For Ben Askren, it was more of the same yet entirely different. Back in January, he put his Bellator MMA welterweight championship on the line for the third time, and just as he had in all 10 of his previous professional fights, he had his hand raised in victory. But this time he did something he'd done only once before since joining the fight promotion three years ago: He finished his opponent. Ferociously.
Throughout his career, following decision victory after hum-drum decision victory, Askren has been maligned as a big bore. The two-time NCAA Division I wresting champion and 2008 Olympian has been known to rely on his grappling chops to take down opponents and neutralize them until the final horn sounded. Some call that imposing your will. More call it lay-and-pray.
"When Ambien can't sleep," Dana White quipped on Twitter last year, "it takes Ben Askren."
Sure, the UFC president would find a way to criticize Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Superman if they were working for a different fight promotion. However, White was not alone in yawning rather than fawning over the 29-year-old Askren. Online fan forums would light up with ridicule every time he disarmed and outpointed an opponent. In the lead-up to Askren's January title bout, challenger Karl Amoussou had said, "I literally fell asleep watching one of his fights."
But then, on fight night, Askren put Amoussou to sleep in a whole different way.
OK, Ben didn't literally put out the challenger's lights, but he did provide him with some shuteye. Askren wasted no time before taking the bout to the mat, as usual, but this time his top game was a relentless buzzsaw of fists and elbows. After three rounds of this beatdown, Amoussou's left eye was so badly swollen closed that the cageside doctor put an end to the carnage. Askren was a TKO winner.
Had the champion taken to heart all of that fan criticism?
"Nah, I wasn't worried about what the fans were saying, not in the least bit," Askren said last week. "I want to end the fight early for me. I don't get paid to fight for 25 minutes. I get paid to fight. So whether the fight is 30 seconds or 25 minutes, my check is the same amount. So I finish fast for me. I don't give a crap about what the fans say."
That attitude might be part of the reason why the crowds boo. When Askren defends his belt on Wednesday night at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M. (7 p.m. ET, Spike), don't be surprised to hear fans rooting not for the U.S. Olympian, but for his Russian opponent, Andrey Koreshkov. That's just the Bellator 97 co-main event, by the way. Michael Chandler is the evening's headliner, defending his lightweight belt against David Rickels. Also in action is the promotion's star signee, "King Mo" Lawal, facing Jacob Noe in the final of the promotion's light heavyweight tournament. Ryan Martinez and Vitaly Minakov square off in the heavyweight tourney finale. A lot could happen on this night.
(Interestingly, the UFC apparently is looking to take some steam away from what could be the biggest card in Bellator history. Earlier in the day, White will have four of his champions -- heavyweight Cain Velasquez, light heavyweight Jon Jones, welterweight Georges St-Pierre and women's bantamweight Ronda Rousey -- in New York City for a press conference touting their fall title defenses. That's going to be quite a glittery -- and possibly headline grabbing -- showcase at the Beacon Theater.)
Askren, for his part, might want to put on a showcase of his own. Just last week, Chandler was given an eight-fight contract extension that CEO Bjorn Rebney said makes him "one of the highest-paid lightweights in MMA." Askren's contract is up soon, too, and he's paid close attention to how Bellator treated Chandler ... and also how the promotion treated Eddie Alvarez when his deal expired. Like Askren, the former lightweight champ pretty much grew up as an MMA fighter with Rebney's company. I mean, Alvarez fought on Bellator 1. But now he's mired in litigation over whether Bellator truly matched the offer he received from the UFC. A lengthy marriage has turned ugly, and that's got to be playing with Askren's mind.
Another possible turnoff for Askren: inactivity. The Koreshkov bout will be Askren's second this year, after just one last year and two the year before. Bellator's tournament format is built to line up challengers, in theory, but hasn't done so consistently. There's been no welterweight tournament announced yet for the fall, for instance, so if Askren manages to get past this week's challenge, there'll be nothing lying ahead except a waiting game.
So, how happy is Askren with Bellator?
"Uhhhh, that's a good question," he said slowly, measuring his words more carefully than he does when talking about fighting. "I don't know. My contract is going to be up fairly soon, and in this industry, money talks and bullshit walks."
What if the UFC put away the Ambien and came calling with a contract offer that brought with it the opportunity for Askren to test himself against the top 170-pounders in the world? Georges St-Pierre? Fellow amateur wrestling icon Johny Hendricks? Others in the Top 10?
"I hope it happens," said Askren. "That being said, I've been in with most of the guys in the Top 10 at some point in my career, so I've got a pretty good idea of where I stand against almost all of them. So I don't know. I guess I'll just see what offer is on the table."
For now, what's on Askren's plate is Koreshkov, who is 13-0 with eight knockouts and three submissions. He's a fearsome striker. But Askren is quick to point out that whatever standup acumen his opponent brings is nothing he doesn't see on a daily basis in the gym with trainer Duke Roufus. "I get to train with guys like Anthony Pettis every day," said Askren, who joined the Milwaukee-based Roufusport team two years ago. "The main reason I moved here was because this is one of the premier striking camps in the whole country. It's not 1995 anymore. You gotta be able to do it all. That's the name of the game in mixed martial arts."
Then again, Askren hasn't evolved to the point of losing sight of who he is. "I'm getting a lot more comfortable on my feet," he said. "But I'm a wrestler, dude. That's what I do."
More specifically, what Askren does to opponents is "he steals their hearts."
That's not Ben talking about himself. Those are the words of Koreshkov. And Askren agrees with his opponent.
"Oh, it's definitely true," he said. "I'm a grinder. I don't take their heart, though, I take their will away. I steal their will to win. And that's what I'm going to do [to Koreshkov]. He says he's tough and his heart's never been stolen. His heart is going to be stolen by the middle of the second round. You can write that, put it in a quote, and tell me if I'm right or wrong next Thursday. Everyone in this world has some quit in him, and I'm really good at finding it. So I'll find his quit button."