Ben Askren is undefeated. He won and defended titles with two major organizations and has never lost a fight during his MMA career. But the 33-year-old, who headlines ONE: Shanghai on Saturday, hasn’t always had things his own way.
Unlike most mixed martial artists, Askren has an entire world of experience away from the cage to fall back on. The two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion recalls a losing streak during his college wrestling career which he says made him the man he is today.
“I only had eight losses in my high school career, and I won a junior national title in the summer after my senior year of high school. And then I went into college wrestling and I was getting hammered by everybody in the room, and then I lost 10 matches in six weeks. That was really a reality check, and that was a point where either you give up or you love the fight, and you figure out how to get better.”
It gives Askren the type of life experience which wouldn’t be obvious with a glance at his unblemished MMA record. He doesn’t see himself as someone who was genetically gifted, but attributes all his success to a simple belief in hard work.
“I always enjoyed the struggle. I always enjoyed the hard work because I wasn’t successful a lot early, but I knew one thing that I was willing to do was I willing to outwork anyone. So I was never scared of work, I was never scared of it being tough, and I was never scared of losing because I lost a lot when I was young.”
He also experienced the bitter disappointment of seeing years of preparation go to waste when he was eliminated from the 2008 Olympics at a very early stage.
“The Olympics was terrible. I went 1 and 1. I cradled and pinned my first guy and then my second guy, Ivan Fundura from Cuba, I end up losing to. And then in the Olympics, unfortunately, you don’t get a wrestle back, so that was my entire tournament. In MMA, if I lose my belt, I could say, ‘okay, let’s do this again in three months’ and we do it again in three months. The Olympics is once every four years.”
It is not unprecedented for mixed martial artists to have excelled in other disciplines, particularly wrestling. But Askren has also been world ranked at non-combat sports, which he thinks makes him quite unique.
“I haven’t been able to be competitive (at disc golf) in a handful of years because I have gotten too busy, but I always joke with my wife that, you know there’s been some great two-sport athletes, but I’m the first three sport professional athlete. At my highest, I was the fourth highest ranked amateur in the world at disk golf out of like 15,000 people who were registered amateurs at the time. I took second at the US amateur nationals in 2011, and I took ninth at the amateur worlds in both 2009 and 2011.”
Next up for the champion is a title defense against Zebaztian Kadestam in Shanghai on Saturday. The Swedish welterweight burst onto the scene by beating Luis Santos earlier this year and Askren was backstage watching that bout.
“Zebaztian Kadestam was on the same card as me in Singapore, and obviously, we got the direct stream in the locker rooms, so I was able to watch that fight. He was not doing great the whole fight until the end and the one thing that tells me is I can’t get lackadaisical on him and I can’t stop putting the pressure on. He’s really tough. He stayed there through a lot of hard kicks and hard punches, and he just waited to deliver his own shot. And it only took once, so he also has a lot of power.”
The game plan for nearly all of Askren’s opponents is to knock him out. Challengers know they will struggle to take down a man who wrestled in the Olympics. Kadestam does at least have form when it comes to finishing fights and the champion says he will have to keep his wits about him in Shanghai.
“He’s really tough and he’s powerful. But technically, for MMA, he is lacking a little bit, especially in takedown defense, which is an area that I can exploit. I just need to stay on my game, as long as I do that, I don’t see there should be any issues for me.”
Askren has experienced defeat and disappointment. But not recently, for the last few years he has done nothing but win and even found time out from his schedule of MMA title defenses to return to the wrestling mat and beat a top college wrestler.
His road to success has not been without the occasional bump, but for the past few years Askren has found the going very smooth and he’s not expecting to experience defeat on Saturday.
“I’m confident because my preparation is second to none. I’ve been training for this for the last 16 or 17 years of my life.”
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