of his days as a math teacher. “Now, I can put my signature on a piece of paper and a kid is willing to stand in line for a couple of hours for it.”
Not only has Franklin come a long way, so have his training methods.
Today, Franklin trains in his hometown of West Chester at the Jorge Gurgel Mixed Martial Arts Academy, which was established in 2001 and is home to 650 students.
“If you are interested in Mixed Martial Arts, it is tough to find a premier school with good instruction and the connection to Strikeforce, Bellator or UFC,’’ Franklin said. “Here we have the ability to do that. West Chester is a good focal point for guys who are looking to prep for the upper-level MMA competition.”
The local training facility is owned by Brazilian Jorge Gurgel, who fights professionally and leads the training of 25 other professional MMA fighters, including UFC stars Justin Edwards and Matt Brown.
One of his students, Wolfie Steel, 15, is the nation’s top-ranked grappler in his age group (15-17), according to nationallyranked.com. Wolfie and his father, Rod Steel, drive up from Lexington four or five times a week to train at Gurgel’s school.
“We drive two hours each way to train at JGMMA because Professor Gurgel and his coaching staff know exactly how to train champions,” Rob Steel said. “What they have done with Wolfie this past year is remarkable.”
Unlike Wolfie, most of Gurgel’s students come from the Buckeye State, which has more MMA fighters than any other state, according to the Ohio Athletic Commission.
Bernie Profato, executive director of the OAC, said there are more than 4,000 registered amateur and professional fighters in Ohio. New Jersey is second, with 1,800.
“We were one of the first in the country to set up amateur rules. That is how we got a jump on everybody,” Profato said. “A lot of people thought the sport was going to be a fad. They thought it would come and go, but it didn’t.”
For the past few years, Ohio has been second in the nation – behind California – for most MMA fighting events per year, Profato said.
“Rich Franklin and Jorge Gurgel were the cornerposts in Ohio and it built off of that,” Profato said.