Mailbag: Does Dana White really want 'boring' Ben Askren in the UFC?
He yawned. Dana White listened to the question during a chat with reporters last week in Boston, leaned back in his chair and slowly stretched his limbs. He took in a deep breath. Then he let out a big yawn.
"Yeah," White finally said, the word distorted a bit by his mouth still being agape. "We'll talk to Ben."
No one in the room seemed to note it at the time, but there was a touch of humor in the moment. The UFC president had just been asked about Ben Askren. The undefeated Bellator MMA welterweight champion has a smothering wrestling style that has made him a force in the second-tier promotion, but also, to a fan base that tends to favor Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots-style fighting, a bit of a bore. White famously once took to Twitter with this biting assessment: "When Ambien can't sleep, it takes Askren."
But now that Askren's Bellator contract is up, there's natural speculation over how he might fare on the sport's biggest stage, especially against the UFC's murderer's row of 170-pounders. White has been known to ridicule fighters from other promotions, only to have a change of heart once they're on his roster. Despite that timely yawn, he seemed open to bringing on Askren (12-0), a 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestler and two-time NCAA Division I champion for Missouri.
Even with that fighting style of his? Is Dana really bullish on bringing in a guy who immediately goes for the takedown, then rides out uneventful round after uneventful round, ho-hum fight after ho-hum fight? "You can do that in Bellator," White said. "It's going to be tougher to do here."
Apparently, we're going to get to see if that's true. "I don't think we're going to make an offer at this point," Bjorn Rebney, Bellator chairman and CEO, told ESPN.com this week when asked about his negotiations on a new Askren deal. "So I don't see any reason to make anybody sit out. If Ben's going to go to the UFC, we should speed up that process so he can go fight. I'd love to see Ben versus GSP."
This statement evoked an avalanche of everything from skepticism to outright ridicule. To summarize the charged-up emails shot my way: Rebney claims he runs "the toughest tournament in sports" but now wants to get rid of the guy who's smashed tournament winner after tournament winner? Does he really expect us to believe he's going to let Askren go after the way he held on to former lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez, matching a UFC offer with pay-per-view provisions that, as his promotion then stood, had no basis in reality? As you can see, Bjorn can't win whether he keeps Askren or says goodbye.
Here's my take: Rebney has some dominant champions who also are entertaining champions, most notably lightweight Michael Chandler and featherweight Pat Curran. Having Askren around harms the entertainment quality of a fight promotion that needs as many eyes on it as it can attract. So perhaps Bjorn is happy to see the plodding Ben go clog up the UFC welterweight division. Maybe he's even banking on Askren working his way up to Georges St-Pierre (or Johny Hendricks, if he's champ by then). Having an ex-Bellator champ going for the UFC belt wouldn't be a bad thing for Rebney. He just has to hope that guys on the lower end of Dana White's Top 10 -- fighters like, say, Matt Brown and Tarec Saffiedine -- don't make Bellator's dominant champion look ordinary.
Other correspondence ...
It looks like the UFC has its own TV channel with this new Fox Sports 1. What's your take so far?
--P.J., Phillipsburg, N.J.
Fox Sports 1 isn't going to be all UFC, all the time, as that other Fox cable property, Fuel, seemed to be. But you could easily be fooled into thinking that was going to be the case by watching the channel's debut last Saturday. The UFC Fight Night in Boston featured 13 bouts, and 11 of them aired on FS1, starting at 5 p.m. ET and going past 11. That's a lot of fighting and not a lot of anything else. But that was just Day 1. The channel also will have NASCAR and soccer aplenty, along with ancillary programming to support its NFL and Major League Baseball game telecasts on the Fox network.
The all-UFC debut was a gamble that paid off, as this was one of the better evenings of fights in recent memory. And the telecast itself was tried and true, with little change from other Fox/FX/Fuel-broadcast events other than some new on-screen graphics. That gave the new channel the appearance of something already established.
The rest of the station's content, by contrast, looks like what an outlet might present to a focus group. There's clearly a sensibility FS1 is going after -- it's aiming to do what ESPN does while desperately trying to be the anti-ESPN -- and it is a work in progress. That should come as no surprise. Who goes to a restaurant the week it opens and expects a five-star experience? Smart diners wait until the kitchen has worked out the kinks.
Did you think the fight should have been stopped when Alistair Overeem was pounding away and Travis Browne wasn't fighting back? I'm glad it wasn't, because I was glad to see the arrogant Overeem lose. But I must admit I thought Browne was in trouble.
--Joe, Tinton Falls, N.J.
No one other than the Psychic Friends Network would have blamed Mario Yamasaki if he had jumped in. The referee watched Overeem floor Browne with a knee to the midsection in last Saturday's main event, then unleash 17 unanswered punches. The crowd was roaring for the finish. On the TV broadcast, analyst Joe Rogan commented that Browne "has got to get out of there or the fight is going to get stopped."
It wasn't stopped, though, even after Browne got to his feet and Overeem put him back down with more knees to the body, then pummeled him some more. Travis was turtling up, trying to block what was coming at him. Of course, as we've all seen in past fights, playing defense alone isn't enough. As Rogan's partner at cageside, Jon Anik, observed, "The referee certainly is giving Travis Browne the benefit of the doubt, giving him the chance to stay in the fight."
Here's the thing about Yamasaki: He was in perfect position to see what was happening, to note how many punches and knees were getting through, how many were being blocked by Browne's upraised arms. Apparently he felt Travis was not taking so much damage that the fight needed to be waved off. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that to be the right call. Browne had enough left to get off the mat and fight back. And eventually knock out Overeem. Seeing that, I can't fault Yamasaki one bit.
Don't get how people are saying The Reem is finished after 2 losses.
--@christopher_kit via Twitter
I guess it depends on your definition of "finished," Christopher. Overeem's reputation is forever stained by a failed drug test and years of whispers about his cartoon superhero physique. Will the UFC take this opportunity to get rid of him? I suppose that's possible.
But I interpret "finished" in a different way. I can see Alistair sticking around the fight promotion, because he does have what it takes to instill fear in the hearts of heavyweights. For the first few minutes of a fight, anyway. There's the rub. Overeem is capable of dominating Travis Browne for a couple of minutes and getting the better of "Bigfoot" Silva for two full rounds. But both of those guys, who reside in the middle of the big-boy Top 10, then knocked him out. How do you think Alistair would fare against the steel of the weight class, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos?
So if a guy has been hyped as a title challenger and, based on recent evidence, you can't imagine him hanging with the champ, then, yes, he's finished.
Showing respect is great. But save it for the beginning of the fight and the beginning of the last round. By the end of the [Uriah Hall vs. John Howard] fight, I think they were talking about getting an apartment together.
--@ToddRStanford via Twitter
If I were in the UFC cage, I'd want to hug and high-five the other guy for the entirety of the three rounds. But that's just me. I'm a lover, not a fighter. When guys being paid to fight get too lovey-dovey, it's not a good look. Like you, Todd, I'm all for sportsmanship, but in its place. The hugs at the final horn take on special meaning only if, before that horn, the two guys were trying to take each other's heads off.
That said, I was happy for Howard, who was returning to the UFC after a two-year absence and put on a winning performance Saturday night in his hometown. On the other hand, I'm not ready to sell my shares of Hall stock. He has the physical tools to do damage. A few sessions with a sports psychologist, helping him get in touch with his inner assassin, might be a worthwhile investment.
Never underestimate how badly politicians will pander to any union in the quest for votes. #whores
--@YUSoShady via Twitter
This tweet came in response to a flurry from my own Twitter account about the resolution the Boston City Council passed on Wednesday prohibiting those under 16 from attending an MMA fight unless accompanied by an adult. I questioned whether children will henceforth be banned from Fenway Park on days when Ryan Dempster, recently suspended for throwing a baseball at the steroid-tainted Alex Rodriguez, is scheduled to pitch. Or whether body checking will be disallowed during Bruins games when kids are present at the Garden. (And don't even think about instigating a fight in front of impressionable young eyes, Shawn Thornton.)
The best part of this story came when a Boston Herald reporter pointed out that those under 16 already are prohibited from attending without an adult, per the 2009 state legislation that sanctioned MMA in Massachusetts. In other words, the action by the Boston City Council was a waste of time. So what else is new?
Long before I started writing about MMA, I covered the City Council for a newspaper in Boston. It was my first job out of college, so I didn't fully appreciate the foolishness of this blustery legislative body. Talk about a bunch of do-nothing blowhards. There was enough hot air in those chambers to heat the city of Boston. Apparently, some things don't change.
There was a moment last week when Dana White—seemingly fed up with having to defend himself against a Boston City Councilor who was mindlessly aping the talking points of a Las Vegas culinary union local that has gone national with its fight with the casinos of the UFC's majority owners—openly questioned whether he'll bring the promotion back to his hometown. He seemed to cool on that implied threat by fight night, and there's reason to believe Dana & Co. will return. But whatever main event they bring to town might have to compete for attention with the war of words we'll likely witness between White and local pols.
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