For many, the news of a deal between One Championship and the UFC to bring one of the hottest welterweight names in MMA in the form of Ben Askren to Dana White’s organisation set pulses racing. The previously undefeated Askren had become widely regarded as one of the welterweight GOATs, amassing an undefeated 18-0 record during his time in both Bellator and One Championship before his move to the UFC. Whilst throughout his career Askren’s stand-up game had been called into question, his incessant grappling and collegiate wrestling background allowed him to dominate almost all of his opponents including big names such as Douglas Lima and Shinya Aoki.
However, recently the tune has changed for Askren. His unconvincing victory over Robbie Lawler in his UFC debut at UFC 235 drew more questions about the legitimacy of Askren’s talents, after having almost been knocked out in the opening minute of the bout. After he engaged the clinch immediately versus Lawler, Askren was brutally sent into the canvas by a piledriver, from where on Askren absorbed heavy ground and pound from the ex-champion. Once Askren successfully regained the clinch, he was able to take Lawler down and secure a bulldog choke. Referee Herb Dean stepped in to ensure Lawler was still conscious after his arm appeared to go limp. After shaking his arm, Herb Dean assumed Lawler was out, not seeing the thumbs up from Lawler indicating that he was still conscious. Dean promptly ended the bout, which incurred strong protest from Lawler who had clearly been conscious the whole time.
In his post-fight interview Askren made it clear that he would not entertain the idea of a rematch between himself and Lawler, creating yet more controversy around the manner of his victory, leading many to question whether or not Askren was out of his depth. It appeared as if Askren was simply afraid of losing his undefeated record, which had been extended to 19-0, hence his reluctance to book another fight with Lawler.
On the other hand, it can be argued that Askren’s objection to rematching Lawler is because he does not have youth on his side. A title shot did not seem far off for Askren upon his arrival and it would appear a necessity for Askren to get his shot quickly in order to defend and secure his legacy, rather than risk his undefeated record in a rematch that may not better his chances of a title shot. Furthermore, given that Askren talks such a strong game, to almost be denied victory in such an ignominious fashion would potentially spell trouble for Askren, as to falter in such a talent stacked division can severely inhibit a fighter of Askren’s age’s chances of getting back to the top of the division. However, given that Askren is considered a big draw for any fighter at welterweight and the promotion as a whole, it was inevitable he would be given multiple opportunities to prove himself.
After his victory over Lawler, Askren expressed his interest in the winner of Jorge Masvidal and Darren Till at UFC Fight Night London. Till had long made his desire to fight Askren clear, with the two going back and forth on social media. However, the upset of Masvidal viciously knocking Till out cold paved the way for one of, if not the greatest knockout in UFC history at UFC 239 in Las Vegas.
During an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience Podcast, Masvidal made it evident that his dislike of Askren was personal, detailing how he wanted to ‘break his face’ due to the corny and irritating style in which Askren promotes his fights. When we consider the legitimacy of these threats from Masvidal, it would be easy to see this as just business promotion. In addition, it appeared as if Askren had successfully got under Masvidal’s skin and was apparently living inside his head free of rent. I initially thought Masvidal’s anger would get the better of him in the fight but how wrong I proved to be. Masvidal got his start as a street fighter during the Kimbo Slice days and rapidly shot to notoriety. The ferocity of this form of MMA would force Masvidal to channel his anger into his performances, keeping his composure in the build-up but having the ability to become one of the most formidable fighters to enter the octagon in modern times. During the build-up to the fight Askren appeared relaxed, cracking jokes and frequently questioning Masvidal’s anger, to which I thought Masvidal had no response.
Masvidal shocked the world on July 6th by knocking Askren out in 5 seconds via a flying knee, silencing his doubters and leaving viewers speechless. To knock out the undefeated Askren in such spectacular fashion makes Masvidal the hottest item in the welterweight division right now, with the hype building around him attracting more and more fans to his camp.
So, where does Askren go from here?
From a 19-0 former champion, to the victim of the fastest KO in history with a 1-1 record in the UFC (with a highly controversial victory), his career has really begun to be questioned by critics and fans alike. Whilst the loss to Masvidal has derailed his title hopes for now, it has also called into question the legitimacy of his fighting abilities, which appear to have been overstated by MMA fans due to his undefeated record.
However, it should not be forgotten that Askren was undefeated for a reason; he still remains a highly regarded fighter and to re-enter the octagon in the premier promotion after a year out of the sport takes a lot of bravery, so hats off to Askren. Fans far and wide believe that this loss will serve as a learning curve for Askren which he will certainly benefit from. Despite this, Askren will still run his mouth as much as he did in the build-up to UFC 239, as he is a smart fighter who understands the necessity of self-promotion, similar to the style of promotion from the likes of Chael Sonnen and Conor McGregor.
Whilst it is clear that Askren himself believes he can bounce back from this, it is difficult to predict what will happen in such a stacked weight class that contains some of the deadliest strikers in the entire organisation. It is clear that Askren needs a bounce back victory, and with rumours of a fight with Darren Till circulating, I am beginning to question the motivations of the UFC as an organisation, however this is a discussion for another time. Although Till has legitimate one punch knockout power which he has shown in his fights with the likes of Cowboy Cerrone, he has shown a deficiency on the ground which will play into Askren’s hands. Till’s shortcomings on the ground were particularly visible when he fought Tyron Woodley and was submitted via a D’arce choke. As Askren and Woodley are training partners it will be advantageous to Askren to learn from Woodley’s fight with Till and discover the flaws in the British fighter’s game in order to better his chances of a victory.
Whilst this represents an opportunity for Askren to finally showcase his abilities, it does hold a greater risk than, for example, a match up with a journeyman such as Neil Magny or another lower ranked opponent. News has surfaced over the past couple of days of a match-up between Askren and veteran grappler Demian Maia. Maia has long been regarded as one of the most dangerous grapplers and submission experts in the organisation, so this is a highly desirable match-up. Not only does it allow Askren to prove himself against a highly regarded opponent and put his name back into contention, but it also has the potential to showcase Askren being outclassed at his preferred fighting style. It would certainly be intriguing to see Askren take on another high-level grappler in what is a make-or-break fight for the welterweight.
Despite all the adversity he has faced, Ben Askren does have a future in the UFC. Whilst it would not be strange for a hype train as large as Askren’s to be derailed, due to the calibre of the competition at welterweight, it would be a shame considering the talent Askren showed in other organisations. Whilst Askren is at risk of fading into the periphery, he remains a big draw for a lot of fighters, so we can only hope that his UFC career picks up from here and he has the chance to showcase his abilities as he has done in One Championship and Bellator.
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