The final act in the Ben Askren story encapsulated the essence of a career that had as many twists and turns as the mop of hair on his head.
There he was on the canvas in the center of the Octagon on Oct. 19, immobilized on his back, staring helplessly up into the glare of his only UFC main-event spotlight. Askren was wrapped tightly in a Demian Maia body triangle, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace’s tangle of arms snaking around his neck.
This could very well be the worst situation possible in a mixed martial arts contest. There was a short moment of struggle, then one of gasping resignation as Askren’s air supply dwindled to nothing. He managed just a single tap to Maia’s leg before consciousness briefly left him.
Those who view Askren as too proud of himself — too blustery, perhaps — found some snickering schadenfreude in the rear-naked choke defeat last month in Singapore. These same fans might even lump that futile performance together with Askren’s two other UFC fights — a controversial victory over Robbie Lawler and a stunning five-second knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal — and declare the entirety of his 1-2 run in the world’s leading MMA promotion an inept failure.
But that would be ignoring the nuance in what “Funky” Ben Askren brought to the UFC in less than a year.
It’s true that Askren, who announced his retirement and his intention to get a hip replacement during an appearance Monday on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, did not succeed at proving himself to be the greatest welterweight in the world, as he set out to do. But what Askren did succeed in accomplishing was remaining true to himself and his skill set. Always. This two-time NCAA Division I champion and Olympic wrestler believed deeply in his grappling and was determined to test it against the best.
Even against Maia, widely considered the best in MMA at grappling, Askren welcomed the danger the canvas posed. He could have taken the ground game out of the equation, just as other high-level wrestlers did by keeping their Maia fights standing. But he not only wanted to see what Maia had, Askren wanted to see what he had. This wasn’t about winning the fight but proving a point.
It had been four years and nine fights since someone tried a takedown against Maia. Askren landed four in that fight. Neither then-welterweight champion Tyron Woodley nor soon-to-be interim belt holder Colby Covington nor future champion Kamaru Usman — all elite wrestlers — attempted one. Some might view Askren’s game plan as a bullheaded example of low fight IQ, because knowingly going to the ground ultimately led to the submission, but there is nobility in challenging your skills at the highest level.
That is what this year in the UFC was about for Askren. It had been a long time coming. He made his pro MMA debut in early 2009, and by the fall of 2010 he was 7-0 and Bellator welterweight champion. He was dominating everyone, though most of his fights were going the distance and were not exactly a-thrill-a-minute. When someone brought up his name to Dana White, the UFC president famously spat out one of the funniest insults ever in MMA: “When Ambien can’t sleep, it takes Ben Askren.”
That was a rare area of agreement between White and his archrival Bjorn Rebney, who at the time was the CEO of Bellator. Rebney gave Askren his release in 2013, and referred to him as “ridiculously one-dimensional.” To no surprise, the UFC did not come calling, despite its welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre, telling MMA Junkie, “He’s a good fighter, undefeated, and yes, if he comes, I’ll fight him.”
Askren instead ended up with One Championship, where he ramped up his dominance to the point where he was even finishing the majority of his opponents. But those fights were taking place in outposts like Kallang, Singapore, and Pasay, Philippines, in the middle of the night United States time, with no TV coverage in North America. To fight fans in the U.S., Askren might as well have moved to Mars.
Askren quickly became champion and provided handsomely for his family, but was that enough to fuel his inner fire? As he faded from the consciousness of MMA fans in the U.S., so too did his ambition to prove himself as the greatest welterweight in the world. In November 2017, with nothing left to prove across the Pacific, Askren announced his retirement with a record of 18-0 with one no contest.
In October 2018, the UFC agreed to release Demetrious Johnson in order to allow him to sign with One Championship. In return, One released Askren from his contract so he could end his retirement and finally pursue his dream with the UFC. After years of everyone questioning the skills and abilities — of both him and his opponents — in Bellator and One, Askren would finally have the opportunity to prove that he was one of the world’s elite.
Askren’s three-fight UFC run didn’t ultimately provide the answer he was hoping for. Those fights showed all sides of Askren — where he was elite and where he was not. Within the first 15 seconds of his debut against Robbie Lawler, Askren was in more trouble than he had seen in any of his 19 previous fights. But he toughed it out, and before the first round was over, he had used a bulldog choke to render “Ruthless Robbie” unconscious. Or had he? Was Lawler really out when the referee stepped in? If not, was the finish inevitable anyway, with Askren’s beefy arms wrapped around the neck?
Even when Askren was winning, he was more of a question mark than an exclamation point.
Then there was the Jorge Masvidal fight. And in five seconds, we learned that Askren was one-dimensional enough that the American Top Team coaches knew it was a good bet that if their man Jorge came racing across the Octagon, Askren was going to drop levels for a takedown, leaving him open for a knee. In that same scenario, an opponent who was a high-level striker might have stopped Masvidal in his tracks with a punch or kick — or at least might have used slick footwork to get out of harm’s way. But not Askren. He was going to stick to what he knew. And Masvidal & Co. knew that.
So there you have Ben Askren. His time in the UFC might have spoiled his unbeaten run, but it did not redefine him. He was one-dimensional to the end, his standup game never evolving beyond stiff and awkward, perhaps because his pre-UFC competition never demanded that he do more than wrestle. He was confident in his skills, overconfident even, which was to his credit and ultimately to his demise.
And in the end, he was honest with himself.
“The only thing I came back for was to try to prove I was the best in the world,” Askren said when he was on the Helwani show last month following the loss to Maia. “After the Masvidal fight, if I beat Demian Maia, I’m probably one good win away from a title fight. Now I look at my path and I say, ‘Oh, s—, I’m kind of far away.'”
Ben Askren came out of retirement to chase a dream. He didn’t succeed at that, but he did successfully shine a light on the honor within self-belief and what it means to relentlessly challenge oneself. He showed the spirit of a fighter, and it would be small-minded to call that a total failure.