The Film Room: Ben Askren

By Kevin Wilson Jul 5, 2019
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Ben Askren, one of the greatest grapplers of our time, steps inside the Octagon for just the second time this Saturday when he takes on Jorge Masvidal in a fight that could earn the winner the next shot at the welterweight title. Askren was arguably the best fighter outside of the UFC for many years, and with his win over Robbie Lawler earlier this year, he finally proved that he can hang with the big dogs. But will his grappling hold up against one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division?

Askren is not just one of the best grapplers in MMA history, he is one of the greatest collegiate wrestlers of all time, and his name deserves to be up there with Cael Sanderson. He put together a 153-8 NCAA wrestling record and was a four-time Division 1 All-American out of the University of Missouri. After college, he transitioned to freestyle wrestling and had two matches in the 2008 Olympics, even winning one despite being very new to freestyle. After the Olympics, Askren transitioned to MMA and quickly became one of the most dominant grapplers in the history of the sport.

As a lifelong wrestler, Askren is proficient at every takedown you can think of from any discipline around. Any collegiate wrestler is going to be great at your standard single and double leg takedowns, so we are going to focus on Askren’s favorite takedowns and the unorthodox ways he gets opponents to the mat.

Unlike most wrestlers, most of Askren’s takedowns come from manipulating the upper body rather than the lower body. Instead of shooting for the hips, Askren likes to get double underhooks and either drag opponents to the mat Sambo-style or trip the legs. Something to notice is how he switches between the two. Askren will get double underhooks and lift up as if he’s dragging or slamming to the ground and then immediately sweep a leg while all attention is focused on his upper body attack.

Since his opponents all know that the takedown is coming, and probably trained exclusively to defend it, Askren has to get creative. Just like his upper body takedowns, he will trick opponents into thinking he’s going for a single leg and then will quickly switch to a trip or throw. What makes Askren such a dominant grappler isn’t his skills, it's his ability to manipulate his opponents and use their expectations and reactions against them. Askren knows that if he grabs a single leg then his opponent will sprawl their hips to defend; he also knows that this provides him with an opportunity to work his way up to underhooks and look for a trip or throw. Similarly, he knows that if he gets the upper body then his opponent will be expecting a trip or throw, so he will switch to the hips for a standard double or single leg instead. Little tricks like these in addition to his world-class skills are what make Askren so good and so difficult to deal with.

Another interesting aspect of Askren’s grappling is how he uses an opponent’s sprawl to secure a takedown. Again, his opponents know that Askren wants the fight on the ground, so they have probably trained their sprawl a lot during camp. But just because you sprawl on a takedown attempt doesn't mean Askren is done. Once the opponent sprawls, Askren won’t let go of his grip no matter how extended his arms are; he will patiently work his way up into a clinch where he can get double underhooks. The most important aspect of these takedowns is that Askren sometimes intentionally lets them sprawl out of the first attempt to set up the second. He will often shoot for takedowns with no setup from a mile away knowing the opponent will sprawl, and, even though it will seem that his opponent did the right thing in sprawling, the fight is now on the ground, in Askren’s world. Once his opponent sprawls, Askren will continue to drive into the hips and land a takedown from his knees, or else he will switch to a single leg and turn them outside to secure the takedown. Essentially, Askren is setting up takedowns with takedowns; he will let his opponents sprawl on a setup takedown, which will give them a false sense of security, only to transition to a second takedown, the latter being the one he was really shooting for all along. Yet another little trick that makes Askren such a dominant grappling force.

Once the fight hits the ground is when Askren shows his true genius. Early in his career, Askren would mix in his folkstyle wrestling with classic jiu-jitsu techniques. He would land a takedown, pass to mount, and either posture up and strike or look for submissions. The problem was he had a hard time keeping opponents in these positions simply because he wasn’t used to it. As his career progressed, he figured out that his folkstyle grappling techniques, although rarely used in MMA, were the better way to control an opponent for him. Instead of looking for mount, he now tries to pass to a crucifix or “Iowa ride” position where he can more effectively control and strike his opponents.

These days, Askren prefers the crucifix position to take advantage of his folkstyle background. The crucifix is common in MMA but few use it as effectively as Askren. The crucifix allows him to trap both of his opponent's arms while using his chest to control the rest of their upper body. His opponent's legs are free, but with all of his body weight on their upper body, it’s very difficult to escape or defend.

But Askren’s favorite position is the ankle ride or “Iowa ride.” It's one of the most dominant grappling positions in any sport but it is rarely used effectively in MMA. Notice Askren has the opponent's right leg hooked and keeps his left hand around his body in the seatbelt position. The hooked leg allows Askren to control the lower body and roll with the opponent when they try to escape. The seatbelt is used to control the upper body, which leaves Askren with a free hand with which to strike. If the opponent tries to roll inside to escape, Askren will float his hips and end up in side control before hooking the leg and going back to the ankle ride. And if they roll outside the hooked leg, this allows Askren to move with them and keep the position.

As is well-known by now, Askren is a pretty bad striker. He spends very little time on his feet; he throws nothing but jabs and right hooks and his defense is severely limited. So far, it hasn’t caused any major problems, but the one asterisk on Askren’s career is that he hasn’t fought many formidable opponents. His best wins are over Lyman Good, Douglas Lima, and Andrey Koreshkov, who were all very young at the time and years away from their primes. His other notable wins are over an old Jay Hieron and Shinya Aoki, who hasn’t fought anybody since 2012. We saw his skills hold up against the always dangerous Lawler, but the finish was controversial and he was nearly knocked out in the opening minute of the fight. If Askren can get you to the ground, the fight will be one-sided domination. But if he can’t get Masvidal down, he won't last long on the feet. I don’t think Askren will have much trouble getting this fight to the ground but Masvidal is also arguably the best MMA grappler he has faced, so it will be interesting to see how his skills translate. He was able to finish Lawler on the ground but Lawler is notorious for his lack of grappling. Masvidal is in no way known for his ground game, but he has relied on his wrestling many times in the past and I think he will give Askren his toughest challenge yet. Advertisement
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