The Bottom Line: Ben Askren and the Unanswered Questions
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What occurred in Singapore on Friday is not supposed to happen in MMA. Ben Askren ran through another opponent in impressive fashion, this time stopping submission ace Shinya Aoki in 57 seconds at One Championship “Immortal Pursuit.” Askren improved his record to a perfect 18-0 in what he had announced would be his retirement fight. Barring a change of heart from Askren -- in MMA, retirements are often fleeting -- he would retire without us ever knowing exactly how great he was.
Whether Askren is an excellent fighter should not be in question. With his world-class wrestling and unique style, he has dominated his opponents for years. Not only has he never lost, but he has rarely been tested to any significant degree. His victories over Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov have held up extremely well. Since 2009, Lima and Koreshkov are 35-0 when not matched against each other or Askren. He demonstrated a separation from them in a way they have demonstrated a separation from everyone else.
While Askren’s greatness is clear, it is still unknown how well his game would have translated fighting the elite of the sport every time out. How would Askren have done against a prime Johny Hendricks in MMA? How would he fare against Stephen Thompson or Rory MacDonald now? It has historically been exceedingly difficult to go on an undefeated run at the highest level of MMA, and Askren has a clear vulnerability to exploit with a standup game that isn’t nearly as good as his wrestling. Askren might have been the best of his generation in his weight class or he might not have been. We don’t know for sure either way.
These sorts of questions are pretty much never asked at the end of an elite MMA fighter’s career. MMA is a sport where the best end up fighting the best without the level of protection that we see in boxing or league separation we have seen in the past for different reasons in football, hockey and basketball. Even with Askren, it took a unique set of circumstances for him to end up fighting regularly against overmatched opposition.
Most top-flight fighters who have largely fought outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship did so by their own choice. They didn’t like aspects of the UFC’s business setup, wanted to fight in a certain region or were loyal to a different promoter. Askren, on the other hand, made clear his interest in fighting in the UFC when he was a free agent. It was UFC that then decided not to bring him in. UFC President Dana White suggested he go to World Series of Fighting first -- an insult given Askren’s resume.
Why the UFC wasn’t interested in Askren remains unclear. There were clearly personality conflicts involved, but the UFC has signed plenty of fighters who don’t like management over the years. Askren’s wrestling-heavy game likely had something to do with it, although his unique style there is intriguing and his finish rate has improved. Whatever the reasons for the UFC’s lack of interest, I’m of the view that it missed the boat. Askren is a self-promoter and a big personality. He would have created interest in his fights, and once fans are invested, a crowd-pleasing style isn’t nearly so important. Randy Couture and Georges St. Pierre were hugely popular and financially successful taking opponents to the mat. Moreover, the UFC’s brand should be matching up the best fighters in the world, and it shouldn’t be consciously passing on anyone with a realistic claim to being the best.
Even without UFC interest, Askren’s career would have had a different trajectory if he had come along a few years later. At the time he was a free agent, Bellator MMA did not have the talent roster or the financial backing to offer Askren a genuinely meaningful series of fights. Moving forward, current Bellator President Scott Coker is highly unlikely to get outbid for fighters like Askren by One Championship, a promotion that didn’t have the depth to test Askren all that strongly.
There’s often debate about whether promotional competition in MMA is good for fans. Arguments in favor of that competition include that it leads to different types of fight promotion, can incentivize lower prices and prevents the leader from getting complacent. The key argument against is that the best won’t always fight the best when they’re under different promotional banners.
Askren turns this latter argument on its head. In the case of fighters like Askren, the competition actually leads to more top-level fights. If the UFC for whatever reason decides not to use Askren or another top-flight fighter and there is no real competition, that fighter is left fighting marginal talent elsewhere. However, if there is a strong competitor to the UFC, most elite fighters will end up in one promotion or the other, and either way, they’ll have real challenges to deal with.
That the state of the MMA industry is likely to create fewer Askrens in the future offers limited solace when it comes to Askren himself. MMA fans want to see just how good the best MMA fighters are. Unless there is a dramatic change, it looks like we’ll never know with Askren, and that’s a real bummer.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.