The politics of mixed martial arts may have prevented Ben Askren from ever reaching the mountaintop of the UFC, but at 33 years old, with an undefeated record intact and multiple major championships lining his résumé, Askren will be able to walk away happy with what he has accomplished in MMA after his retirement fight against Shinya Aoki on Friday at ONE Championship: Immortal Pursuit.
“I’m perfectly content,” Askren said recently on The MMA Hour.
“Listen, I told someone this the other day, and this is something I can be totally proud about, I hope I don’t eff this up while I’m telling it live: I have never turned down a fight, I have never pulled out of a fight, I have never missed weight, I have never failed a drug test, and I have never lost. And I don’t know that anyone else can say that, ever.
“Obviously I wasn’t granted the opportunity to fight the best guys in the world,” Askren continued. “(Douglas) Lima and (Andrey) Koreshkov, they’re pretty freaking good, and I still don’t think they get their due for how good they really are. People are so resistant, if you don’t have the UFC behind your name, to give you the credit you deserve. So I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to fight some of the best guys in the world, and that was not something that was on my end by any sense of the imagination — and so yeah, I am definitely satisfied. I don’t really think there’s anything I could’ve done differently, or would have done differently.”
A 2008 Olympian who shifted into MMA following the Beijing summer games and promptly established himself as one of the greatest mat technicians in the fight game, Askren has languished far from western eyes since signing with ONE Championship after a turbulent free agent period in 2013, which included an unsuccessful courting period with the UFC. The wrestler has since fought six times under the ONE Championship banner, racking up a 5-0 run (with one no contest) while reigning as the organization’s welterweight titleholder.
But the level of his competition has suffered, forcing Askren into high-risk, low-reward bouts like his recent title defense against unheralded Swedish veteran Zebaztian Kadestam. Askren utterly dominated Kadestam just as he has dominated all of his foes in ONE Championship. And while “Funky” knows that ultimately he can only fight the opponents placed in front of him, he also understands the frustration felt by fans who believe his prime was wasted fighting competition below his standards.
“That’s a natural human emotion,” Askren said.
“I would relate it, to me, when Penn State ran away with the NCAA team tournament this year in wrestling, the sport I love. It would’ve been more entertaining if it was down to the last match, the team race, right? For me as a fan, that would’ve been better, I would’ve enjoyed that more. And so when they [start] the finals and they’re up by 40 points or whatever, it’s kind of like, not much to get excited about. So obviously I understand as a fan, you want something competitive, you want something back-and-forth, you want something down to the wire. But as an athlete, you can only hope for dominance and you can train for dominance, and that’s what you want.
“Every single time you compete, I don’t care what it is, you want to perform the best you can, and I feel like I’m doing that. I mean, I haven’t gotten hit in my last two fights. I’ve executed my gameplan to damn near perfection, and so yeah, I’m very satisfied with my performances.”
If Askren is able to defeat Aoki, he will exit the fight game with his unbeaten career record sitting at 18-0. And while Askren never got a chance to challenge himself against the Georges St-Pierres or Tyron Woodleys or the world, there are still several high-water marks dotting his résumé, most notably his pair of victories over Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov. The latter contest saw Askren eat an astounding total of just three strikes over four rounds against the Russian en route to a TKO win.
Lima and Koreshkov both went on to become Bellator welterweight champions in Askren’s absence, and despite the fact that the duo are mainstays on most of the top-10 welterweight rankings found in the sport today, Askren still hears people minimizing those wins — a fact which he finds to be ridiculous.
“People always say, ‘Oh, well they were younger when you beat them up.’ Both of those guys had way more fights than me when I fought them,” Askren said. “I mean, I think I was 9-0 when I fought Lima, and I want to say he was like 21-4 or something to that effect. While they may have been younger than me, they were more experienced fighting-wise than me, they had more time in the cage. And I knew they were both really good when I fought them, because I train with everybody. I’ve trained with damn near every top welterweight of the last 10 years. Minus a few, I’ve trained with every single one of them in the practice room.
“And so, when I fought those guys, even though I beat them very decisively, I knew exactly how good they were, and I figured given the opportunity to showcase that, they would. And now both of them have. Koreshkov has a dominant win over Ben Henderson and Lima has a dominant win over Lorenz Larkin. So yeah, those guys, I knew they were good at the time that I beat them, and now they’re looking better and better, and the only reason they’re looking better is because they’re getting the opportunity to do so because certain guys have now signed with Bellator.”
Askren’s career is one that will debated for years among MMA circles due to the circumstances of his roller-coaster road, but among the many ‘what ifs’ surrounding “Funky,” one of the most intriguing hypotheticals is what could have happened if Askren had stayed with Bellator in 2013 and continued to serve as champion once Bellator president Scott Coker supplanted Bjorn Rebney.
Askren, however, said the scenario is not one that ever bothers him.
“Definitely not,” Askren said. “You know what the thing about Bellator was, I beat everyone they had. There was no one left to beat, and there still isn’t. I’ve been gone for, what, roughly four years, and the guys I beat are still champion. They’ve only had two champions since I left and they’ve both been guys that I’ve beat.”
Askren admitted Tuesday that the only opportunity that could coax him out of retirement would be the one thing that eluded him throughout his career: a chance to fight the No. 1 ranked welterweight in the world, as long as that welterweight wasn’t his good friend and teammate Tyron Woodley.
That scenario is obviously a longshot considering Askren’s rocky relationship with UFC president Dana White. So even if it never happens, Askren is content with the decisions he made and the moments throughout his career in which he stood up for what he believed in, regardless of the consequences.
“I didn’t get the opportunity to fight certain guys, that wasn’t on me,” Askren said. “I promise you that was not on me. And so would I have liked to? Sure. But some guys will — and I’ve talked to a handful of people, and once guys get older, they realize the mistake in this — when I was at Bellator in Madison Square Garden, a bunch of the older fighters came up to me and said, ‘wow, you really made a great move with what you did with your career.’
“But younger guys, I’ve seen them take huge paycuts just to go fight in the UFC. A paycut. They got offered one thing here and they got offered another thing here, and the No. 2 offer [is what they take] just because they have this ego thing, that, ‘I want to fight in the UFC.’ They take that lower offer, and that just is as stupid as it gets.
“Dana White ain’t going to take care of you the second after you can’t make him a whole bunch of money,” Askren continued. “The second you’re done making Dana White a whole bunch of money, he’ll thrown your ass under the bus so quick. I mean, good lord, how many times have we seen it happen? It happens over and over, and over. The dude’s got no morals.”