If you are wondering which side of the Ben Askren vs. Demetrious Johnson trade thinks more highly of their acquisition, it isn’t hard to parse a guess. Within 24 hours of the transaction being complete, ONE Championship held an introductory conference call welcoming Johnson into the fold, blasted the news as the lead story on its website, and posted about it on their social media accounts. From the UFC’s side of the trade, it’s been crickets.
To be fair, the worldwide MMA giant was likely preoccupied with the UFC Moncton event it held over the weekend, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t at least squeeze out a Sunday morning tweet if there was genuine organizational excitement about the deal.
In a way, it doesn’t matter; they are now in business together. Askren finally gets the chance to prove that he’s the unstoppable force he’s always claimed to be, and the UFC gets the opportunity to put its marketing machine behind another brash mouth.
Yes, if you follow Askren on Twitter, you might have seen his callout tour is underway, with nearly anyone within spitting distance of the welterweight limit in his crosshairs. Askren wants Georges St-Pierre, the Diaz brothers, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor, anyone who matters, really.
His urgency is both refreshing and necessary. At 34, Askren is not old, yet he’s at an age where athletic prime is often already slipping away. He himself noted a year ago, when he first “retired” from fighting, that he was “definitely not physically at the peak I was, say, four to five years ago.” In etching the legacy that so far has evaded him, time is of the essence.
So, what will success look like for Askren? Strangely, it may not come with a UFC welterweight championship. Current champion Tyron Woodley is a close friend and longtime training partner, and the two have said they do not plan to fight each other.
But given his undefeated past, he will have a serious load to bear; it’s a long way down from perfect. And given his inclination to run his mouth, he’ll have few soft landing spots; everyone wants to be the one to shut him up and end his run.
To date, Askren has been brilliant. In 19 trips to the cage, he has never lost, with 18 wins (11 by stoppage) and only a single no-contest due to an accidental eye poke, yet he has remained something of a cult figure within the MMA world, an anonymous champion.
A look down Askren’s list of conquests shows names recognizable to regular MMA viewers: Shinya Aoki, Andrey Koreshkov, Douglas Lima, Jay Hieron. But since all of those fights came in what many fans consider to be “secondary” organizations, Askren has never quite received the respect due to such success. Those who have actually watched him compete have seen him dominate opponents, sometimes in preposterous fashion.
Back in 2013, for example, he fought Koreshkov, who was then perfect at 13-0, in a Bellator welterweight championship showdown of unbeatens. To say Askren trounced Koreshkov is an all-time MMA understatement. It was a decimation. In one of the most lopsided fights in MMA history, Askren battered him for four rounds, outstriking him 248-3(!) before stopping Koreshkov with a technical knockout.
In the early stages of his career, Askren, a two-time NCAA champion wrestler who closed out his college career with an 87-match win streak, earned a reputation as a “blanket,” a fighter who would take down opponents and prize position over damage in dull affairs. For a time, that criticism was at least anchored in truth, but with experience, he made adjustments and became a finisher. In fact, he has now stopped seven of his last eight opponents.
That impressive history is his to own, but in his new life as a UFC fighter, it is almost irrelevant to the critics that matter most, perhaps including his own boss, Dana White, who as of two days ago, still had Askren blocked on Twitter, and who once memorably said, “When Ambien can’t sleep it takes Ben Askren. The most boring fighter in MMA history.”
That Askren managed to break through White’s long-held beliefs is just another proof of the lifetime perseverance that has led him to this moment. NCAA champion. Bellator champion. ONE champion. Undefeated. That’s a long list of achievements that now stand to be rightly or wrongly redefined based upon what he does going forward.
While the UFC has not trumpeted his arrival, the absence of any announcement is apropos. From afar, Askren came off as the mouth that roared. In the UFC, he will continue to make his case, this time the old-fashioned way, but still all on his own.