(Photo by Keith Mills via Sherdog.com)
Just a reminder that Ben Askren is more than just the controversial Bellator champ and one fighter who's not afraid to antagonize UFC President Dana White. - Kid Nate
With the Olympic trials and Olympics fast approaching it is high time to engage in a brief discussion of Ben Askren, the one participant in the 2008 Olympic trials who currently holds a belt in MMA.
Ben Askren is a polarizer. By polarizer, I mean that many vocal MMA fans hate him. The unusual aesthetic of his style drives a wedge into his audience, and his outspoken pride in this aesthetic puts a hammer to that wedge. He causes controversy among MMA fans to the point where I can imagine people will begin claiming Askren fanship with the cynical purpose of yielding a hostile reaction, sort of like a rebellious adolescent of three decades ago donning a mohawk and Sex-Pistols shirt. Regardless of this, Ben Askren is not MMA's punk music. He does not take institutionalized notions of the sport and toss them on their ear. He is just a guy who has figured out how to excel at combat sports despite lacking many physical gifts and he doesn't hesitate to speak honestly at just how much he excels.
Read this article if you were ever curious as to what "funky" means and how Askren employed funk to great success as an amateur wrestler.
I think Ben Askren is awesome. I love watching him fight just as I loved watching him wrestle. Then again, I'm a weirdo who DVRs Antiques Road Show, and whose day is absolutely made when I find original Listerine for sale in an actual glass bottle.
So while I view Ben Askren as an exciting rare glimpse of a genius plying his trade, I am aware that my tastes are unusually stodgy and probably not shared by the majority of MMA fans.
Askren has a knack for division. He divided the college wrestling fanbase long before he did the same in mixed martial arts. He possessed offbeat attributes that ruffled the feathers of some members of a very stolid wrestling community His appearance bothered people; his hair speaks for itself and by the standards of division one middle weights, Askren showed up on the college scene somewhat chubby. He didn't fit the mold inhabited by the typical stud wrestler. Outspoken confidence on Ben's part as well as an occasional tendency to "show-up" his opponent also turned some wrestling fans against him. Wrestling fans generally look for the attitudes of champions to exemplify down-home humility and not vocal self praise. These and other factors combined into a sort of fanboy hate which accompanied Askren's success as a college wrestler.
These haters have never forgotten Ben's losses to Johny Hendricks in High School at Fargo and The Dream Team Classic. Nor have they forgotten his losses to Chris Pendleton as a freshman and sophomore in college. Hate has blinded detractors from the fact that Ben dominated his competition during his last two years of college to a far greater degree than the few wrestlers who managed to defeat him earlier in his career.
Askren was, and is, a great wrestler. He has overcome the lack of elite power and speed with a wonderful understanding of the sport's mechanics. This does not mean he is a totally non-athletic oaf but I would speculate that if there was some sort of pro-mma combine, his measurables would be relatively unimpressive. He does, however, command freakish balance and timing which allow him to compete at such a high level with such a unique style, a style often described as funky.
Vintage Askren funk wrestling:
To be "funky" in wrestling means to use moves which can be categorized as "funk". Funk moves have been around for a while and I have heard that the term, strangely, may have originated from a wrestler named Funk, rather than the wild appearance of techniques themselves. Though funk is not a new concept, its use has now proliferated throughout modern wrestling. Over-application of the term is starting to render it meaningless and while I'd like to write a scholarly treatise on what funk is and what it isn't, I know brevity is called for so what I will do is describe funk wrestling at its core and explain the most fundamental of funk wrestling techniques.
Wrestlers employ funk usually as shot counters or as a strategy to achieve escapes and reversals from bottom position. Funk's practices run contrary to the teachings of traditional scholastic wrestling philosophy. Traditional wrestling instructs to counter pressure with pressure; funk wrestling is predicated on taking momentum the same direction as pressure. Traditional wrestling dictates never intentionally going to one's back; funk wrestling often involves exposing the back willingly, in essence gaming scholastic wrestling rules which only award back exposure point after control is established. Funk wrestling makes the close minded coach cringe and suffers description by the wrestling oldster as "flopping about".
The less informed dismiss funk as merely the product of instinctual "rolling-around", "mat sense" or some other opaque and mysterious process. This is incorrect. Elite wrestlers execute funk scientifically. Funk can be taught. Askren, himself, teaches his funk rather skillfully.
Funk wrestling's core techniques involve two shot counters, one for a head-outside shot, one for the head inside shot. These are moves of cunning rather than of strength or explosion. This favors someone like Askren. They also serve as a tactic to place Askren in the back door position, one of the positions from where he can out-wrestle anyone. Askren's success is based largely on his ability to reach positions where he has the advantage over his opponent.
Funk roll from a head outside shot:
This gif is taken from an instructional video published by Steve Martin's Granby School of Wrestling. Here the the attacking man (VA's own NCAA All American from ODU Chris Brown) is in on a head outside single. The defender slides the inside of his thigh off the attacker's shoulder and drops to the mat. He Immediately reaches over the calf/ankle of the attacker. Next he keeps the leg tight to his chest, rolls hard to his back and punches his far arm all the way under and around the leg. Now both knees plant on the mat with his chest elevated in the backdoor position, facing opposite the attacker with his entire torso clear of the leg. He then turns 180 degrees using what was his near arm to leverage him with a thigh whizzer .He turns careful to tuck his non pivot leg under to avoid having his ankle grabbed in turn. He now has a two-point takedown secured.
I'm going to omit going into a funk roll from a head inside single, though I would be open to discussing it in the comments section if people are intersted.
Ben Askren employed a similar funk counter in his NCAA finals match his junior year against Jake Herbert. I will note that before Askren destroyed Herbert in this finals there were some who thought that Herbert of Northwestern would beat Askren. Herbert is now a two time NCAA champ himself, a four time All-American with third as lowest place at NCAA's, a world silver medalist in freestyle, and is favored to be our Olympic rep at 84kg. It should also be said that Herbert and the third place finisher at this weight, Iowa's Mark Perry, went to different weights the following year and both won NCAA titles.
The funk: 3 part gif:
As the match starts, Herbert penetrates with a head inside single and initiates his go-to low lift finish where he posts his inside hand and elevates Askren with his torso. This methodical rather than explosive means of finishing favors Askren who has the advantage whenever the action slows down. Similar to the clip above, Askren grabs the ankle and rolls through, only here he drops and rolls through to the side opposite the secured ankle; this allows Herbert to turn in and cross-face.
Askren has comfort in this position and endures this cross-face, keeping the leg secure and progressing to the backdoor position. Askren's head slips past the cross-face and he achieves the backdoor, rising to his feet. Here, as demonstrated in the clip above, Askren uses the thigh whizzer to leverage himself around though his ankles are exposed allowing Herbert, a decent funk-wrestler in his right, to attempt his own funk roll to stave off the takedown. Unfortunately for Herbert, Askren's skills reign supreme in this situation.
Ben pressures his weight down on Herbert's chest; this stops all momentum leaving Jake stranded on his back and with no recourse but to rotate back the way he came. Askren takes this opportunity to tuck his leg back from Herbert's grip, earning the takedown. Two points do not satisfy him and he volunteers his leg back to Herbert's grip and forces Jake to roll back again where weight again freezes Herbert on his back. With the takedown awarded and requisite control achieved, this earns Askren two back-points
Above is probably the most shining example of Askren's funk mastery at work. He used funk to dominate an excellent wrestler in a huge match on a national stage. After Askren completed his college career with a second championship, critics predicted that the funky style which led to his ascendancy in college would lead to his failure in his post college Olympic pursuits. Many smugly believe this prediction ultimately came true. This is a false belief, a myth, and I would like to refute it.
Specifically the myth states that Askren's reliance on techniques which exposed his back would hamstring his ability to succeed in Olympic freestyle wrestling as freestyle's rules would penalize him for such exposure. This does not rise above the mythological and unreal for the following reasons
1. Askren rarely needed his funk. Most of Askren's later collegiate matches involved his taking an opponent down with a single or double and pinning him with a cradle or other pinning combo. That was it, plain and simple domination, no funk, no "rolling around". (I will agree with the assertion that his takedown's have lacked a great deal of crispness in MMA, this was not the case while he was on a wrestling mat.)
2.Ben, like all great competitors possesses the ability to adapt. Askren does not obey a lemming like urge to attempt technique which will ensure his defeat. Just the opposite is true. Here is an example of Ben using a quasi funky counter to a shot in freestyle where he adeptly keep his back from exposing itself to the mat past the nintey degrees which would score points for his opponent, Northern Iowa All-American Moza Fay. He didn't spend much time spinning on his head in college, but here he spins and spins till he can grab both ankles and sort of kick Fay to the ground.
3. To support the veracity of this myth, Askren critics point to his unimpressive showing at the Beijing Olympics. This is a somewhat self-defeating assertion, for if Askren had a bad Olympics it could only mean that he won the U.S. Olympic trials. The U.S. Olympic trials are no Russian Nationals, but winning them is a significant achievement reserved only for world class wrestlers. Perhaps he beat a weak trials field without any actual medal threats? After all, this happens at some weights on occasion. Nope. In his first year after college he bested a stacked field which included a returning world bronze medalist and other stand outs. Ben legitimized his freestyle abilities by winning the Olympic trials his first year wrestled in the style full time. In Beijing, Askren, like multiple other Olympic teammates, wrestled a single bad match and failed to medal. Askren lost to a great wrestler in Ivan Fundora. He did, however, manage to place seventh in a weight that included the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time.
If Ben wanted to stick at it, there was nothing stopping him from one day contending for world level medals in freestyle. Askren routinely used his mastery of funk to turn his defense into offense and his opponent's defense into even more offense in both scholastic and freestyle wrestling. He did not invent funk but it can be said that he advanced it to unforeseen levels, justly earning him the moniker, "Funky".
And if there was any doubt of Ben's hand-eye coordination...
Mike Riordan is a high school wrestling coach, unsuccessful division one collegiate wrestler, and student of the sport of wrestling. He is a part time contributor to Bloody Elbow on matters of collegiate and Olympic wrestling.