Even before he became a professional Mixed Martial Artist, collegiate wrestling star Ben Askren was getting hype on sites like Bloody Elbow. As an amateur wrestler Askren combined a distinctive look with a wild and improvised style of wrestling that made MMA pundits salivate at the possibilities.
Tonight he'll face Bellator welterweight champion Lymon Good and attempt to extend his record to 7-0 at Bellator 33.
Askren is perhaps the purest exponent of American Folkstyle wrestling in MMA and yet his "Funky" style is an innovation and a departure from the traditional grappling style seen in most Folkstyle matches. Folkstyle is the prevalent American style of wrestling, practiced in colleges and high schools across the U.S.
The Folkstyle rule set deemphasizes dramatic throws and puts a premium on positional control. At the same time, the lack of points awarded for briefly exposing the opponent's shoulders to the mat means that someone like Askren can actually roll quickly onto his back for counters and reversals that just wouldn't work in freestyle or Greco-Roman. In Folkstyle, where points are awarded for escapes and reversals, Askren's willingness to risk bad positions and ability to escape them makes his "funky" style a point scoring machine.
USA TODAY described Askren's wrestling style when he competed in the Beijing Olympics:
There are conventional wrestling styles, and there is "funk." Askren was the master in college of coming out of wild, pretzel-like scrambles and scoring.
He'd roll around with his foe in seeming chaos and then pin him.
Here's a description of Askren's wrestling style from MMA Ranked:
While Askren's pure wrestling abilities are top notch, it needs to be noted that he isn't the same type of wrestler as a Josh Koscheck or Georges St. Pierre. Askren isn't an explosive athlete who shoots through opponents with powerful double legs (see him shoot on Matt Delanoit below) - instead he has a very unconventional and unique style, relying on his intelligence and incredible creativity to win matches (hence his nickname "funky").
A second factor drawing the attention of MMA know-it-alls is Askren's open-minded approach to MMA. He's already a BJJ brown belt and has shown a true knack for submission grapling. Askren told Sherdog why he thinks some wrestlers make good Mixed Martial Artists:
...the biggest thing that sets us apart is we know how to train hard, and we're tough. I think there are a lot of guys that are going to make their mark in the next couple of years, as long as they're not stubborn and say, "I am just going to take this guy down and pound him," you know, Mark Colemanesque. Mark Coleman has been doing this sport for nine years, and he still doesn't know how to do jiu-jitsu. As long as the wrestlers aren't stubborn and learn the new tasks at hand, they will be successful.
After a year or so fighting in the smaller promotions, Askren entered Bellator's second welterweight tournament. He won it all, climaxing with a dominant win over the ranked Dan Hornbuckle in June. I wrote at the time about Ben Askren's domination of Dan Hornbuckle:
Tonight his utterly dominating win over the proven veteran and rising contender Dan Hornbuckle (21-3) showed that Ben Askren is indeed something special in MMA. Askren took Hornbuckle down early and often. Hornbuckle was a game opponent and fired off sub attempts and reversals throughout the fight. But Askren proved just as adept in the scramble as shooting for an ankle.
Even when he seriously threatened Askren with a kimura, Hornbuckle would find the scenario ending with Askren once again on top and moving for dominant position. Askren ran through an array of dominant positions in the fight, from side control to mount to back mount and even head scissors at one point.
And those take downs! My god, Ben Askren seemed to be made of Dr Seuss' Oobleck as he clung to Hornbuckle's ankle, eating punches to the head and refusing to let go of the take down attempt. But Askren held on, rode out the storm and followed up with a beautiful leg trip take down that put Hornbuckle down for the first of many times in the fight.
Askren said after the fight:
"I pretty much told all you guys what I was going to do," Askren said. "A few of you were smart enough to listen to me. A bunch of you doubted me. You'll learn not to do that soon enough."
In the full entry we'll look at the series of high-risk take downs that Askren landed on Hornbuckle with K.J. Gould of Cage Side Seats.
Gifs by Chris Nelson.
I asked K.J. Gould of Cage Side Seats to comment on Askren's take downs against Hornbuckle. Here's how K.J. sums up Askren's attack in that fight:
We basically see Askren's 'funky' wrestling in this fight and see him get by on his raw talent and athletic ability but we also see quite a few holes that could be exposed and taken advantage of by a more experienced opponent. Fortunately Askren is constantly developing and evolving and has already improved since this fight so pretty soon he's going to be even more of a challenge to fight.
Now let's look at the gifs
K.J. Gould: Askren tries for a running knee-tap, then a double leg until he gets a low single as his opponent is turning away. Pretty risky move in MMA without setting it up with punches or slipping the opponent first and shows just how raw Askren was in this fight.
Kid Nate: Yeah it was a risky, and perhaps a foolish move, but just look at the way Askren refuses to be denied the take down. Running through a chain of four techniques before finally dragging Hornbuckle to the ground, this gif has to intimidate anyone looking to stay on their feet against the Funky One.
Gould: Back to a head outside single with a back-heel trip. Again, risky in MMA as it's really easy to end up in guard and possibly in a guillotine. Askren's lucky he's not facing a good jiu jitsu guy here. Raw, tenacious wrestling again.
Nate: Here's the fourth and final technique in the sequence, a nasty back heel trip. As K.J. points out it's not an ideal MMA take down but it got the fight where Askren wanted it -- on the ground with Ben on top.
Gould: He passes the guard in a typical Vale Tudo way to try and land a punch but he's pretty reckless with his control which is why we see him scramble for a low single leg with his head inside. He reaches behind the other leg to trip and again this is a risk if the opponent knows how to do an inverted triangle.
Nate: K.J. is seeing mistakes and recklessness here, but I'm seeing an amazing ability to improvise, take risks and string techniques together. Hornbuckle is a reasonably accomplished submission fighter in an MMA context and Askren stymied his attack for the vast majority of the fight with wild sequences like this. His ability to recover from mistakes is just awe-inspiring.
Gould: Askren's in danger of being armbarred and decides to leg-ride to stop his opponent rotating and extending. It's almost a Ball & Chain ride but not quite. I think this is more likely to be wrestler's instinct then any kind of drilled sub defence.
Nate: Ten seconds after the previous gif, it hasn't taken Hornbuckle long to threaten with an arm bar counter. But as many of his college opponents learned the hard way, it's one thing to get Ben Askren in a bad position, it's much harder to capitalize on it than it looks.
Nate: Askren essentially stacks Hornbuckle face down on the mat. His arm is still trapped, but Hornbuckle can't straighten his body to apply leverage to the arm and get the tap. We'll see how Ben escapes in the next gif.
Nate: Anyone looking to submit Askren will have to be prepared to enter his world of wild improvised scrambles where his freaky flexibility, speed and creativity come into play.
Gould: We see Askren roll back and utilise a Crab Ride. Crab Rides allow you to disrupt the base and because the 'hooks' are on the outside instead of inside it allows you to get back on top which is what you want to do in wrestling to get the pin. We see Askren do this and it almost looks like he's going for a Head & Arm choke (arm triangle).
Nate: Again, K.J. is more aware of the potential pitfalls than I am so where he sees Askren taking high risks for low percentage results, I just see a guy going from flat on his back with his opponent standing over him to on top in less than 2 seconds.
It will be very interesting to see how Askren fares tonight against Lymon Good, a formidable fighter, but not one who is yet seen as a top tier competitor.