Despite Ben Askren‘s five-second knockout defeat to Jorge Masvidal in his last outing — the fastest loss in UFC history — the UFC has been able to garner interest in a fight between the Olympic wrestler and an all-world submission grappler.
In the main event of Saturday’s card in Singapore, Askren will take on Demian Maia in what promises to be an uncommon tactical matchup. The following breakdown examines some of the idiosyncrasies that could determine the winner.
Askren’s submission defense
Askren, who comes from a collegiate and freestyle wrestling background, has never been submitted in his 21-fight MMA career. While he has been able to nullify the grappling game of his opponents in MMA, he did suffer a defeat via submission at the 2009 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships, which has long been considered the pinnacle of no-gi submission grappling. Askren began his run in the tournament with a quick finish over Toni Linden. In the next round, however, he ran into veteran Pablo Popovitch. At the time, Popovitch was already a two-time ADCC medalist and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion.
In the match, Popovitch was more than content to work from the bottom. He used a knee shield half guard to handle Askren’s top pressure before securing what is called deep half guard. Popovitch worked for a sweep, but Askren did a good job maintaining balance on top by posting with his head. The Brazilian then used a modified X-guard to knock Askren off-balance and secure a match-ending toe hold. The wrestler correctly tried to spin out of the hold, but it was too deep. Askren submitted for the first and only time in his combat sports career.
Historically, defense against leg-based submissions has been a struggle for converted wrestlers. For example, Frank Shamrock easily submitted Dan Henderson with a heel hook in a submission match, and Frank Mir handed Brock Lesnar his first MMA defeat via kneebar. Maia will certainly be the biggest submission threat the former ONE and Bellator champion has faced to date.
Askren’s 20 MMA opponents have 163 submission victories between them. Shinya Aoki, who is probably the best grappler Askren has faced, has 29 of them. However, the career lightweight moved up to welterweight for their fight and did not even last a minute before being knocked out.
Maia’s ground game
During his UFC career, Maia has scored 10 submission victories, which ties him with Royce Gracie for the third-most submission wins in UFC history. His 26 submission attempts are also the fifth most all time in the UFC.
On the ground, Maia has always been a dangerous submission threat. However, he has recently struggled in terms of getting the fight on the ground. For his career, he is landing only 25% of his takedown attempts. In his three-fight stretch against Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman, Maia went a combined 0-for-49 on takedown attempts and lost all three fights. His takedown rate improved in his last two bouts against lesser wrestlers Lyman Good and Anthony Rocco Martin. However, even against Good and Martin, Maia still failed on 65% of his takedown attempts.
Against Askren, Maia will once again find himself up against a quality wrestler. At Missouri, Askren went 153-8 with 91 falls and captured two NCAA titles during his collegiate career before representing the U.S. at the 2008 Olympics. It is likely that Maia will not find takedowns easily in this bout.
While Maia is an accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, he has not necessarily exceled from the bottom position. He has scored only six reversals in his 30-fight UFC career, and eight of his 10 submission victories have come via rear-naked choke. He has spent more time on the bottom than in the top position in 10 UFC fights, and he has lost eight of those fights. He has not won a fight with more bottom than top time since he defeated Chael Sonnen in 2009. If Askren is able to establish top position, the fight may swing in his favor.
Neither one of these fighters is a natural striker, but Askren’s striking numbers in the UFC have been abysmal so far. Granted there is a very small sample size — two fights and only 3:25 of total fight time — but Askren has failed to land a single significant strike while absorbing 8.49 significant strikes per minute.
For his UFC career, Maia has landed 1.71 significant strikes per minute and absorbed 1.92. His minus-0.21 striking differential is currently 12th among ranked welterweights. His strength will always be his ground game. However, he has had a lot of success when he has used ground striking as part of that attack. Maia has averaged 0.73 significant ground strikes per minute in the UFC. In his victories, that rate is 1.15 per minute, while it is only 0.16 in defeats.
If Askren is able to deprive Maia of top position, he will likely avoid his opponent’s ground striking offense. On top of that, Askren has really developed his ground and pound skills over the course of his career. Finishing was a bit of an issue early in his career, but since 2013, five of his nine victories have come via technical knockout on the ground. Even considering Maia’s ground wizardry, Askren could make a difference in this fight with his striking from the top position.