AN UNLIKELY CHAMPION
By Howard T. Brody
The lights dim and the movie starts. For the next two hours we are taken on a whirlwind journey of one man’s struggle to beat the odds and become a champion. It seemingly has all the elements of a great motion picture: realistic characters, family strife, an aging athlete and an almost perfect ending. You leave the theater wanting more – perhaps even a sequel.
There’s just one problem. This isn’t a movie. This is real life. And the real life belongs to Las Vegas resident, Dennis Franklin.
In late 2014, Franklin was training alongside fighter Leo Liuzza in preparation for a January 2015 tournament to crown the World Karate Organization (WKO) United States Champion. Dennis knew Leo was a tough, young competitor with a lot of ambition, and he believed his colleague had it in him to win the tournament. However, Dennis was no stranger to tournaments, himself. Twenty years earlier he took the top prize of a tournament held in Muncie, Indiana – the Professional Karate Commission (PKC) United States middleweight championship. But, fighting is a young man’s sport, or so they say, and while Dennis might’ve had all the heart in the world, would age be a factor come January?
As the U.S. title tournament got underway, Liuzza suffered a blowing defeat at the hands of Michael Martinez of the New York Dojo and was eliminated from the field. Because the tournament called for everyone to face each other, as fate would have it, the 44-year-old Franklin found himself face-to-face with the guy who beat his training partner. He needed to step up.
On Saturday, January 24, the 5-foot 8-inch 195-pounder proved experience could prevail, as Dennis defeated Martinez not once, but twice, and earned a spot representing the United States on October 31st in Tokyo, Japan for the 11th World Championship. For the next nine months Dennis would train for the WKO World Title, balancing what appeared to be a normal life to most outsiders.
Aside from being an MMA athlete and trainer, like many in Las Vegas, Dennis leads a dual life. For 25 years he has been in a relationship with a lady named Alicia (they’ve been married for 21) and together they have three grown children: Jasmyn, 23; Diamond, 22; and Destiney, 19. “One day, I knew I’d be surrounded by women,” Dennis said with a smile, “I just didn’t know it’d be my wife and kids.”
A sense of humor might be the last thing one would expect from a fighter. But in Dennis Franklin’s other job, if he is not friendly, outgoing and smiling, the people he services may not stick around, and that would be a big no-no.
For several years Dennis has worked for Station Casinos, a local gaming entity that, along with several competitors, dominate the “Locals” market in Las Vegas. Some of their more well-known properties include Red Rock Resort, Green Valley Ranch and Palace Station, among many others. As a dealer specializing in blackjack, roulette and Pai gow poker, Dennis seems to excel in his two lives equally. In 2012, Dennis won a Hospitality Hero award from the city of Las Vegas during National Tourism and Travel Week, for consistently providing outstanding customer experiences.
But Dennis Franklin wasn’t always a model employee, or even a model athlete, for that matter. In fact, like so many others who are shown discipline by being involved in sports, one could say martial arts “saved” Dennis from following the self-destructive path he was on.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio, by the age of 15, Dennis Franklin found himself living in Mount Dora, Florida, with his mother, Mary Ann, and stepfather, Rick Miller. One night Dennis disobeyed his stepfather’s midnight curfew, to attend a party, and eventually came home in the early hours of the morning. Finding himself locked out of the house, Dennis tried sneaking in, only to be caught and confronted by Rick.
“ I got punched in the face and worked over pretty good,” he said, thinking back to that morning. “A couple of years earlier my stepfather fought my older brother and broke a couple of his ribs. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.”
The ensuing fistfight was one where Dennis defended himself, but wouldn’t fight back. At one point he managed to throw his stepfather to the ground and was going to kick him, but didn’t. He wanted to send a message that he could, but he knew it would be wiser not to follow through. Unfortunately for Dennis, the incident would be the catalyst for him leaving home and ending up on the streets. As a homeless teen, Dennis faced one obstacle after another. He was spiraling out of control and his self-destructive path landed him in juvenile detention at the age of 17.
Aside from a few scraps, as teens in that environment often have, Dennis stayed out of trouble and anticipated his release. When he finally got word he was leaving juvie, he was ecstatic. However, it apparently was a cruel joke played on the young man, for instead of being released as he was led to believe, he was transferred to the county jail.
Now realizing that he just had to survive in order to get out of there, Dennis tried his best to keep his nose clean. For the most part, he stayed to himself. Unfortunately, another detainee had other ideas. Because Dennis appeared to be an easy mark, a 30-something seasoned inmate who had about 100 pounds on the young man targeted his prey. But Dennis would have none of that. He did his best to avoid the guy at all costs. But one day Dennis found himself boxed into a corner. He was forced to come out swinging – and when he did, he took down the big thug in the process. From that point forward, Dennis was left alone. He did what he had to do to survive.
When he was finally released, Dennis knew that if he didn’t make a change in his life, he would end up back in county jail. Or worse yet, he would find himself in a state prison. Decision time was now or never.
Before long, Dennis was in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and by chance found himself walking past Chuck Muckinhaupt’s “House of Self-Defense.” From the street, he spotted a local fighter named Sean Cornelle working on a speed bag and he went inside to check it out. When Dennis asked Muckinhaupt if he could train there, the Shudokan Karate Master tested him on the mat with various sparring partners. Surprisingly, Dennis defeated everyone Muckinhaupt paired him up with.
Muckinhaupt was so impressed with the youngster’s initial performance that Dennis was given a green belt instead of the traditional white for starters. His formal training began immediately. While he was tested often during training and had his clock cleaned more than once, after nine months of intense training, Dennis finally would have his first fight in Erie, Pennsylvania, of which he came away the victor. Not long thereafter, Dennis reached another milestone – scoring his first trophy, when he took the state kickboxing championship in Butler, Pennsylvania. “That first trophy means the most to me,” he said. “Because it was the first one that I won. I’ve kept it for 25 years.”
That first tournament win would springboard Dennis to other state and regional titles. However, as good as he was and although he qualified, due to finances, Dennis never competed in the nationals—until he met a Taekwondo Master named Bruce Cummings. “I was in Butler when I met Bruce,” Dennis recalled. “He told me that if I trained with him and qualified, he would take me to the nationals. So I moved to Butler, qualified, and true to his word, Bruce took me to the nationals, where I won.”
As Dennis continued honing his craft by training in different disciplines, he ended up back in Youngstown, this time focused on boxing at Jack Loew’s Southside Boxing Club, where future WBC, WBO and The Ring magazine middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik also trained.
As he was progressing as a young boxer, Dennis decided to go to Pittsburgh to watch the Golden Gloves and unsuspectingly ended up in the ring. “I wasn’t supposed to even fight,” Dennis explained. “I didn’t submit papers or anything. But I had my bag with me and they said they needed another fighter. So I stepped up.” As a 165-pound sub-novice boxer, Dennis ended up winning the tournament when he knocked his opponent (the boxer who was the odds-on favorite to win the tournament) clear out of the ring.
Over time, he went from boxing back to kickboxing and was finally ready to make the transition to the pros. And in his first professional fight, against Steve Williams, who never had an opponent last more than two rounds, Dennis went toe-to-toe with him for six. Despite the back and forth battle, Williams caught Dennis with a double left hook in the sixth, delivering a knockout loss.
But that was a long time ago. Today, as the reigning U.S. champion and a world-class trainer, Dennis Franklin looks for someone with heart. You can train anybody to kick and punch,” he explains. “To be successful, they need to have the will to keep going . . . the will to push through . . . the will to overcome any obstacle . . . they need to have determination.”
No doubt Dennis’ in-ring philosophy mirrors his life and is drawn from his experiences. In 2010, Dennis suffered a near fatal motorcycle accident when his bike flipped. He broke his back, hip, shoulder and pelvis. Paramedics told the person he was riding with that he wouldn’t make it to the hospital. Then, at the hospital, doctors told his family he wouldn’t make it through the night. The prognosis was that he would never even walk again, let alone fight.
So, does this very real storybook tale have a happy ending? On October 31, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan, at the age of 44, Dennis Franklin entered a 208-man tournament of champions, with the hopes of becoming the WKO World Champion.
While Dennis would lose his first round match and was eliminated from the tournament, his story does have a happy ending, because titles do not make the man. Long before he ever got on a plane and headed to the Far East, long before he ever won the U.S. title, Dennis Franklin was a world champion in a different arena – the arena of life. He recognized the self-destructive path he was on and through drive and determination changed himself for the better. If he wasn’t willing to do so, he would not be the man he is today: a well-respected member of the community and more important than that, a loving husband and father. That’s what real world champions are made of.
Now, if that’s not a happy ending, what is?