Injury-free Franklin just enjoying the ride

Rich Franklin is eyeing one last run at the UFC middleweight title he once held. Mark Goldman/Icon SMI

The fire still burns within Rich Franklin. He’s still committed to reclaiming the UFC middleweight championship he held from June 2005 until October 2006, and the first step toward achieving that goal comes Saturday night when he meets Wanderlei Silva at UFC 147 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The importance of defeating Silva for the second straight time isn’t lost on Franklin. He wants to make one more run at the 185-pound belt and beating Silva should go a long way toward making that goal a possibility.

But while landing a title shot remains a priority, it doesn’t carry the same weight for Franklin that it did a few short years ago. At 37, Franklin will enter the cage Saturday with a perspective quite different from the one he held previously. While becoming a champion again remains important, it’s doesn’t equal the enjoyment Franklin gets these days from simply being a mixed martial artist.

Franklin soaks up every ounce of training camp; even answering reporters’ questions is a pleasure. Each walk toward the Octagon holds extra special meaning.

The experience of being a professional fighter, every aspect of it, is something Franklin refuses to take lightly -- because it will all come to an end in the not-too-distant future. Already, he can see the finish line at the end of his career approaching.

He doesn’t know how many fights he has left, so Franklin intends to enjoy each and every one.

“When you’re 25 years old and you’re doing this stuff, you assume it’ll be there forever,” Franklin told ESPN.com. “In that mindset, that’s the way that you think.

“I now know that it will not be here forever. I know that I’m fighting on limited time. And because of that I am more appreciative, and I try to enjoy these last few years of my career. I know that one day I will wake up and it won’t be there. I know that the day I retire, I will not return. I will be 100 percent retired.”

Franklin can’t say specifically when he will call it quits, but the clock is ticking. The end is likely to arrive in a little more than two years -- or sooner. So, he is making the most of this bout against the high-profile Silva. Franklin has had a solid training camp, which began with him preparing to face former Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le at UFC 148.

He was well on his way toward easily cutting to the 185-pound limit when UFC called and asked if he’d replace injured Vitor Belfort and take on face Silva.

“UFC had a fighter drop out of a main event, and when you have a fight that isn’t a main event, when UFC calls and asks you to move up two weeks to fight in a main event, what are you going to do?” said Franklin, who will carry a 28-6 (one no contest) pro record into the cage against Silva.

A main-event win over Silva (34-11-1, one no contest) will go a lot further toward impressing UFC decision-makers than beating Le.

Franklin likes the way he feels physically. His right shoulder is fully healed and he hasn’t experienced any difficulty cutting weight.

But being healthy and going through a relatively easy weight cut is only part of the winning formula. Though Franklin owns a unanimous decision win over Silva, he isn’t looking past the former Pride 205-pound titleholder.

“The [right] shoulder is great. I couldn’t be happier with the shoulder,” Franklin said. “I’ve had flexible shoulders to begin with and we worked heavily on my flexibility.

“The shoulder is the least of my worries as far as this fight is concerned. Guys like Wanderlei, fighters like him, they’ve been in the business a long time for a good reason. A fighter like him who’s faced me before will make the adjustments necessary to beat me. I have to be ready for that.

“The fighter I am going to face June 23 is not the same fighter that I fought at UFC 99.”