There is only one 170-pound mixed martial artist outside of the UFC that is turning heads. His name is Ben Askren, undefeated Bellator welterweight champion. And he is preparing to put his belt on the line for the fourth time when he steps in the cage with Andrey Koreshkov on Wednesday.
Askren is currently undefeated at 11-0, and in many pundits’ eyes, he is the next prospect to step out from the shadow of divisional kingpin and UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
With wins over MMA veterans like Jay Hieron, Nick Thompson, Douglas Lima and Lyman Good (Hieron, Good and Thompson being former champions of other mid-major promotions), Askren has proven that – despite only being in the sport for four years – this 29-year-old isn’t intimidated by any perceived lack of experience.
Oddly, being a two-time Division-I NCAA National Champion at Missouri and former Olympian in the sport of wrestling, Askren is rarely mentioned in the same vein as some of his more well known contemporaries in MMA.
It’s something the former “Mizzou Tiger” doesn’t mind at all.
“Most people are just ignorant about the sport,” Askren told MMAweekly.com. “I’ve trained with the best. I’ve trained with (Carlos) Condit, I’ve trained with (Nick) Diaz, and I know where I stand. I’m not really worried about what fans say.”
Askren shrugs off any media or fan fodder with the quickness of one of his signature double-legs. After all, it’s not like the fans or media have walked a mile in his ASICS. As far as he’s concerned, his place in the sport is validated, whether fans think so or not.
Despite often being labeled a “boring” fighter for his systematic use of his All-American wrestling prowess, Askren has made a case for himself as one of the more dangerous fighters in MMA. In fact, one could present the case that with Askren being so dominant in one aspect MMA in an era where well-roundedness is the name of the game, it’s almost more impressive than in years past.
“I pretty much ignore everything they say. I’m in this for me. I’m in this to win,” Askren stated matter-of-factly.
“I’ll be a grinder till I die; that’s just what I do. People can’t deal with the pressure and they’ve never been able to. I learned that from a young age. You put some pressure on somebody and they’re not mentally strong, then they crack.
“I crack people for breakfast. It’s not that difficult for me.”
During his collegiate wrestling career, Askren was a finishing force of epic proportions. It was a rarity for an opponent to make it through an entire match with “Funky” Ben. At 153–8 in his career, with 91 of those victories coming by way of pin, Askren became the definition of a “finisher” on the mats – one of the best to ever do it.
The story in MMA, however, has been a little bit different. In Askren’s eight Bellator fights, only two have come via stoppage.
“I want to finish fights. In college wrestling I was one of the best finishers in history. I have some of the most pins in the history of college wrestling. When I won the belt, it was my first year in my fighting career,” he said.
“Barely anyone jumps in and has success that fast. So, you know, I jumped in I had a lot of success on building my skills. If you see in my last fight, I had the best performance of my career in a really dominant ground and pound finish, so I think I just keep getting better and better the longer I do this.”
Askren’s not wrong.
In his last fight, at Bellator 86 against Karl Amoussou in January, the wrestling standout battered the French striker with a brutal onslaught of ground and pound over three rounds. By the end of the third round, the often brash and cocky Amoussou was left in a pile of his own blood, completely broken, and Askren, once again, walked away with his belt around his waist.
Next up for the ‘Funky’ one is a July 31bout with undefeated Russian Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 97.
Koreshkov is a vicious power-striker from the land of Lenin, and for many, the 22-year-old is a viable threat to dethrone Askren from his three-year reign at the top of the Bellator welterweight pecking order. With 11 of Koreshkov’s 13 career victories coming by way of stoppage, the hype is building at an understandable rate for the young prospect.
Still fairly green in the sport of MMA, Koreshkov carries a shroud of mystery over him like so many Russian fighters from years past. He is no doubt a threat to be reckoned with, and a test that Askren is taking dead serious.
With Askren’s move to Roufus Sport in Milwaukee, Wis., the wrestling-based champion has been getting plenty of stand-up practice with some of the best strikers in the world to help prepare him for the upcoming bout.
As July comes to a close, and his showdown with the Russian looms, if the young finisher wants to try and slug it out with Askren, then so be it.
“I’m not that great of an offensive striker, but if he wants to duke it out with me, I’m a pretty good defensive striker,” he said with steadfast confidence. “I’m hard to hit. No one in the world is going to beat me unless they can knock me out, period.
“I’ve been working on my striking with Duke Roufus and I have a great opportunity to defend against the best guys in the world – Anthony Pettis, Sergio Pettis – there’s a lot of great strikers around me every day, so I get to work with them. I really get to hone my skills.”
With Askren’s contractual obligation reportedly coming to a close after his next fight, rumors have been running rampant as to whether the hot prospect will test the waters of being a “free agent,” and try a run in the UFC. When asked about his current contractual situation, Askren is fairly mum, but he does make it clear that he one day hopes to test himself against the very best in the world.
“You know, contracts are supposed to be confidential,” he said when asked about this potentially being his last fight on his Bellator contract. “But it seems like everyone has common knowledge of this right now. I’m not really sure of much of anything, but that’s a definite possibility.
“I got a fight in front of me and that’s all I can really deal with. My management team, they deal with the contracts, so when that comes up, they’ll deal with it and I will keep fighting whoever they put in front of me in the cage.”
Askren rightfully deflects any contractual talk, and the conversation shifts back to career goals. After all, a man like Askren doesn’t become a four-time All-American, two-time National Champion and Olympian by being ho-hum, and not having specific targets.
“When I got into the sport my goal was to be the best in the world, and in my mind, I’m not that far away from it,” said the 29-year-old. “If I put my money on me and GSP fighting, I’m betting on myself. I might be the best fighter at 170 in the world right now.
“Obviously, I haven’t had the chance to prove that at this point in my career and hopefully at some point I’ll be able to.”
When asked if he has exceeded any expectations just four years into his fighting career, Askren is a mix of modest and confident.
“I don’t know if I’d had certain expectations of how I wanted to progress. All I knew was I wanted to be really damn good at it. And honestly, I’m there.”
When Askren debuted for Bellator in 2010, the 3-0 upstart was just beginning in the sport – albeit with high expectations from the MMA community. In that year of 2010, he fought a total of four times, en route to capturing the Bellator welterweight title at Bellator 22 against Dan Hornbuckle.
Since defeating Hornbuckle in June of 2010, Askren has had a grand total of five fights inside the Bellator cage – far from what fans were initially introduced to when he hit the ground running in the first year of his promotional debut.
Askren now finds himself a prisoner of promotional woes and limited fights as Bellator tries to develop worthy contenders for its welterweight king; something that is a definite point of frustration for him heading into 2014.
“It was really good for me in the beginning, because when I won the title I had only been fighting for a year and a half, maybe even a little less,” Askren said when discussing his first year with his newly won gold. “So when I won the title, I was a newbie. I didn’t know (crap) about MMA. I was just going out there and mowing people down, and staying on top.
“That time was really good because I needed to learn a lot about MMA. I was trying to be a complete fighter. Now, at this point, I’m older. I’m 29. I want to fight. At first, the fight (with Koreshkov) was supposed to happen in April, then June, and now it’s July 31, and yeah, I’m pretty ticked about that.”
Then how does Bellator keep him more active?
“The only real way is more tournaments. I guess they run more tournaments, and they get over earlier, then they can have more challengers for the champion.”
Another option would be superfights with free agent talent.
And yet another is to leave and test himself in the UFC’s Octagon.
Whether it be Bellator or UFC – new contract or free agency – one thing remains clear; Ben Askren wants to fight more people, more often.
(Follow @RyanMcKinnell on Twitter)