Ben Askren has opened his MMA career with eight consecutive wins. | Photo: Dave Mandel
The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing served as a crossroads for Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight titleholder Ben Askren.
He had trained his entire life for a shot at Olympic glory, and, after more than 20 years of wrestling, the Games represented the pinnacle of competition for the former University of Missouri standout. However, Askren fell short of his ultimate goal, as he failed to medal in China. Afterwards, he was faced with a decision: continue to pursue Olympic gold or try his hand at mixed martial arts.
“That day, I went to have pizza with my wife in Beijing. It wasn’t good pizza,” Askren says. “I said, ‘When we get back, I want to go on vacation, and if there is a time to try mixed martial arts, now is the time. If I get a year into it and I don’t like it, I still have three years to prepare for the next Olympics.’”
Askren jumped headfirst into MMA but not without certain doubts. The Olympic experience still wears on him, and, from time to time, he pauses to consider the glory that slipped through his fingers.
“The Olympic experience for me was terrible. I’m a very goal-oriented person,” Askren says. “Maybe 20 years from now I’ll look at it differently, but it’s been three years and I don’t like to think about it. I was trying to win a gold medal -- at the very least silver or bronze -- and I didn’t do any of those things. Every once in a while, I have second thoughts. I know I didn’t give myself the best chance possible to win an Olympic medal. I know I could have been much more prepared with a different time structure.
“Sometimes, not always, I think I gotta put my nose to the grindstone and train [for the Olympics], but there is no money in it,” he adds. “If I do decide to do that, I can’t finance it. The only way I could do it is to make enough money fighting. I just don’t know that that option is there for me.”
Considering his base skill, the decision to take up MMA seemed natural. As a two-time NCAA champion, Askren was one of the more dominant college wrestlers of his generation. However, when taking into account his personality, the 27-year-old’s career choice becomes quite interesting.
“I’m a peaceful person outside of competition. I had never really punched anyone [prior to training]. Michael Chandler, actually, my [Missouri] teammate, is the only person I had punched,” he says. “We were at practice, and I told him not to do something because it was a serious issue. My neck was injured at the time. He did it, so I punched him. That was the only time I had punched someone. I had never been in a fight.”
His nickname, “Funky,” was born from his wrestling style. As a collegiate wrestler, Askren was not known as an overwhelming takedown artist. Rather, he dominated in scrambling situations, usually coming out on top. Then, once he attained a desired position, his control was impeccable. Those same attributes have served Askren particularly well in his MMA transition.
“I go for takedowns a lot. My style and flow is based in scrambles. A lot of people use basic wrestling, but they try one shot and, if they don’t get it, they’ll give up,” he says. “For me, I’ll shoot and if you stop me, you didn’t really stop me, you just stopped me for a second. I’m gonna do something else and then I’ll get you down.
“I haven’t been stopped a lot in takedowns, but I’m not going to quit easily,” Askren adds. “If I can’t take you down once, maybe I can take you down the second time. If I can’t take you down the second time, maybe I can take you down the third time. Eventually, you’re going to get sick of me and fall over.”
Commonly criticized as a “lay-and-pray” fighter, Askren dismisses such notions and reminds his detractors that the goal of MMA is to win. Even so, he acknowledges his own limitations in finishing opponents. A brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Askren also realizes wrestlers have certain advantages while training in the discipline.
“If you calculate the time I’ve spent in closed guard to the time I’ve spent outside someone’s guard, you’ll clearly see I’m not a lay-and-pray fighter. By definition, it is someone who lays in someone’s guard and prays for a decision,” he says. “In all honesty, I am trying to work better at finishing fights. Wrestling is not a finishing art. Boxing, kickboxing and muay Thai are finishing arts. Wrestling doesn’t have that.
“I’m only two years into jiu-jitsu, but I’m not a brown belt because I have great submissions,” Askren adds. “I can sweep anyone in the world, and I have great top control. The longer mixed martial arts goes on, the harder it is going to be to finish [someone]. In 1997, no one knew what jiu-jitsu was. Now, if you fight a guy who doesn’t know jiu-jitsu, he is only going to fight in a major promotion for maybe two fights before he’s gone.”
Askren joined former world kickboxing champion Duke Roufus’ camp in Milwaukee, looking to one of the most respected striking trainers in MMA to improve other aspects of his game. Most of Askren’s fights have taken place on the ground because of his prodigious wrestling ability, but striking remains an integral part of the sport. He does not want to be remembered as a one-dimensional fighter.
“My hands are obviously coming along slower than the rest of my game,” Askren says. “Jiu-jitsu was natural to me. It felt right. I understand choking people. I understand position and leverage. That’s one of the reasons I went to Milwaukee to be with Duke. He is one of the premier striking coaches in mixed martial arts. I think it’s going to help me out tremendously.”
Askren will defend his title against Jay Hieron at Bellator 56 this Saturday at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. A former Div. I wrestler, Hieron represents a significant challenge for Askren, though he believes it to be one he can handle. Hieron has won 10 fights in a row.
“I think Jay’s style is fairly simple. He has a wrestling background, and he has fairly good hands,” Askren says. “His jiu-jitsu is not great from the top and probably even worse from the bottom. His wrestling won’t be nearly the same level as mine, so I will be able to take him down and I’ll be able to control him and dominate him on the ground. I’m still working on my standup, but I don’t imagine the fight will end up there. On top of that, he showed in the Rick Hawn fight [at Bellator 43 that] he lacks cardio. He got more tired as the fight went on, and that was a three-round fight.”
In defending his belt and continuing on his current path, Askren hopes to prove the doubters wrong. He wants to achieve the glory in mixed martial arts that he failed to achieve at the 2008 Olympics.
“My goal for mixed martial arts is to be the best in the world. I think it’s been two and a half years since my first fight, and it’s still my goal,” he says. “What all these keyboard warriors don’t see is I train with lots of talented people and see what the best in the world look like. I’m not there yet, but I’m not that far off.”