Ben Askren (in blue), the reigning Bellator welterweight champion, won a pair of NCAA wrestling titles at Missouri. (Marlene Karas/US Presswire)
Ben Askren can’t fly, but you better not tell him that. The reigning Bellator welterweight champion loves to prove people wrong.
He says the primary reason he chose to wrestle at Missouri was that the team felt like family, but the “experts” who pointed out that the Tigers had never produced a national champion certainly had something to do with his decision.
“I guess the joke is on them now,” said Askren, who won two national championships and became the second wrestler in NCAA history to win multiple Hodge trophies, the wrestling equivalent of the Heisman.
Ben followed up his collegiate career with a trip to the 2008 Olympics, where he lost his opening match. Some USA Wrestling officials believe Askren gave up wrestling too early, but the reality is that even before Askren had finished his senior season at Missouri he was already starting to fall in love with MMA. John Mesenbrink, Askren’s high school coach, said that MMA was “on the horizon” even when Askren was training to be an Olympic freestyle wrestler.
“Freestyle is not my cup of tea,” Askren admits. He cites rule changes: Push-out points are “a joke” that reward inferior wrestlers for “getting lucky,” winning individual periods neutralizes his phenomenal conditioning and grinding style, and removing forced partier position makes it more difficult for Askren -- who holds the NCAA single-season pins record -- to wrestle from the top position. “Everything I was good at they kind of took away,” Askren said. “But you’ve got to go with what life gives you.”
For Askren that was jui-jitsu. The “funky” wrestling style he perfected at Missouri made it easy to learn BJJ, which also emphasizes flowing from position to position. Then there’s the fact that Askren didn’t dream of being an Olympic champion until after he starting having collegiate success. He didn’t watch his first Olympic wrestling match until he was 16, but remembers watching UFC 1 with his father at age 9.
Mesenbrink adds that Askren wanted a new challenge. “He really loved that starting over again,” said the coach who now helps Ben run the Askren Wrestling Academy in Wisconsin. People doubted Askren all over again. After a successful collegiate career Askren was almost expected to have international wrestling success, but MMA was a different animal.
“It’s just so funny the more people that say it can’t happen the more he makes it happen,” Mesenbrink said.
Askren admits that his striking skills still need improvement -- which is why he’s training with kickboxing guru Jeff “Duke” Roufus in Milwaukee -- but the former wrestler has a perfect 8-0 record in MMA. Saturday he’ll try to defend his Bellator welterweight title against Jay Hieron, the best wrestling mixed martial artist Askren has faced in his career. Hieron believes he can out-wrestle Askren and win the fight.
“He’s delusional. I’m glad. That makes it easier for me,” Askren said confidently. “I’m going to do what I always do. I’m going to take him down and beat him up.”
Askren adds that he isn’t content with the Bellator title. He believes he can be the world’s best MMA welterweight in three to five years, a goal Mesenbrink believes is realistic. You better not tell him he can’t do it.
-- Stephen Boyle