Ben Askren could be the best welterweight mixed martial artist in the world right now. He could even be the greatest welterweight to have ever competed in the sport. The question of how good Ben Askren really is will remain a highly debated and engaging conversation for the years to come.
ONE Championship announced today that Ben Askren (17-0) will be fighting for the last time when he meets Shinya Aoki (39-7) at ONE Championship: Immortal Pursuit in Singapore on November 24. It should mark the end of an undefeated career for Askren, the two-time NCAA Division I Champion who also represented the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Askren’s retirement shouldn’t come as a surprise to those that have followed his career closely. Askren had previously detailed his desire to leave the sport at the end of his six-fight contract with ONE Championship by stating that he would ideally retire after having children and turning 30-years-old. He is three years past that stage, mostly due to many unforeseen circumstances delaying him from quickly progressing through his contract in 2016.
Askren’s success from a financial and lifestyle perspective is a direct result of choosing to sign with ONE Championship rather than the UFC or World Series of Fighting when his contract expired with Bellator in 2013.
A straightforward decision
Looking back at it, Askren's decision to sign with ONE Championship (formerly ONE FC) was a no-brainer.
Askren's contract began at $50,000 guaranteed per fight with an additional $50,000 bonus per win. These figures would also scale upwards for every successful appearance in the organization. In one swift decision, Askren would double the salary that he was earning at Bellator. There's every chance that this offer was considerably higher than those received by UFC and WSOF at the time, as well.
Throw in the lifestyle benefits of moving to ONE Championship and it's easy to see why Ben Askren, who has previously said "there's more to life than fighting", settled on Asia's leading MMA organization:
Every athlete hangs on too long. They want the limelight, they want the glory, they want the money. But if you’re smart with your money, and you don’t really care about the glory or the limelight, it ain’t so bad to leave.”
The ceiling for earnings in the UFC is undoubtedly higher (just ask Conor McGregor). If Askren were to win the UFC's welterweight championship, his income would drastically improve. However, even for a fighter with Askren's ability, that's always a big if.
The smart business decision is taking the higher guaranteed money, not because you think that you can't reach the top, but because you can't control the number of many externalities that can influence your health and ability to perform at a world-class level. Askren accepted a premier deal with an organization that would cater to his every need.
The same intelligence and awareness that Ben Askren applied to his decision making outside the cage would also be the very reason he has revolutionized the grappling aspect of mixed martial arts.
Revolutionizing the sport
Fighters, fans, and media are fast to praise Demian Maia's masterful jiu-jitsu inside the cage. But strangely, this same praise is never directed towards Ben Askren and the way that he has revolutionized grappling in mixed martial arts.
It used to be (and mostly still is) that we assess fighters by their jiu-jitsu and wrestling as separate entities. Why is it that we rarely see an assessment of a fighter's overall MMA grappling ability? Sport based jiu-jitsu and the sport of wrestling are instrumental forms of grappling in mixed martial arts, but when you add the potential to strike your opponent as well, it changes the game entirely.
MMA grappling as a concept is simply too complicated to understand in this relatively new sport. While many fighters and trainers are focusing on separate wrestling and jiu-jitsu classes, Askren's success has come through developing a striking-focused advanced folkstyle wrestling based grappling system and seperating himself from what is 'normal'.
Time and time again, Askren is presented with an opportunity to take the back of an opponent or transition into full mount when available, but while these positions are the most rewarded in sports based jiu-jitsu, they aren't the most effective positions to strike from.
In mount, you need to establish a sturdy base and begin to posture up before you can land damaging blows. From the back, an opponent's face is relatively safe from the punishment and they can continue hand-fighting and stall in this position. To make it even more difficult, there is limited time to work your submission game by the time you get your opponent to the mat. MMA fighters are also trained superbly on how to defend the typical submission attempts from these dominant positions as, after all, these are the 'normal' pathways.
There are some very-advanced jiu-jitsu players out there that have developed fascinating strategies to force the submission finish, however, and technicians such as Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson should be appreciated. (see my Gunnar Nelson piece).
On this note, I believe that combat jiu-jitsu, as featured at the Eddie Bravo Invitational, is the future of sports based jiu-jitsu as MMA becomes increasingly popular.
Ride or die
Instead of hunting the submission, Askren uses folkstyle wrestling techniques to control the movement of his opponent, pin them to the mat by breaking their posture and disrupts their attempts to post using their hands and arms. By limiting an opponent's movement and pinning them in a disadvantaged position, Askren can employ nasty ground and pound measures to beat up on his now-helpless challenger with his free hand. Askren always stays in a dominant position and continues to rain down heavy shots.
Unfortunately, ONE Championship doesn't employ any stat-tracking measures for their contests. If they did, however, Askren would certainly have a strikes landed vs opponent's strikes landed ratio of over 95% (a very safe estimate). While Demian Maia's impressive streak of four fights with just 13 significant strikes absorbed was doing the rounds with MMA media and fans, Askren's stats would be even more astonishing. Askren doesn't just prevent damage; he dishes out punishment as often as possible.
A victim of his own success
Many are quick to claim that Askren has never faced the best opponents out there in the world. There's no denying that. 22-year-old Agilan Thani is an exciting and talented prospect, but he's not even close to the level of guys that Askren would be facing in the UFC.
The one thing that we do know is that Ben Askren completely dominated Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov during his time at Bellator. Both of these guys are respected as top mixed martial artists now but never stood a chance against "Funky" Ben Askren. This must count for something.
The idea that Ben Askren hasn't faced the upper echelon is mainly due to him not competing in the UFC. But, then again, is your legacy cemented even if you fight in the UFC and prove yourself over and over against the best competition that they have to offer?
A quick look at Demetrious Johnson is all the evidence you need.
Demetrious Johnson is undefeated since 2011 and has been completely dominating every flyweight in the UFC's roster since. This weekend, "Mighty Mouse" will enter the UFC's octagon in an attempt to break a record that was once considered unbreakable: Anderson Silva's record of ten consecutive title defenses.
Instead of fans praising Demetrious Johnson as one of the best to have ever done it, he instead has to hear criticism from fans all over the world:
Wait a second. Isn't this sport all about winning? I get it; there's a form of entertainment here as well. But fans would never expect a tennis player who is up one set to start attempting trick-shots to make it more entertaining for the fans. If Roger Federer beats Rafael Nadal 3-0 in the finals, it's an utterly fantastic performance from Roger Federer. In fact, if the contest isn't entertaining, that would be considered Rafael Nadal's fault for not being competitive, not Roger Federer's!
If Ben Askren entered the UFC in 2014 and cleaned out the division as Demetrious Johnson did to the UFC's flyweight division, he'd be in this same exact situation. People loathe Askren's grappling, yet praise the also undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov as one of the best in the sport.
In fact, it seems that one way to cement your legacy is by losing. Losing a fight gives a fighter the opportunity to 'come back from adversity' and show the world this killer trait.
For Ben Askren and Demetrious Johnson, however, adversity isn't required. Shouldn't that be more significant?
What is 'enough'?
Ben Askren should leave the sport satisfied knowing that one can never really 'do enough'.
Askren will be remembered as somebody who never competed against "the best" talent. Of course, Ben Askren could have been the best mixed martial artist in the world; but we will never know. No one ever truly knows.
More importantly, however, Askren will be respected as one of the best wrestlers to have ever competed in mixed martial arts; a fighter who has completely revolutionized the way that grappling should be approached in the sport. He will also be respected as someone who put his financial security, family, and lifestyle ahead of his occupation. He will also leave the sport without accumulating hundreds of damaging strikes to head; the type of damage that lasts much longer than a fifteen-minute contest. No price, or legacy, will match how insanely healthy Ben Askren will remain when compared to former competitors in the years to come.
Congratulations Ben Askren on a brilliant and intelligent career both inside the cage and outside the cage.
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