From losing his first fight at the age of 19 with just eight months of training to now being a champion kickboxer with a 10-4 record, it has been a long road for Sumter native KJ Franklin.
KJ is now well on his way to achieve his aspirations as a pro fighter, all while trying to make a name for himself and the city he claims.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
While KJ was a multi-sport athlete in high school, he didn't fight until he was in college. However, there was always some internal inspiration to fight. He credits that to his parents, but his journey as a fighter started with the generosity of his cousin, Herbert Rembert, and his connection to Team Robinson MMA and Fitness and its owner, Jerome Robinson.
"My mom and dad actually boxed a little bit, so I can say fighting ran in my blood," KJ said. "It kind of came natural to me. I played multiple sports growing up; football, basketball and track. Once I started boxing, everything felt like a home. One day I saw the gym and told my cousin I wanted to go there, and he put me in it and apparently he knew Jerome. The first day I met Jerome I told him I wanted to go to the UFC and that's how this all started."
The connection between KJ and Rembert is lifelong, so Rembert was happy to provide the assist as the Sumter native looked to start his fighting career.
"KJ's dad and I are more like brothers, even though we are first cousins, so I've known KJ since he was born," Rembert said. "When KJ was in high school, I would take him to camps and stuff like that so he could try and get a college scholarship, because pretty much everybody in our family played sports. They go to college to play sports. He ended up going to the same college that I went to and I took on that role of a mentor. I was helping him move in and was helping him get on the football team and things like that.
"One day, KJ came to me and said he had an interest in kickboxing and MMA, but he didn't know anything about it or where to get started or anything like that. So I connected KJ with Jerome. Jerome brought him into the gym and he ended up really liking it. I ended up footing the bill for that. He wasn't really working and he was in college so I took it upon myself to give him access to that since that was his dream I'm extremely proud of him getting to where he's at at this point. He has titles and has been able to travel. I just try to do my part and support him at as many events as I can attend."
ROOTS AT ROBINSON
KJ got his start at Robinson MMA. He's still active at the gym on Liberty Street ,even though he now primarily trains at Spartan Academy in Columbia. The relationship KJ has formed with Robinson is one that has blossomed from clientele to being like family.
"Jerome is like a big brother to me," KJ said. "We started off with just more of a coach-student relationship. As I got older, I learned techniques from him. I learned a lot of my technique from Jerome. That's part of why I always come back and visit Jerome. This is home for me, this is my city and he was my first coach. That's why I asked if I can be a coach here.
"I am able to tell people that if anyone wants to be a fighter, or even just train, they have to know that it is not going to be a learn-on-the-fly type of thing. It takes years of experience to master any technique. After seven years, I'm still learning different techniques. I'm still learning different things and just sharpening up tools that I haven't used in so long."
The training he received early on from Robinson not only gave him a fighting foundation but a mental one. There's a certain mindset you have to have as a competitive fighter and it only took one fight for him to realize that.
"The most memorable fight will always be my very first fight," KJ said. " Even though I lost horribly, that created the dog in me. I told myself after that fight I wasn't losing again. I have lost after that but every fight has been a dog fight. Either you've got to dig deep or you're going to lose that fight. You have to dig or you're going to die.
"The way I see things, anybody who's up in front of me we've got to take care of business. At the end of the day, for a person to step in the ring, they already have my props because not everybody can do it. I've seen a lot of people come and go. I don't want to sound like I'm some big guy, someone stepping up to me means they have their own share of bumps and bruises. They're hungry like I'm hungry, so I won't let them outdo me but as soon as it's over, win, lose or draw, we'll hug and dap up.
CREATING A LEGACY
KJ really started to make a name for himself by winning championships. In 2021, he was able to win a belt in Florida. From there, recognition started pouring in.
This past weekend, even though he didn't get a chance to fight, KJ was able to gain another title to his collection at the IKF Muay Thai/Kickboxing Championship in Bishopville. His opponent pulled out of the fight meaning KJ will have to defend it at a later date.
"I moved to Florida in 2021 and I had a fight within two weeks of moving there," KJ explained. "Jumping from one coach to another, I wasn't ready for it. Mentally I wasn't there. The guy didn't do too much damage. If I was there mentally, I would have won that fight. At the end of the day he won, so props to him.
"I left to train a little bit and they offered me a title fight for the same organization, I just had to move down in weight classes. The guy I was fighting, I didn't know much about him. It was my first five-round fight. I knew I couldn't go all crazy because I had to last for the whole fight, especially against a guy I didn't know much about. It was a crazy fight, a lot of thinking went into winning that one."
There is a sense of pride KJ gets with the recognition of being a champion fighter but he doesn't let too much of it get to his head.
"I'm a very humble guy," KJ said. " I don't really pay attention to what's really going on, but I do see it. So when people I don't know talk about me, like when I travel to different cities and states and introduce myself they say, 'I know who you are.' I came from a point where nobody really knew who I was to now getting offers from different organizations in different states that know who I am. After winning my first title, every offer I get is title fights.
"It's a very humbling feeling. I can't be overwhelmed too much because I don't want to get cocky. So now, yeah these people know me, now I'm asking myself how long it will take for the world to know who I am. I use it as motivation."
Just seven years in, KJ is really just getting started in what he hopes will be a very fruitful career that ends with his name among the Sumter greats.
"Being from Sumter, no one really knows what Sumter is," KJ said. "The ones who do know, know that Sumter has a bad wrap. So that's why I want to use kickboxing to get Sumter out there. I want everybody to know what Sumter really is. Like (former Crestwood High standout and current Memphis Grizzlies point guard) Ja Morant, he's repping Sumter proudly. I want someone to see me in that same way, like 'oh he's from Sumter. Let's check him out.'
"I ultimately want to either fight for Glory or fight for ONE Championship. I want to stay in the kickboxing arena. Sooner or later I might try a little bit of MMA as a pro. I want to fight at the top of the top. I want to make a bigger name for who I am and what this city is. When I retire, I want to basically have a day. I want there to be a KJ Franklin day. I want a key to the city and all of that. That's my biggest dream."
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