(Photo via MMAWeekly)
By Elias Cepeda
American wrestler Ben Askren’s entry into MMA after the 2008 Summer Olympic Games seemed so full of promise and excitement. Here was one of the world’s best wrestlers deciding, in his athletic prime, to give up wrestling and devote himself to learning the MMA game.
Furthermore, Askren was known as having one of the most exciting styles in the NCAA during his college career. Add to this the fact that Askren seemed to take to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu very quickly — routinely entering Jiu Jitsu tournaments to stay sharp — and it seemed like he was destined for success.
Four years into his MMA career, Askren has undoubtedly achieved one type of success while another has thus far eluded him. All Askren does is win — he’s 10-0 with victories over some of the best veterans and prospects in the welterweight division. But he’s also become a polarizing and unpopular figure, criticized by pundits and fans as “boring.”
Askren has done his job as a highly touted blue-chipper, winning and winning some more, even earning the Bellator welterweight championship in the process. But his efforts have mostly been met with criticism in the public.
The hate hasn’t affected him, though. “No, not really,” Askren insists during a conversation with CagePotato. “Fans are fickle. I knew that coming in. I’ve never been worried about fan reaction.”
Askren simply won’t apologize for his fights against the likes of Nick Thompson, Douglas Lima, Jay Hieron, and Dan Hornbuckle, even if some of those wins have been less than titillating. But “Funky” Ben is far from aloof.
The national champion and Olympic wrestler works hard to improve each day and in each fight. At this point, though, Askren’s wrestling is still by far the strongest part of his MMA arsenal, so he’d be a fool not to rely on it in fights, he explains.
“I feel that I’ve improved in every fight but I’m going to stick my base and that’s wrestling,” Askren says.
His own standards for himself are higher than any that fans can set, so he doesn’t sweat the criticism. Also, Askren points out that most fans are simply not knowledgeable enough for him to care about their feelings about his style.
Asked what fans may not understand about fighting, Askren answers simply, “I don’t think that there are a lot of things that fans do get about fighting. For one, most of them have never been punched in the face. Most also have zero grasp of the grappling game – either wrestling or submissions. They are just not interested in it.”
In a sports world where athletes are expected to coddle their fans, Askren’s bluntness is surprising. But it would be hard to argue with his assertion. You’ll notice that Askren didn’t call fans names, he is simply saying that those who cannot appreciate what he and other successful fighters do, don’t because they lack adequate understanding of the sport itself and how hard it is to do at the highest levels.
And if you think that he’s the only fighter who realizes this about the fans that watch them, you’re dead wrong. Askren is just outspoken enough to say what many feel. The fighter doesn’t seem to understand what we mean when we ask him why he’s so outspoken. Why does he speak up in defense of himself when it means holding up a mirror to fans’ faces?
“That’s just the way I am,” he says. “I’ve always been that way.”
Fans claim they want access to and earnestness from professional athletes. If that’s true, then they should consider appreciating Askren’s total lack of pretense and calculation in the way he speaks.
If the Bellator champ doesn’t care what others’ expectations of him are, he certainly still has high goals for himself. “I got into [MMA] to see if I could become the best in the world by the time I was thirty,” he says.
“I don’t know if its going to happen so soon but that’s still the goal.”
Askren says he has no interest in sticking around after he achieves that goal. “Once I get that, I’ll quit,” he says.
“Fighting, and competing generally, is a selfish thing…I want to coach when I’m done.”