Viewpoint: No Lateral Move

By Zach Arnold May 27, 2014
Ben Askren will make his One FC debut on May 30 in Singapore. | Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog.com



Ben Askren made a smart decision when he signed with One Fighting Championship.

There has been consternation about Askren choosing One FC instead of the World Series of Fighting. Askren met with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the interest in reaching an agreement was not mutual. One FC called, and the WSOF publicly expressed interest; but unlike most veteran free agents, Askren elected to fight for an international promotion growing in Asia -- a marketplace into which every business is trying to expand.

The World Series of Fighting excels at making noise. Sig Rogich, one of the WSOF co-founders, is a wizard at public relations and communications. For an often news-starved MMA media industry, WSOF is great for a few headlines and stories. WSOF Executive Vice President and matchmaker Ali Abdelaziz is always good for a quote or two when it comes to challenging fighters or other promoters; Twitter goes into uber-snark mode over Nick Newell’s red skinny jeans and the random Boost Mobile phone giveaways to fighters like Josh Burkman; and ring announcer Jazz Securo is always good for entertainment value. Perhaps Askren would have landed with the WSOF if the organization could draw television ratings to match the level of noise it likes to generate with promoting fights.

However, let us be honest here: The marketing hook for signing with the World Series of Fighting is that you might eventually get a call from the UFC. That is why so many veteran fighters have skipped signing with Bellator MMA and chosen a promotion with a much smaller television footprint. The UFC hook, in turn, is the main reason why Askren has taken some heat from fans for not choosing the WSOF. The problem is that UFC President Dana White made it clear there was no interest on his side to signing Askren. If the UFC is not interested, why would Askren have interest in signing with the WSOF? At the time the “Funky” one had to make his decision between One FC and the WSOF, Jake Shields was still on the UFC roster. Shields was released after Askren signed with One FC and is now the only top-10 opponent, according to the Sherdog.com welterweight rankings, the WSOF could offer as a rival for the former Bellator champion.

Faced with a decision between a known commodity in the WSOF and the unknown growth potential of One FC, Askren chose to sign with the latter. If you cannot get a deal done with the UFC, it becomes a matter of where you can become a big fish in a smaller pond. Given One FC’s growth potential, Askren made the right business decision. Rather than letting a promoter control his career, he gets to help build One FC’s credibility while it gives him the stage upon which to build his brand internationally. One FC is the promotion with a growing Asian business footprint. If former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin is willing to take One Fighting Championship CEO Victor Cui seriously enough to consider a management position, then Cui must be doing something right.

The automatic criticism levied against One FC is that it simply cannot offer a high enough level of competition to challenge Askren as a fighter. You can already hear the critics a mile away: Askren’s transition from Bellator to One FC, they say, is at best a lateral move in terms of in-ring and out-of-the-ring growth. I disagree. Askren did everything he was asked to do in Bellator and mowed down the competition in the process. What hurdle in Bellator did Askren have left to clear at 170 pounds? The one challenge Bellator could have offered Askren involved the promotion’s reigning middleweight champion, Alexander Shlemenko.

Faced with limited options, Askren chose the right organization, not only to build his brand but to strengthen his leverage at the negotiating table when the UFC needs a warm body for a high-profile welterweight fight on an ambitious schedule it plans on running each year for the foreseeable future. Part of that leverage involves building a brand in high-profile Asian markets. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has great interest in doing business in Singapore, Macau and mainland China; they are big casino markets. If Askren can grow his popularity in Asia by becoming a star on the One FC stage, then he will have marketing appeal for the UFC.

Askren’s One Fighting Championship debut against Bakhtiyar Abbasov in the One FC 16 “Honor and Glory” main event on May 30 at Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore, will give us a pretty good clue into how his stint with the promotion will work out. Should he handle Abbasov, then there is the potential of One FC reaching out to KSW and perhaps cutting a booking deal with Mamed Khalidov. There are options available; they just do not carry the name value of a Burkman, Shields or Jon Fitch.

The UFC did not see enough value in Askren to pursue him. Bellator, which could use a star like Askren, could not come to terms with him financially. At that point, whatever business decision Askren made involved the realization that finding top 10-quality welterweights to fight outside of the UFC universe just was not going to happen.

One FC made more business sense. Fans and media types often encourage fighters to make as much money as possible given their short shelf lives as professional athletes. Whatever business decision Askren made, it was a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. If he loses a fight in One FC, he will be labeled a “bust.” If he wins all his fights in One FC, his detractors will claim it was expected and will dismiss his opponents as bums. If he had signed with the WSOF and lost a fight, then he would have become just another “Bellator washout.” Remember how Lyman Good was portrayed on the current season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series? If Askren had run the table in the WSOF, his critics would have cried about how he had not faced real competition in comparison to the UFC’s roster.

Given all the scenarios placed before him, Askren made the strongest business decision and will become a better fighter as a result.

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