Thoughts On The Ben Askren Experiment
It's been over a week since Ben Askren was handed his second UFC loss in his 3 fights with the promotion. This time, he lost via technical submission to Demian Maia in the main event of UFC Fight Night 162 (Fight Notes). The fight was fun while it lasted, but very little of it went well for Askren. The same can be said for his UFC debut, against Robbie Lawler, where he was awarded a submission win — by bulldog choke, of all things — thanks to some incredibly bad decision-making from referee Herb Dean. It was technically a win; it did nothing to raise Askren's stock and it was almost controversial enough that an actual loss may have been less damaging.
And then there was the time that Jorge Masvidal knocked him out cold in 5 seconds, setting the UFC record for fastest knockout ever. You may have noticed the UFC replaying it about a thousand times prior to Masvidal's fight with Nate Diaz at UFC 244 (Fight Notes).
For a guy with 3 bouts in the UFC, there's effectively nothing you can use to construct a highlight reel for Askren. The best the UFC could do was a very careful edit of him headlocking Lawler before Herb Dean forgot how submissions work and intervened. There were brief moments in his fight with Maia where Ben wasn't losing, and took Maia down — even if he did nothing of consequence and got submitted anyway. On the feet, K-1 Maia was giving Askren all he could handle and Ben's grappling advantage was nonexistent as well.
All of these make for a very unfortunate turn of events, especially considering the promise that Ben Askren showed during his 12-0 run through Bellator. It also makes for a big "what if" when one reflects on what could have have been, had Askren immediately signed with the UFC at that point?
Instead, after routing — and utterly embarrassing — Andrey Koreshov in mid-2013, Askren was unceremoniously released by Bellator. Then-CEO Bjorn Rebney then gave what amounted to an anti-endorsement after cutting ties with the fighter, calling him one-dimensional along with the "best of luck in your future endeavours" shtick. Dana White, whom Askren had openly feuded with on social media and in interviews, opted to pass on signing Askren. White even went so far as suggesting Askren compete in World Series Of Fighting to "get some experience." It was petty and vindictive, but completely normal for the UFC President.
Askren would end up signing with Singapore-based ONE FC, and competed 7 times over 4 years for the promotion. Askren was able to remain undefeated, and took on some very tough competition — even if the likes of Luis "Sapo" Santos and Nikolay Aleksakhin aren't world renowned fighters — over the course of his ONE FC tenure. Plus, we got to see him TKO that vicious, evil gnome, Shinya Aoki in under a minute, which was quite nice. It was after this fight, at the end of 2017, that Ben Askren announced his retirement from MMA.
To be honest, in spite of 'retirement' being made such a meaningless word in combat sports, it really looked like Askren might be serious. There seemed to be nothing left for him to do, and the chances of signing with the UFC looked to be somewhere between 0% and never. Then, out of the blue, news broke that the UFC had worked out some sort of 'trade' with ONE FC, where they would be releasing Demetrious Johnson and signing Ben Askren in exchange. This deal did not make any sense at the time and it only seems more absurd in hindsight.
Since this 'trade,' Johnson has soundly defeated all 3 of his opponents in ONE FC and remains one of the most talented fighters in the MMA world. Ben Askren has gone 1-2, and his best moments have been flashes of competence, bookended with being rendered unconscious, and a debut that very well should have ended as a TKO in the opening minute before Herb Dean's brain malfunctioned. The UFC lost Johnson, and that's a big deal, but it hasn't cost the UFC money. Even with Askren having no tangible success himself, boosted Jorge Masvidal's profile into the stratosphere, and Demian Maia retains viability as a top welterweight. The UFC wasn't going to lose anything regardless of Askren's performance.
The real losers here are Ben Askren and, to a much lesser extent, the fans. Until he finally showed up in the promotion, there was an endless debate as to whether or not Askren was worthy of fighting in the UFC (he was, but fans are awful) and whether or not he would have been successful. We know that 2019 Ben Askren didn't do well at all. A lot of people have seen fit to extrapolate that this would have always been the case; the logic is Ben was always overrated so the outcome would not be different. I don't agree with that, even if it's impossible to say what a younger Ben Askren — with the added benefit of signing to the UFC with his Bellator momentum behind him — would have accomplished.
For the entirety of his ONE FC tenure, Askren fought tough competition but also failed to evolve or improve as a fighter. He didn't have to, either; Askren's one-dimensional, wrestling-centric style was more than sufficient to handle every one of his opponents. The most trouble Askren had was his fight with Luis Santos, which ended as a No Contest after repeated eye-pokes. In that fight, Askren was getting pieced up on the feet and looked terrible before the stoppage. Considering the baseline level of talent Askren had, I think it's fair to say that if he'd been in the UFC — where he always belonged — that we would have seen a fighter with a lot more reason to evolve and perfect his craft.
That said, I don't think he would have ever posed a threat to GSP, regardless of how much better he could have been. It would have made for a great fight, though, and could only have added to the legacy of St. Pierre, who I am confident would have outwrestled Askren handily. It would have been interesting to see Askren competing in the UFC welterweight division of 2013, nevermind fighting GSP. I lament the loss of what could have been.
Published: November 7th, 2019.