13 Questions for Ben Askren

By TJ De Santis Feb 6, 2009
Ben Askren wants to make a splash in mixed martial arts.

A two-time national wrestling champion who finished his collegiate career at the University of Missouri on a remarkable 87-fight winning streak, Askren will make his professional MMA debut against Tom Aaron at Headhunter Productions “The Patriot Act” this Saturday at the Holiday Inn Select Executive Center in Columbia, Mo.

The 2008 Olympian sat down with Sherdog.com to discuss the next step in his career, his alliance with American Top Team and whether or not he plans to return to the Olympics in 2012.

Sherdog.com: When did MMA first catch your eye?

Askren: I’ve been watching since UFC 1 and 2. I remember my dad brought home the VHS version back when it was chaos and mayhem. I was, like, 8 years old. I remember when Dan Severn and Mark Coleman -- those early wrestlers -- were winning a bunch of those competitions. Kevin Randleman and whoever was on the wrestling videos were talking about it because they wanted wrestlers to be the biggest and baddest people around. It’s another avenue for us to do something post-collegiate.

Sherdog.com: People obviously know of you because of your wrestling credentials, but what some people may not know is that you’re a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. What made you take up BJJ?

Askren: I actually got into it because I was traveling and doing wrestling camps by myself a couple of summers ago. I needed a place to workout, and there weren’t any wrestlers around near my caliber. So I ended up finding The Armory back when Hermes Franca was there. I rolled with him a couple of days, and Matt Wiman was there, too. And then, one time, I found Din Thomas’ place, and then American Top Team’s gym opened up in Columbia, [Missouri]; they’ve got a good jiu-jitsu guy. Jiu-jitsu and wrestling -- they’re really, really similar. It’s like the same thing, just a different way to score points. I love wrestling, so I took to jiu-jitsu really quickly, and I love it. It’s a lot of fun.

Sherdog.com: You chose a high-profile team -- American Top Team -- with which to train in mixed martial arts. What stood out for you to make it your camp?

Askren: The biggest thing is they have a gym here in Columbia, Missouri, where I live. That’s the number one reason I did it. We have a really good Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach. [Francisco] “Kiko” France came from Fortaleza, [Brazil, and] trained in Fort Lauderdale, [Florida], for a few months before he came up here. So I teach him the wrestling, and he teaches me the jiu-jitsu. We have a few other tough guys. You know, pretty much [the fact] that I am coaching here is what drew me.

Sherdog.com: Now that you have been training for a fight, how is that preparation different from getting ready for the Olympics or a wrestling season?

Askren: Training is training. Mixed martial arts has so many different aspects to train for. So many different things can happen. You have to be ready for a lot of different things.

Sherdog.com: How do you feel you’re adapting to the striking aspect of MMA?

Askren: We finally have a pretty good coach up here now coaching the striking. His name is Lucas Lopez, also from Brazil. Having a striking coach on hand on a regular basis is going to be a really big help to my striking game. It’s definitely not very good right now. Striking is probably the most dangerous and hardest to learn. For me, in wrestling -- and now in jiu-jitsu -- I learn by failing. I learn by getting taken down and getting pinned, getting choked, and it’s not a big deal. That’s a hard thing to do in striking because, hell, it hurts getting punched in the head. You can’t just go into the cage and say, “Hey, punch me in the head until I figure it out.” I can’t really figure it out by failing.

Sherdog.com: You have two fights scheduled in February. What are your short-term goals in MMA, and how many fights do you want to get in 2009?

Askren: One of them got canceled, actually. They canceled the whole event in Miami, [Florida]. I want to fight as many times as possible -- four, five or six ... whatever it takes to get me into a larger organization. I kind of had this idea that I would just jump into a larger organization after I got done with the Olympics, but none of them were really having it. They said, “We want you to have experience. We want you to have three, four or five fights before we think about signing you.” I’ve just got to get some fights under my belt so I can go somewhere bigger and more profitable.

Sherdog.com: You’ve obviously had some talks. Do you want to drop any names of the promotions that have been interested in you?

Askren: I’ve talked to the WEC, and I think my manger has talked to the UFC. There was a part where we were thinking of going on the TUF show because that is a springboard for a lot of people, but I decided against it because I didn’t want to be gone for six weeks during the middle of wrestling season. Plus, those guys get locked into too long-term contracts anyway. If I make it big, I will probably be making a lot more money than those guys, so I’m willing to take a chance on myself.

Sherdog.com: Collegiate wrestling is producing a lot of young talent in MMA. Phil Davis, Jake Rosholt, Johny Hendricks and other high-caliber wrestlers are getting their feet wet in the sport. Do you see a new era for wrestling on the horizon?

Askren: Well, of course. As there are more organizations and more productions, there are more fighters that can make a living doing it. And when you have more fighters, some of them are going to be wrestlers. The thing about wrestlers is we’re tough; we’ve been training our whole lives. For a lot of people to train, it’s hard to motivate themselves. For us, it’s normal. From then on, it’s [about] just not being stubborn and being willing to learn jiu-jitsu and being willing to learn whatever stand-up you need. I think a lot of wrestlers are definitely willing to do it.

Sherdog.com: Do you think there’s anyone out there in your mind, either on the collegiate or international level that you feel compelled to go up to and say, “Dude, you’re a great wrestler, but you’d be a phenomenal mixed martial artist?”

Askren: I don’t have a great eye for what’s going to make a great mixed martial artist yet. Like I said, the biggest thing that sets us apart is we know how to train hard, and we’re tough. I think there are a lot of guys that are going to make their mark in the next couple of years, as long as they’re not stubborn and say, “I am just going to take this guy down and pound him,” you know, Mark Colemanesque. Mark Coleman has been doing this sport for nine years, and he still doesn’t know how to do jiu-jitsu. As long as the wrestlers aren’t stubborn and learn the new tasks at hand, they will be successful.

Sherdog.com: Do you want to get back to the Olympics in 2012?

Askren: I haven’t decided yet. Right now, I am just going to focus on the fighting. Later on, I will probably make more decisions with what I am going to do with wrestling.

Sherdog.com: What were your most memorable images from Beijing?

Askren: It was a great experience. I think walking in for opening ceremonies was the best for me. The whole Team USA was chanting, “USA,” like we were a bunch of little kids or something. It’s something you think about for years and years and years, and you wonder what it’s going to be like, and then you’re doing it; you’re in the moment.

Sherdog.com: Does that experience better prepare you for your fight this weekend?

Askren: I can’t say for sure. I have been in a lot of big competitions. The bigger the competition, the more I like it. I can’t say with a 100 percent certainty, but there’s a good chance I won’t be very nervous stepping into the cage.

Sherdog.com: Tell us more about this event coming up this weekend. You’re promoting it, right?

Askren: Me and two other guys are actually promoting it. It’s in Columbia, which is my hometown. The Web site is HeadHunterEvents.com. The fight is called “The Patriot Act.” Din Thomas is fighting on it. My jiu-jitsu coach, “Kiko” France, is fighting on it. My former teammate, Tyron Woodley, who’s a two-time All-American at Missouri, he is fighting, too. “Kiko” and Tyron are both young guys who I think have bright futures in mixed martial arts.
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