How does an undefeated champion with name-value enter into free agency and not end up with the No. 1 promotion in the world? Ben Askren (12-0) faced that reality in December, after he negotiated an early release from renegotiation with Bellator MMA, the market's No. 2 competitor. Over three years, Askren won (and mostly dominated) nine fights in Bellator's welterweight ranks and seemed primed for the jump to the UFC, but something went awry on the way to the negotiating table.
Instead, Askren debuts this spring with One FC, a Singapore-based promotion building its base audience in Southeast Asia -- a brow-raising choice given there were other options that could have kept the 2008 Olympic wrestler stateside.
In Askren's follies, there lies a lesson of supply and demand, MMA-style. There is much upside to his new deal, said Askren, including a significant bump in pay grade. The 29-year-old fighter clears up a few misconceptions circulating about his decision to take his talent overseas:
Misconception or truth?: Askren's new deal includes him moving to Southeast Asia
"No, that's not going to happen," said Askren, who lives in Wauwatosa, Wis., with his wife and 11-month-old daughter, Alex, where he runs two wrestling academies with his brother, Max.
Askren's deal with One FC is for six fights over two years, he said. He'll make $50,000 guaranteed for his first bout, with another $50,000 in bonus pay should he win. Askren's purses increase for each subsequent bout, should he keep winning.
The deal doesn't require Askren to move (permanently or otherwise) to One FC's home-based region. Part of that confusion stems from a separate deal Askren signed around the same time with Evolve MMA, a state-of-the-art Singapore-based gym that's hosted name fighters from all over the world.
"That's a separate deal," said Askren, who'll remain a member of the Wisconsin-based Roufusport team. "Evolve MMA is sponsoring me and I'll go there and train two weeks before my fights. Their coaches will corner me."
Among those coaches is Heath Sims, former head trainer of Team Quest Temecula, owned by former Pride champion and UFC staple Dan Henderson. Sims is also a 2000 Olympic wrestler, himself. Askren visited Evolve and Sims in 2012 and said the facility's collective of muay Thai coaches and training partners is incomparable.
And to further quash any rumors that Askren has defected from Roufusport, Evolve owner Chatri Sityodtong and team coach Duke Roufus are longtime friends who've previously done business together. In other words, it's all above board and Askren has Roufus' blessing.
Misconception or truth?: Askren priced himself out of a UFC contract
The talks never got as far as specific numbers, said Askren.
The tete-a-tete took place in UFC owner Zuffa's Las Vegas office in late November, a few days after welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre narrowly escaped with a split-decision victory over Johnny Hendricks and planted the seeds for what would become his title-vacating sabbatical from the sport in December. UFC majority owner Lorenzo Fertitta and a few others were in attendance with Askren and his manager, DeWayne Zinkin; minority owner and president Dana White sat in via teleconference. Askren said the precursory talks went well and that specific scenarios were discussed, though he wouldn't elaborate on them for confidentiality reasons.
"I left with the impression that we were going to get it done," said Askren. "Later that night, they called back to say they weren't interested anymore. I thought I was going to the UFC. How could they not sign a former champion of the number-two promotion who's ranked top ten in every imaginable ranking?"
Had the negotiations progressed to figures, Askren would like to think he'd have been offered something commensurate with his market value, but wasn't expecting the windfall that former Bellator champion Hector Lombard received in April 2012, when he became the first rival titleholder to defect to the UFC's welterweight division. According to reports, Lombard was paid an astronomical $400,000 signing bonus, $300,000 for his first bout and offered a percentage of profits from pay-per-views on which he appeared.
Askren said he wouldn't have expected such bloated numbers.
"I have other sources of income and if they had said eight [thousand] and eight [thousand win bonus pay], I would have told them to f--- off, but I'm not going to say I need Hector Lombard money," he said. "If the offer had been anywhere within the point of reason, I would have been game."
Misconception or truth?: The UFC passed on Askren because he's a boring fighter
Only the UFC knows its reasons for passing on Askren. He can only speculate.
"We all know the reason I'm not signed is not because of my skill level," said Askren. "Maybe they didn't want a Bellator champion coming in and kicking all their fighters' asses. I'm leaning toward that one, but maybe they want it to look like that if you sign with Bellator, you'll never be signed to the UFC. I don't know exactly what their motive was because they didn't tell me."
During his Bellator tenure, Askren was often cited for his wrestling-heavy fighting style and predictability. Could that have had some bearing on the UFC's decision?
"Two of [the UFC's] bestsellers use the exact same strategy that I do," said Askren, who won two NCAA wrestling titles. "George St. Pierre has done nearly the same exact thing for the last four or five years and he's still their No. 1 pay-per-view draw. Chael Sonnen does it, too, and he's one of their bestsellers. I think if you suck and you're not exciting, that's one thing. And if you're the best in the world, doing that to grown men who are supposedly also the best in the world, I think there's a certain interest to that. Some of my headlining bouts for Bellator were the highest-rated [for the promotion on TV], so I do think I have the ability to draw fan interest despite the 'boring style.'"
What St. Pierre and Sonnen have had over Askren are greater TV visibility and a deeper pool of opposition.
"I was so dominant over my competition in the last three or four fights that it became hard for Bellator to sell the fights," said Askren. "If I fight Andrey Koreshkov [Askren's final Bellator opponent last July], how many times is he going to win? There's a good chance he's going to win zero out of a hundred times. It's hard for fans to get interested in a fight where they already know the outcome."
Misconception or truth?: Askren chose money over competition
Askren doesn't dispute this statement, though there are a few more facets to consider here.
Prior to One FC's offer, the undefeated fighter was also approached by the World Series of Fighting, a new promotion stationed in Las Vegas that has held eight shows to date. With a limited TV contract with NBC Sports' cable network, WSOF has quickly risen to No. 3 status in the national market, signing an overflow of fighters who've run their course with the UFC and/or Bellator or haven't pursued (or been pursued for) employment there. Once the UFC's intentions with Askren went public, the natural choice would have been for him to sign with the WSOF -- which boasts a decent welterweight division -- and to stay in the American spotlight.
"World Series of Fighting had already made me an offer and they called back to reiterate it [after the UFC fell through]," said Askren. "I had two good offers, but I was really considering retirement at this point, because my goal is to be the No. 1 fighter in the world. Outside the UFC, Bellator was the next best place and I was ranked as high as No. 7 when I fought for them. No matter where else I went, I wouldn't reach No. 1. My goal was out the window, so I had to adjust my thinking to my next plan."
Once Askren let that go, he said his decision was clear. One FC offered more money and the opportunity for him and his family to travel worldwide around his fight schedule.
"One FC made me a great offer and I think they'll be a great fit for me," said Askren. "At the end of the day, I was more comfortable with One FC and their people. It just made sense."
For his first bout, Askren said he'll make nearly twice what he made in his last fight with Bellator, whom he signed with as a 3-0 novice with little leverage in 2009.
Will Askren face lesser talent in One FC than what the WSOF would have had to offer? He'll certainly face lesser-known talent among the U.S. audience. Still, that doesn't mean his bouts won't be watched. According to One FC, its live events are available in nearly a billion homes across Asia, through deals with Fox Sports and Star Sports (25 countries), as well as individual agreements with Indosiar in Indonesia, TV9 in Malaysia, GMA and IBC in the Philippines, and Mediacore in Singapore, to name a few. If accurate, this viewership potential is on par with the UFC's, and might give Askren another viable revenue stream through sponsorships and endorsements.
One FC also streams live in the U.S., though that viewing audience pales in comparison to what a television deal might draw. In that capacity, Askren fills an important void for One FC as it looks to break into the stateside market.
Misconception or truth?: Askren will never fight in the UFC
That remains to be seen. Everybody loves (or loves to hate) a winner and Askren has a good chance of doing that in One FC. What Askren has going for himself is some name value. It's unlikely U.S. fans will watch his fights live unless his new home gets a TV deal there, but you can bet that everyone will track his results.
If the fans continue to ask for Askren in the UFC, as a small contingent did when the company passed on him this first time, the promotion might be sure to look again on the second go-around, especially as it creates its own inroads into Southeast Asia. The bigger and more coveted Askren becomes, the better shot he has.
"It's not saying down the road I won't end up in the UFC," Askren said. "At this point in time, I had to put those goals aside because I wasn't allowed to go chase those dreams. I wasn't allowed to, through no fault of my own. I had to readjust my goals, and although I can't reach my No. 1 goal at the moment, life's still pretty good."
Askren and UFC President Dana White have traded barbs in the media since the promotion passed on him. However, that's par for the course for White, who's sworn off fighters before, then signed them when the public's demanded it.
"If there ever comes to be another negotiation, I don't think he's one to forgive and forget," said Askren wryly. "That being said, I called him immature and he ruined the goal of my MMA career, so I think we're at least even."