Normally, when one is traveling abroad and approached by the authorities to report to a government office, there’s good reason to be worried.
That might not have been a concern for Rich Franklin during a recent visit to Mongolia, given that his current work with ONE Championship has put him in a position where he has to be prepared for anything, but he was caught off-guard when he was informed out of the blue that his presence had been requested by the country’s president.
Franklin was on-site working on an episode of the upcoming fifth season of ONE Warrior Series (available for North American audiences via YouTube) and along with show director Jonathan Fong, they were to head to the president’s office immediately. There was no cause for alarm.
President Khaltmaagiin Battulga was simply a huge fan of the program.
“When we were in Mongolia, Jonathan and I, we’re walking around downtown, and we have a contact there that’s kind of showing us around, who’s being our guide, and he gets a call from the president’s office. The president of Mongolia, who requests our presence in his office,” Franklin told MMA Fighting. “We’re not far from the government building downtown where the president’s office is and we’re just in flip-flops and shorts. So we had to go to this store and buy new clothes to meet the president.
“We go into the office and he wanted to meet. He said, ‘I saw on your social media that you were here and I wanted you to come into the office. I’m a fan of the show, I watch your show.’ He actually knew the show, he said, ‘I liked the episode where you guys were in Bangkok’ and he’s going through stories and I’m like, this is crazy. I’m standing in the president of Mongolia’s office and he’s telling me that he’s a fan of the show. He wanted to talk to us about how the shoot was going in Mongolia and if we needed any help with anything. Mongolia’s probably one of my favorite countries I’ve been to and my job is to go and just show how amazing a place is. I fell in love with Mongolia. I basically told him, ‘Listen, we’re here not only to find talent, but to showcase the beauty of the country here.’”
That’s how the OWS project started, as a way for the Singapore-based promotion to scout for up-and-coming talent with which to bolster their rapidly increasing number of events. ONE had already built up a roster with stars from China, the Philippines, and Myanmar among other countries, so who’s to say that the next big thing wasn’t just waiting to be discovered in areas with less prominent MMA scenes like India, Pakistan, or Brunei.
ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong figured someone should go look and the man he picked for the job was Franklin. The former UFC middleweight champion joined ONE in 2014 and was assigned a vice president title, which had him involved in planning and ambassador work. It wasn’t until Sityodtong came up with the OWS concept that Franklin’s role became more clear.
At first, he wanted nothing to do with it.
“When I was hired in and I first relocated down here to Singapore, I was handling a ton of different things for ONE,” Franklin said. “There wasn’t this clear path for ‘Rich handles this specific thing.’ I was handling so many different things, Chatri comes to me and he says, ‘I have this idea. Think of Anthony Bourdain. Think of No Reservations or Parts Unknown,’ and he starts describing this thing and he used that name, this show specifically. He had the framework of this thing kind of figured out and at the time I was so busy, I looked at him and said, ‘Chatri, I don’t have time for this. I’m sorry, but I can’t do it.’
“And he just looked at me and he kind of smacked me on the shoulder and he goes, ‘You’re gonna do great, man.’
“And he just walked away and I looked at him like, ‘I just said no.’”
Soon, Franklin’s other responsibilities were de-prioritized and he found himself zipping across Asia, landing in Bangkok, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul to tape footage for the first season of OWS. Outside of the recommendation that he use Bourdain’s shows as a rough guideline, it was up to Franklin, Fong, matchmaker Bashir Ahmad, and the rest of their team to come up with the format of the show and develop chemistry with each other and the prospective fighters.
Fong, a business major from Boston College, had zero broadcasting experience while Franklin had to learn new skills on the fly despite being a marquee name in the UFC for years and having a few minor acting roles on his resume. The two serve as the hosts for OWS and they’ve established a dynamic where each man has the opportunity to take the other out of his comfort zone, usually as a consequence of someone losing a cultural challenge.
The two were in Yongin, South Korea, earlier this year and after Fong—who is terrified of heights—lost a bet to Franklin, he was required to ride the T Express, one of the world’s fastest wooden rollercoasters, much to Franklin’s delight. It’s not all thrills and chills though, and it’s the versatile nature of the show that has Franklin confident the format could click with a North American audience.
“We just went to Korea and we did an episode on baristas, on the cafe culture of Korea. It’s a huge thing there. They have a national barista competition every year and there are international barista competitions,” Franklin said. “I’m not a coffee drinker, I didn’t know this. So we’re telling this story from the perspective of an athlete who used to work as a barista and now he’s kind of working as a barista again to just supplement his income.
“One episode, we’re doing something on baristas. The next episode we’re riding horses through the mountains of Mongolia. The next episode we’re bungee jumping off of some crazy platform where people are scared to death of heights and so on and so forth, so you never know what you’re going to get with this television show. I think that that would actually appeal to a wide audience of people, really I do.”
Season five of OWS is expected to air sometime in 2020 and like the previous seasons, will be broadcast in television markets all across Asia. While Franklin waits for post-production to wrap, he has time on his hands, and he admits that he often thinks about what it would be like to compete again.
“I get bit by that bug all the time. I just don’t talk about it a whole lot because—I’ll say this, up until probably the last year or so, I have thought on numerous occasions about coming back,” Franklin said. “Because physically I feel good still, I’m still in good shape. Of course, as time drifts on I realize those are probably more thoughts than they are actual true feelings of me being able to succeed, because as you get older it just becomes more and more difficult.
“But no, you think about it all the time.”
Franklin, 45, has thought about how ONE might be able to work him onto a card, given that they host athletic contests outside of MMA. Perhaps he could try his hand in a kickboxing exhibition? Or take to the mats in a grappling-only contest? How about a “last hurrah” MMA bout against another legend, like the recently signed Vitor Belfort?
A former math teacher, he’s crunched the numbers and even if he were to take a supposedly less strenuous exhibition bout, the physical and mental demands that he would put on himself would take away greatly from his current passion. Wanting to make OWS the best it can be ‘ticks a lot of the boxes’ for Franklin from a competitive standpoint.
He’s even reluctant to take time away from the show to help with ONE’s U.S. expansion, though he’ll certainly do his part if asked; besides, it would be nice just to remind his co-workers that he’s still around.
“If I’m going to be involved in the expansion in the U.S., something would have to give on this project,” Franklin said. “I don’t think that I could manage to put up 24 episodes in a year while simultaneously traveling to the U.S., doing business there. I’m all over the place as is. I just returned from Korea, before the end of the year I’ll have another trip to the Phillippines, and we’re going to Pakistan to do some filming there, because I have several Pakistani athletes and they have amazing stories. When you have that kind of travel schedule and you’re just all over the place, it’s crazy.
“People, they’ll jokingly see me in the office and they’ll be like, ‘I didn’t realize you still worked for the company.’ Because one week I’m traipsing around the jungles of Malaysia, the next week I’m hiking in Mt. Fuji in Japan and so on and so forth. I’m all over the place and rarely in the office. It’s kind of a joke with a lot of my colleagues that aren’t involved in the ONE Warrior Series project. If I was to be involved in some level, something would have to give on that project.”
The first chapter of Franklin’s career would be enough for most: A UFC champion who can say he’s been in the cage with the likes of Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, and countless other names that could be considered MMA royalty. Now he’s rubbing shoulders with presidents.
Whether he meant for it to be this way or not, chapter two is already looking like a more-than-worthy sequel.
“As much as I like being the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants Mr. Adventure guy, I also am very regimented with my routine and my tradition,” Franklin said. “So I’m constantly battling this within myself of like, I need to keep myself on track and stay regimented on my training.
“But at the same time going to climb that mountain sure sounds fun too.”