The Big Picture: GOAT-for-Bust Swap Still the Right Move

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship and One Championship announced a trade roughly a year ago: former Bellator MMA and One welterweight champion Ben Askren for recently deposed UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.

It felt like a sensible move. The UFC never quite figured out how to promote “Mighty Mouse,” and despite being put in headlining and co-headlining spots on big cards, Johnson could never quite figure out how to translate his insane skills into commensurate numbers. His loss to Henry Cejudo was a perfect excuse, even if the loss was questionable to begin with. It worked for all parties. Johnson would get to ply his craft in a more appreciative market; the UFC wouldn’t have to bang its head against the wall trying to drum up intrigue for another overmatched opponent; and the flyweight division could move on without Johnson’s shadow looming above.

Likewise, Askren was perpetually a square peg in round promotions, too yawningly dominant for Bellator and too brash for One. His brand of stifling top-control grappling was not a novelty in the wrestler-heavy UFC, and his undefeated résumé added genuine intrigue to the stagnating welterweight division. Plus, Askren’s penchant for trash talk was perfectly aligned with what the UFC wants. Everybody won. Askren would get a chance to prove he was the best in the world, and those who run the UFC would get another self-promoter who would do their work for them. Had Askren’s ego not been as massive as UFC President Dana White’s, he probably would have been in the UFC years earlier.

Both were dominant and underappreciated, with adoring fans and dedicated doubters. Johnson was a proven GOAT in need of a change, while Askren needed a change to prove he was the GOAT. The similarities were hard to miss. After swapping promotions, however, “Mighty Mouse” and “Funky Ben” ended up on dramatically different career trajectories.

Johnson made his One debut in March, overcoming some brief adversity before submitting Yuya Wakamatsu in the promotion’s flyweight grand prix quarterfinal. He won in the semifinals against Tatsumitsu Wada in August and then won the grand prix a few weeks ago against Danny Kingad. Johnson was the rightful favorite in each of those bouts, but three wins and a grand prix title within a calendar year is an excellent run, regardless of the name value of his opponents.

Askren also fought three times this year and on a similar timeline: March, July and October. His results were very different, though. He went from a controversial win against Robbie Lawler that did little to raise his stock to a spectacular, record-setting knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal that will be replayed on highlight reels forever to a taste-of-your-own-medicine loss to Demian Maia in which he was outgrappled and choked out by a man six years his elder. Whatever claims he had to being the best welterweight were summarily dashed in 2019.

In light of such contrasting results, people naturally criticized the UFC for trading a proven commodity in “Mighty Mouse” for what has turned out to be a bust.

Part of that is certainly understandable. Askren simply has not fought elite opponents for most of his career -- the last legitimate welterweight he fought before coming to the UFC was Andrey Koreshkov in 2013 -- and the handful of good wins on his record are scattered among random dudes. Some of those random dudes are very solid fighters who would go on hilarious beatdown tours in the average regional promotion, but that is just not the same as fighting Lawler, Masvidal or Maia. It is also worth noting that Askren is past his prime at this point. Maybe he was the best welterweight in the world a few years ago, or at least good enough to be competitive with the UFC’s best. Now, however, he’s clearly not, and his athletic decline has not done him any favors.

Let’s not forget the fighters to whom Askren has lost, either. Masvidal is becoming a fully realized fighter to match the talent and toughness he’s always had, and Maia is probably the best grappler the sport has seen, in any weight class. Most welterweights lose to those two. Relegating Askren to the “most welterweights” group may feel like a letdown given the expectations, but it’s dismissive to criticize someone too harshly for losing to elite opponents.

I wouldn’t call Askren a bust. He has underachieved when it comes to his actual fights, which is obviously the main reason he’s there, but he’s also been a welcome s--- stirrer and ironic kingmaker. Masvidal has always been an incredible fighter and personality, but there’s no way he would have catapulted this high this quickly had he not fought Askren. If he decides to retire again, I wouldn’t blame him, and technically, he did submit a former UFC champion. Askren got the UFC feather in his cap to go with his Bellator and One belts. If he doesn’t retire, there are plenty of interesting matchups for him, just none with any title implications for the time being.

As for Johnson, he seems much happier now than he was in the UFC, not to mention his head coach is the vice president of operations for One. There hasn’t been any visible drama with One brass so far, and in the cage, he’s as phenomenal as he has always been. He proved himself as one of the greatest to ever do it already, and if anything, he has replaced Askren as the ultimate question mark outside of the Octagon. Plus, who’s to say he’ll never be back?

Askren may or may not be a bust, and “Mighty Mouse” may or may not be the best flyweight in the world right now, but whatever they are, they’re both in the right place.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.
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