Ben Askren is in danger of becoming one of the most polarizing figures in mixed martial arts. There is no doubt that he is a top ten welterweight, but some are adamant he would run through absolutely everyone in the 170-pound division, while others would have you believe he has never beaten anyone of note.
The latter argument seems deliberately disingenuous, but the subject of exactly where Askren belongs in the upper echelons of the MMA hierarchy is set to provoke some of the most intensive debate of the next two years after his decision to sign with ONE FC.
The UFC has come under some intense criticism after neglecting to offer a contract to the unbeaten former Bellator welterweight champion with fans unable to comprehend why Askren was deemed unworthy of a place on a roster which undeniably contains some far inferior fighters.
Georges St-Pierre’s decision to retire has only intensified the spotlight on Askren. There are parallels to the situation that existed prior to the Zuffa acquisition of Pride when comparisons between Fedor Emelianenko and the UFC heavyweights made for some of the most contentious discussions of the day.
The difference is that, whereas Fedor’s management made a UFC deal all but impossible, Askren did everything in his power to test himself against top contenders like Johnny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler and is adamant that he would have more than held his own.
“I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to compete with the best guys in the world, but that does not mean I am not one of them. I would feel confident stepping into the cage against any welterweight on the planet,” he said.
Rather than focus on what could, and probably should, have been, the two-time NCAA Division One champion prefers to look ahead to what life will be like after having signed a lucrative six-fight, two-year deal with Asia’s biggest MMA organization.
The terms of the contract seem to guarantee Askren will be active, which hadn’t always been the case with Bellator where his dominance in the welterweight division was such that suitable opponents were hard to come by.
After fighting twice in 2013 and only once in 2012, Askren plans to fight much more frequently now that he has signed with ONE FC.
“I don’t know when my first fight will be. I am thinking March or April, and yes I am looking forward to being significantly more busy,” he said.
During his MMA career, Askren has never previously competed outside of the U.S. and says that this was another incentive to choose ONE FC despite having a WSOF offer on the table.
“My wife and I love to travel. We loved our trip to Singapore and Thailand in 2012 and we are looking forward to travel to a bunch of awesome places with ONE FC. I know they are already the biggest in Asia and the bigger the stage the more I love it; I flat out love to compete and the bigger the better.”
Askren has been touted as a boring fighter, but is currently coming off back-to-back stoppage wins in title fights. To put that into perspective, St-Pierre hasn’t finished an opponent in almost four years and the 29-year-old former Olympian believes he is becoming more clinical as his MMA career progresses.
“It just took me a while to figure out how to do damage. People always forget I won the Bellator title after only one and a half years of fighting. I was fighting on a big stage without the appropriate skills and relying heavily on my wrestling,” he said.
Askren says he would be willing to look at the possibility of moving either up or down in weight, but wants to clear out ONE FC’s 170-pound division first. There is no indication yet as to who his first opponent will be, but he already knows where he will be preparing for the fight.
“I am going to finish all my fight camps at Evolve MMA in Singapore. I visited last year and it’s an awesome facility with a great team and it will be an awesome base for me to get acclimated before my fights,” he said.
It has been an emotional year for Askren with back-to-back stoppage wins, the Bellator release, and then an inexplicable UFC snub. The last few weeks in particular have had their ups and downs and he admits to having contemplated retirement, but he is not quite ready to close the curtain on his MMA career.
“I definitely thought about it, but the ONE FC offer was just too amazing and I decided I wasn’t done with my career yet.”
As well as the two NCAA Division One titles, Askren has also won the Pan American Championships and United States Championships in freestyle wrestling and the 2009 World Championships in No Gi grappling. He’s already one of the most decorated athletes in the sport and looks odds-on to add the ONE FC 170-pound title to the Bellator belt he won and successfully defended four times.
(Follow @JamesGoyder on Twitter)