Call this one of the strangest twists in the history of MMA tournaments—or just call it “the curious case of Ryan Thomas.”
In 2010, Bellator MMA launched its second season. Same as the first season, it consisted of single-elimination tournaments in several weight classes, with the object of selecting a challenger for each division’s champion. The eight-man welterweight field included several promising prospects, such as future World Series of Fighting champion Steve Carl and future Deep champion Dan Hornbuckle, but the greatest buzz by far hovered around the then 3-0 Ben Askren.
Askren, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion and former Olympian, was one of the most highly touted prospects to enter MMA in recent memory, due to his wrestling credentials and the seamless transition he had made to submission grappling the previous year. His signing by Bellator made him the first in a series of high-level collegiate wrestling prospects that continues to this day, personified by current contenders such as Ed Ruth and Darrion Caldwell.
For his quarterfinal matchup at Bellator 14 on April 15, 2010, Askren drew fellow new signee Ryan Thomas. Despite having one of MMA’s all-time great nicknames, “The Tank Engine” was more or less tailor-made to make Askren look good, as he had parlayed a promising 9-1 run in regional promotions into a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, only to be dropped after losing his first two fights by submission. Sure enough, Askren put Thomas away with a guillotine choke in half a round to punch his ticket to the semifinals.
That was when things started to get weird. British prospect “Judo” Jim Wallhead—possibly the second most promising tournament entrant after Askren—was unable to travel to his quarterfinal match due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland that shut down air travel in and out of Europe for several weeks. Needing a replacement, Bellator slotted Thomas back into another quarterfinal match at Bellator 15, just a week after his loss to Askren. Thomas made the most of his second chance, knocking out Jacob McClintock in the first round. His tournament hopes were alive again, except for one thing: Wallhead’s quarterfinal had been on the same side of the bracket as Askren and Thomas, which meant all Thomas had really done was earn himself another date with Askren.
That date came quickly, as the Season 2 welterweight semifinals took place on May 20, 2010, barely a month after their first matchup. Despite it being his third fight in five weeks, Thomas fared better that night, as Askren was limited to sweeping all three rounds in a snoozer, but the “Funky” super-prospect nonetheless earned his trip to the finals, where he would face Hornbuckle, who defeated Carl in the other semifinal that same evening.
This means—and I cannot stress strongly enough how bizarre this is—that Askren made it to the final of the Bellator welterweight tournament by beating the same opponent in the first two rounds, just five weeks apart, and that opponent had another fight in between.
From there, Askren’s star continued to rise. He beat Hornbuckle in the final, earning the right to challenge Bellator welterweight champ Lyman Good. After manhandling Good at Bellator 33 in October, Askren defended the title four times before jumping to One Championship, where he was similarly dominant. By the time he came out of semi-retirement to finally sign with the UFC, he was 18-0 with one no contest, and while his run with the industry leader was a disappointment from a competitive standpoint, his accomplishments still certify him as one of the top welterweights of his era.
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