Askren's future sidetracked by perceived lack of flair
It's called One Fight Club. Actually, the name is usually written as ONE FC, but the "ONE" doesn't appear to be an acronym for anything, so why all caps? To draw attention, naturally. It probably has not drawn yours, though, unless you're into second-tier mixed martial arts or are from Singapore, where the fight promotion is based and has presented several of its events since being launched two years ago.
Maybe you'll start paying attention now, though, if only to see how the Ben Askren soap opera plays out.
Until recently, Askren was the welterweight champion of Bellator MMA. Before that, he was a two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion (and four-time national finalist) and a 2008 Olympian. The 29-year old is unbeaten in a dozen mixed martial arts fights, but in a sense he's remained a wrestler rather than evolving into a truly multifaceted MMA fighter. Sure, he's now a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and trains under former kickboxing world champion Duke Roufus. But when the cage door closes, Ben sticks to his comfort zone. Unapologetically.
"I'm getting a lot more comfortable on my feet," Askren told SI prior to his last fight. "But I'm a wrestler, dude. That's what I do."
Even if it's not exhilarating for the fans?
"I don't give a crap," he spat out, "about what the fans say."
That attitude has sidetracked a career seemingly ticketed for big things.
When Askren's contract with Bellator expired recently, the expectation was that he would move on to the UFC. That's the ultimate proving ground of MMA, right? Well, things have played out a bit differently. Askren reportedly is headed across the Pacific pond to One FC.
To fight whom? Nobody most have heard of, unless the promotion allows a Twitter war between Askren and 37-year-old Phil Baroni, a long-expired UFC product who's lost seven of his last nine bouts, to sway it into booking a pitiful mismatch. Then again, anything One FC books for Askren is going to be a mismatch. After bringing him aboard, the organization might as well be renamed One-Man FC, as no one in the promotion appears capable of hanging with the stud wrestler.
Roufus insisted that the One FC move was not a done deal and that his fighter's management was also negotiating with another lower-tier organization, the World Series of Fighting. That would be a better situation, perhaps not financially, but at least in terms of competition, because Askren would have UFC refugees Rousimar Palhares, Jon Fitch and Josh Burkman to contend with, not to mention reigning welterweight champion Steve Carl. It's not the murderer's row that the UFC's 170-pound division is, but at least there are some warm bodies. A matchup with leg-breaker Palhares would actually be something to see.
The real shame, of course, is that Askren won't have the opportunity to impose his double-leg will against the steel of the UFC welterweight division.
Why? Dana White has said Askren isn't ready. "I think it's crazy that he's ranked in the Top 10," the UFC president recently told MMA Junkie. "He hasn't fought anybody and has no challenges. The best thing that could've ever happened to that kid was leaving Bellator. Now he has the opportunity to go to World Series of Fighting and show what he's got."
In dissecting the multiple layers of ego in that statement, White's claim that there are more challenges for Askren in the WSOF also serves as a swipe at Bellator and his arch nemesis/whipping boy, CEO Bjorn Rebney. The UFC chief's push for the World Series might even be playing a role in Askren's potential move to One FC. Askren likely wouldn't leave money on the negotiating table, but all things being equal, one could imagine the headstrong fighter refusing to do what White has told him to do.
Most notably, White's suggestion that Askren isn't a UFC-quality fighter fails to ring true. More than a few not-so-extraordinary men have competed for the behemoth promotion, and the current roster at welterweight doesn't have 10 fighters better than Askren. Sure, Bellator has nothing resembling the depth of the UFC, but Askren mowed down the competition that was put in front of him. His situation was a bit like that of Ronda Rousey. There's not an abundance of top-quality women competing at 135 pounds, but "Rowdy Ronda" has taken on all comers and thoroughly dominated. So has Askren. He's just done it less thrillingly.
That's the real reason Askren is not joining the UFC. White and his matchmakers are afraid that if they put him in with one of their top-10 welters, Askren will take the guy down and smother him. And in so doing, bore a good many of the paying customers. If Askren were to ploddingly work his way to within sniffing distance of a UFC title shot, the promotion would have a hard time selling the guy. Rebney said it himself in explaining his decision to let his 170-pound champion go, telling Newsday: "The 25-minute takedown, top-control fest that he gave us event after event after event weren't to all MMA fans' likings."
Bellator also probably factored into White's decision. If Askren were to do to top UFC guys what he did to the best Rebney could put in front of him, wouldn't that be a kind of backhanded endorsement of the sport's No. 2 promotion? None of our guys could stop Ben, Bjorn could say, but none of Dana's could, either, so we're not so far behind.
So yes, White is being disingenuous in his stated reasoning for not signing Askren. But he's well within his rights to steer clear of the guy. The UFC promotes itself as the home of the world's best fighters, but as much as it's a venue for competition, it's also an entertainment company. As such, the promotion can elect not to do business with an athlete it believes will be hard to sell to the fans.
And as a promoter, White also is within his rights to frame the Askren situation in a way that best suits him. White's main job is to tell a story that gets fans interested in a fight, and in this situation, he's trying to position the UFC as something to which Askren must aspire. That's a more intriguing storyline than if White were to say he's concerned that the guy might take down some of his top contenders, and do so with a not-so-fan-friendly fighting style.
Roufus understands this. Along with Askren, after all, he works with one of the most entertaining fighters in the UFC, new lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, he of the springing-off-the-cage Showtime Kick. "No one understands the entertainment value of fighting more than me," Roufus said. "That's what I built my fighting career on. And when I began to help Anthony early in his career, his whole style of fighting was built on being very fan-friendly. Would I like to see Ben Askren show more of that in his fights? Maybe. But I'm not going to ask him to stand and bang. I'm fine with him taking fights to the ground. I just want to see him use his submissions more and be aggressive with ground-and-pound, like he's been in his last two fights."
That final detail is worth noting. For all of the yawns Askren elicits -- White famously once said, "When Ambien can't sleep, it takes Ben Askren" -- he's finished the last two fighters he's faced, not with Pettis-style head kicks but by kicking tail on the ground.
"He really messed up that Russian kid," Roufus said of Askren's final Bellator defense in July, when he thumped Andrey Koreshkov by building up a 248-3 striking advantage on the way to a fourth-round stoppage. By contrast, the UFC's welterweight king, Georges St-Pierre, hasn't finished anyone since early 2009, eight fights ago. Yes, of course GSP's competition has been in a whole different universe, but the point is that Askren lately has shown he can finish a job.
His trainer is confident Askren will get to show that ability in the octagon -- eventually. "Lets face it: No other promotion compares to the UFC," Roufus said. "The UFC is king, and anyone who says he doesn't want to compete in that organization is lying. That's where Ben wants to be. That's where I want him to be. It's too bad it's not happening now, but my job isn't to whine or complain. My job is to motivate the troops to march. And at this point I'm motivating Ben to march toward his next opportunity to further his career. The UFC will come some day for him."