DOING DAMAGE: BEN ASKREN

BEN ASKREN WANTS TO MAKE HISTORY BY BECOMING THE FIRST MIXED MARTIAL ARTIST TO RETIRE UNDEFEATED, WRITES JAMES GOYDER.

BEN Askren has been steadily working his way up the welterweight rankings to the extent that some people believe the undefeated wrestling standout may be the best 170-pounder in the world, but few could have predicted how his name would come to dominate the headlines earlier this year.

Askren’s release from Bellator, where he was the reigning welterweight champion, and subsequent decision to sign with ONE FC, remains one of the most contentious and talked about topics of 2014.

Perhaps Bellator released Askren because the organisation simply ran out of credible opponents to give him.

The two-time NCAA Division One winning wrestler was so dominant the welterweight division was effectively stagnant with no immediate prospect of the champion ever losing.

There is also a widespread suspicion that the Bellator’s top brass had so much belief in Askren’s ability that they let him walk on the basis he would run through the competition in the UFC, something which would ultimately reflect well on the quality of their roster.

Whatever the reasons, and there are several sides to the story, the UFC took the unprecedented decision to pass on an undefeated fighter who was universally ranked in the top 10 in his division and would have been an immediate contender for the welterweight title.

The timing was particularly unfortunate because a few weeks later Georges St Pierre turned his back on the sport leaving the welterweight title vacant and causing many fans to speculate the best 170-pound fighter in the world was now plying his trade elsewhere.

The UFC’s loss has been ONE FC’s gain because Askren is now arguably the biggest name on the roster of the biggest MMA promotion in Asia. He also had an offer on the table from World Series of Fighting, but the American could not resist the lure of Victor Cui’s organisation.

“ONE FC is the biggest organisation in Asia and the second largest in the world and it made the most sense for me at the time,” Askren says.

ROUGH_Ben-Askren_portrait

BEN ASKREN

I THINK I’M THE BEST WELTERWEIGHT IN THE WORLD AND I’D BE WILLING TO FIGHT ANYONE TO PROVE IT.

“I am excited to try and become the champion and I am excited to compete in Asia for the first time, the crowd at the last show looked great and I am very motivated to show them the skills I have.”

Askren sits alongside the reigning 145-pound title holder Shinya Aoki and the 135-pound champion Bibiano Fernandes as the marquee names on the ONE FC roster and Cui believes the signing of the former Bellator champion was a watershed moment for the sport in Asia.

“Fans all around the world are pumped to see Ben Askren fight in the largest MMA organisation in Asia. He is one of the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artists on this planet and having another world class fighter coming to Asia to compete in ONE FC shows the potential of the Asian market for MMA,” says the ONE FC CEO.

There was a time when Asia could lay claim to more than its fair share of the top pound-for-pound fighters.

Heavyweights such as Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira were all on the Pride roster during a period that the UFC was putting on forgettable title fights involving the likes of Tim Sylvia and Jeff Monson.

With Shinya Aoki, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Dan Henderson also involved and tens of thousands of fans filling the biggest outdoor stadiums in Japan back then, Pride could lay legitimate claim to being the number one promotion on the planet.

The glory days were not set to last and by 2007 Pride was in decline and suffering financial problems which left the door open for Zuffa, the holding company which owns the UFC, to purchase the Japanese promotion and take over the entire roster.

Ever since then it has been virtually one way traffic with the best fighters in the world flocking to fight in the Octagon, but there are signs this situation may be slowly changing.

First ONE FC beat the UFC to the signature of the sought after free agent Bibiano Fernandes and then Askren became the first top pound for pound mixed martial artist to make the promotional journey from West to East since Pride ceased operations.

Askren embarked upon a promotional tour of Asia before his ONE FC debut and says he is excited about the prospect of helping one of the most rapidly expanding promotions in the history of sport to expand even further.

“I think I’m the best welterweight in the world and I’d be willing to fight anyone to prove it,” he says.

“Only the UFC can tell you why they didn’t give me an opportunity, but it’s obviously nothing to do with my skill level, maybe they didn’t want a former Bellator champion to come in and beat all their best fighters, but ONE FC is a great organisation and I am very impressed by the people involved and I’m looking forward to helping it grow.”

Having only competed sporadically in the past couple of years because of the paucity of potential opponents on the Bellator roster, Askren is looking forward to fighting three times a year now he has signed with ONE FC.

After defeating his first ONE FC opponent Bakhtiyar Abbasov by submission in four minutes and 21 seconds in their first round in Singapore on 30 May, ONE FC is giving Askren a shot at the welterweight title.

One criticism which has been levelled at Askren is he is “boring” and does not finish fights with sufficient regularity.

After going the distance on six consecutive occasions he is coming off back-to-back TKO wins and says the naysayers don’t fully appreciate the dynamics of his MMA career.

“I signed with Bellator after only three fights and then I won the title in only my seventh fight. I was Bellator’s champion a year and a half into my professional career so I was still figuring things out and even though I was fighting on a big stage I didn’t really have all the appropriate skills.”

After a decorated wrestling career that saw him win numerous competitions and titles as well as going to the 2008 Olympics, Askren has now been a professional mixed martial artist for more than five years and feels the recent finishes are a reflection of his increased experience and awareness.

“I am improving all the time and I’m lucky to work with great coaches at Roufusport in Milwaukee and Evolve MMA in Singapore,” he says.

“One of the things I am learning is how to do damage to opponents and that’s something you have seen in my last two fights when I was able to dominate opponents and finish them.”

While Askren hasn’t had a lot of fights in Asia he wasn’t a complete stranger to the continent having travelled here to train at Evolve MMA in Singapore. He is now a fully fledged member of the fight team there and says this was an aspect which encouraged him to sign with ONE FC.

“Evolve MMA has a lot of world champions in BJJ and Muay Thai so I can work on those areas of my game. I already have the wrestling, but Heath Sims can always help with that as well.

“It’s good to have a base in Asia and I will be starting all my fight camps back home, but doing the last few weeks at Evolve in Singapore.”

Nobutatsu Suzuki became the first ever ONE FC welterweight champion when he beat Brock Larson by unanimous decision earlier this year.

The karate specialist has a high percentage of knockout wins and is very dangerous with his knees, but Askren has no doubts he will be able to take him down.

“Almost all MMA fighters will try and knee or uppercut wrestlers on the way in and I don’t see the issue, timing on takedowns is the key to being effective. I believe I can beat any welterweight in the world and Suzuki is no exception.”

Askren was initially slated for an immediate title shot, but Suzuki was unable to recover after his 25-minute championship bout with Larson.

The two will now meet at ONE FC’s first Dubai show.

A UFC title may be off the agenda, but no fighter has ever won titles with both ONE FC and Bellator so Askren has an opportunity to make history and is hoping to reach an even more significant milestone which no elite level mixed martial artist has ever previously managed.

“My goal is to be the ONE FC welterweight champion and I aim to achieve that by the end of the year,” he says.

“After that it is just going to be a question of beating whoever is put in front of me, no top MMA fighter has ever finished their career undefeated and I want to be the first to do that.