Ben Askren has never been afraid to speak his mind. He stormed into the UFC last year after a historic trade and exchanged verbal shots with just about everyone, from Conor McGregor to Colby Covington to Dana White.
Askren makes his third Octagon appearance Saturday against Demian Maia in the main event of UFC Singapore. He’ll attempt to rebound from a record-setting, five-second, knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal at UFC 239 in July. Askren (19-1, 1 NC) was undefeated heading into that bout.
Askren spent the past 10 years of his life traveling the world as a pro MMA fighter for Bellator, ONE Championship and finally the UFC. He’s a four-time collegiate All-American wrestler who competed at the 2008 Olympics.
Given his cumulative experiences and his knack for sharing his opinions on a variety of topics, ESPN asked “Funky” to share his suggestions for improving the UFC.
1. Add new weight classes at 165 and 175 pounds, replacing 170
“I think it only makes sense. I’ve gone through this logic 100 times. The amount of competitors at 155 and 170, if you took those two and divided them by three, it would still be the three biggest divisions in the UFC.* That’s just the average size of a human being. There’s just more people in those divisions than anywhere else.
“I think I could be the champion at 165. I think I could be the champion at 165 or 175, given the opportunity. I think everyone would want those divisions. I’m looking at it as a business opportunity. Now you have an extra belt, and it provides a lot of chances for superfight opportunities.”
(*Editor’s note: Although 155 and 170 are the two largest divisions in UFC, the three divisions that Askren proposes would be tied for third-largest, according to ESPN Stats & Info, provided they were distributed evenly and no one moved down from 185.)
2. Appeal to more crowds outside North America
“Obviously, the UFC is big in Brazil, but they don’t really have a huge presence in South America. Asia, although I’m fighting there, the presence is not that large there yet. Africa, there’s almost none. I think there could be creative ways to create a larger international presence.
“I don’t know what the most effective structure would be. In business, you’ve got to try things out and see how it works and get a feel for it. Know when to pivot, know when to dig in, know when to keep pushing. Major League Baseball has a feeder system. NCAA is essentially football and basketball’s feeder system. I think if you create some type of league, smaller subsidiaries, that could help. Which leads me to my next idea …”
3. Create international regional champions
“There could be a South American champion or an Asian champion, and that feeds into a larger organization. Obviously, that’s easier said than done, but if you look at the ways the UFC can expand its business, the international markets would be the key places. They have a pretty strong hold in North America.
“One thing I saw in ONE Championship in Asia: Nationalistic stuff was so big. So being a Malaysian superstar, you get a lot more cheers. Someone in America is not gonna cheer for an American nearly the way someone in Malaysia will cheer for a Malaysian. Same thing with the Philippines. Pick the nationality. There’s a lot of national pride there. I do think you can get a lot of excitement behind some of these belts. And the people of that region or area — however small or big you want to slice it — people would get excited about the belt.
“Being the champion of South America would be a really, really big freakin’ deal to the people down there. I feel like that’s maybe a way you can do it. They use that model in amateur sport — regional events like Latin American, Pan Am and European championships, the Asian Games. I’m not a genius coming up with this. The model is already used in many of the sports. Not with fighting. I think that can be replicated.
“They have Israel Adesanya as a star. He’s Nigerian and fights out of New Zealand, representing both. Conor McGregor is an Irish star. Part of the reason those guys are such big stars is they represent unique areas. The people in those areas get behind them.”
4. Pay the fighters more
“Before I’m bashed on that, we’ve learned from [the UFC’s antitrust] lawsuit that most professional leagues have some kind of collective bargaining agreement. The athletes get paid somewhere around 50%. I believe the estimate around fighting, even though it’s not public, is somewhere between 14 and 15%. (Editor’s note: According to Forbes, testimony from plaintiff expert witness Dr. Hal Singer put the fighter’s share of the revenue between 19 and 20% since 2011.)
“So find a greater way to share the revenue with the athletes. The leaders of industry can choose what their interests are. The leaders of industry don’t have to solely choose to make as much profit as possible or make their shareholders as much money as possible. That is a choice that they make. And listen: That’s their right. That’s their choice to make. They can choose to value anything they want to value.
“I think an important step in professionalizing mixed martial arts is getting the athletes more revenue. So that’s the choice I’d make.”
5. Expand efforts to promote fighters’ individuality
“I actually feel like the UFC has done a good job doing this in the past three years or so. But I felt for a while there that they were trying to stuff every fighter into this one mold of what a star should be and how they should act and what a good fighter should look like.
“A great example of that is how they let Israel Adesanya have his own walkout at UFC 243. That’s f—ing great. You know how many times that walkout has probably been watched? Honestly, that walkout has probably been watched more than any damn fight has. Stuff like that is what helps create stars. If you don’t let people do that type of thing, then that’s gonna take away from building stars.
“I would try to find more creative ways to make people stars because at the end of the day, pay-per-view research shows that the UFC has a baseline of sales they’ll do per event. After that, it’s based on how big of a star the headliner is. If you’re a gigantic star, they’re gonna sell way more. If they don’t have stars, they’re not gonna sell more. But that baseline is there, and what it tells you is the more stars you can create, the more pay-per-views you can sell, and the more business you can do.
“It’s very difficult. What I would say is you need to have as many ways as possible to do that, to be as creative as possible. To have different avenues to creating stars. For example, if the only way you can be a star is to talk, then Israel Adesanya doesn’t have the chance to do his unique walkout, and it doesn’t get seen by millions of people. If every walkout is the same, then you don’t get the opportunity to create some type of hype.
“WWE, they have scripted fights. If I say fake, people will get mad at me. They have scripted fights, and they do great business. So people playing characters is probably not the worst idea ever. You don’t want to tell them what character to play. You don’t want to do that. But at the same time, hey, even Colby Covington, as dumb as he is, has got quite a bit of hype, and probably him versus Kamaru Usman is going to sell — not a gigantic amount of pay-per-views but a decent amount of pay-per-views. All because Colby plays that dumb personality.”