The Film Room: Ben Askren

By Kevin Wilson Oct 24, 2019
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Ben Askren on Saturday in Kallang, Singapore, will return to the Octagon to face Demian Maia in the UFC Fight Night 162 main event, just three months after being on the receiving end of the fastest knockout in Ultimate Fighting Championship history.

Askren took his first professional defeat in stride and now turns his attention to one of the great jiu-jitsu players of all-time in this grappler’s delight showdown. One of the most accomplished collegiate wrestlers to ever cross over to MMA, he was a four-time NCAA All-American at the University of Missouri, where he put together a 153-8 career record. Askren later went on to represent the United States at the 2008 Summer Olympics before moving to mixed martial arts.

The former Bellator MMA and One Championship titleholder steps into the spotlight in this installment of The Film Room.

As a lifelong wrestler, Askren has become proficient at every takedown in the book. All collegiate wrestlers are going to be proficient at your standard single- and double-leg takedowns, so we are going to focus on Askren’s favorite takedowns and the unorthodox ways he uses to get opponents to the mat. Unlike most wrestlers, almost all of Askren’s takedowns come from controlling 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. Notice how he switches between the two. Askren will get double underhooks and lift up as if he is dragging or slamming someone to the ground and then immediately sweep a leg while all attention is focused on his upper-body attack. As a grappler with limited striking, Askren must be creative with his entries and takedowns to have success.

Since his opponents know 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 is going for a single-leg, then will quickly switch to a trip or throw. What makes Askren such a dominant grappler? Not his skills, but his ability to manipulate his opponents and use their expectations and reactions against them. Askren knows if he grabs a single-leg, his opponent will sprawl his hips to defend against it. He also knows that this provides him with an opportunity to work his way up to underhooks and look for a trip or throw from the clinch. Similarly, he knows if he gets to the upper body, 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, make Askren a special grappler. His style is incredibly difficult to interpret and train for, which makes him a matchup nightmare for anyone.

Another interesting trick: Askren often uses an opponent’s sprawl to secure the takedown. Askren is one of the most respected grapplers in the sport, which means his opponents are working on their sprawl a lot during camp. However, just because they defend the initial shot does not mean Askren is done. Once the opponent sprawls, Askren will not let go of his grip no matter how much his arms extend. Then 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 opponents sprawl out of the first attempt to set up the second. Notice how he will shoot for takedowns with no setup from a mile away, knowing the opponent will sprawl and defend it. Even though it looks like the opponent won the exchange, the fight is now on the ground in Askren’s world. Once his opponent sprawls, Askren will either continue to drive into the hips and land a takedown from his knees or switch to a single-leg and turn them outside to secure the takedown. Essentially, Askren is setting up takedowns with takedowns, just another ploy that makes him so brilliant.

Askren’s takedowns are exceptional, but his true genius comes out in his ground control. Early in his career, Askren mixed 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 that he had a difficult time keeping opponents in these positions simply because he was not used to them. 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. 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 opponents’ arms while using his chest to control the rest of their upper body. His opponents’ legs are free, but with all of his body weight on their upper body, it is difficult to escape or defend.

Askren’s favorite position is the ankle ride or “Iowa ride.” It is one of the most dominant grappling positions in any sport but rarely used effectively in MMA. Notice how 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 he tries 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. If opponents roll outside the hooked leg, this allows Askren to move with them and keep the position.

This is a dream matchup for combat sports nerds, even though it may not lead to much grappling. We have many examples of two grapplers nullifying each other on the ground and putting on a boring striking affair. If that occurs, the fight is basically even on the feet. Their striking is simple and only used to set up grappling exchanges. Askren throws nothing but jabs and right hooks, and though his defense is severely limited, it has not caused him too many problems thus far.

Even with two UFC fights, we still do not have a good read on Askren’s capabilities inside the Octagon. His skills held up against the always-dangerous Robbie Lawler, but the finish was controversial and he was nearly knocked out in the opening seconds of the fight. Then, of course, he was knocked out five seconds into the Masvidal fight. Despite his shortcomings, Askren remains one of the most interesting grapplers to study. It will be fascinating to see how his folkstyle wrestling matches up with Maia’s traditional Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Advertisement


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