Earlier this morning, welterweight Ben Askren received what is probably the best news he has heard in a while - Bellator has unconditionally released him and he's now an unrestricted free agent. The UFC is free to sign him without Bellator having any matching rights. While this might lower his value a bit since Bellator's not in the race anymore, it's pretty obvious that the next time Askren fights, it will be in the octagon. And I believe he should be standing across from the UFC's welterweight champion when he makes his debut.
Askren (12-0) thoroughly dominated the competition during his run as Bellator welterweight champion. He went 9-0 in the organization, defended his title four times, and really only had one close fight in the entire run (against Jay Hieron). But in most scenarios, that wouldn't be enough on its own to deserve a UFC title shot. After all, when your closest fight was against a guy that went 0-4 in two runs in the UFC, your resume hardly stacks up to the top welterweights in the UFC. But Askren does bring other important qualities to the organization, and he'd be coming in at the right time.
One thing that's obvious is that Askren likes to talk. He regularly shares his thoughts on situations and fighters, and he's often brutally honest with his opinions. He's also very confident, to the point of arrogance. I have very little doubt that Ben could talk his way into the minds of UFC fans a lot quicker that just about any debuting fighter has lately. He has the ability to be that rare MMA heel, ala Josh Koscheck. While some aren't fond of talking and just want to see guys fight, it's undeniable that chatter and discord does raise fan interest in fights. Ben Askren could be put directly into a title fight and talk people into paying for the chance to see it. But that's contingent on the fact that he comes in as a bit of a mystery.
Many think that he needs a fight in the UFC before a title shot so fans can get to know who he is. But in my eyes, that's a bad idea. Askren's style is technically brilliant, but not a lot of fun to watch. He's a grinder who uses his exceptional grappling to completely control fights on the ground. If fans get a taste of it right away against a contender, they might not be that interested in paying to see him fight for a title, no matter how much he builds the bout with his comments and trash talk. So coming in as a blank slate to most fans is key in this case. And the UFC could really use a welterweight challenger right about now.
Champion Georges St-Pierre is fighting Johny Hendricks for the title this weekend at UFC 167. There's always the chance of a rematch based on a number of different outcomes, but if the bout has a decisive end and no rematch is booked, who's the next contender? Carlos Condit has already fought both men and lost, and a win over Matt Brown shouldn't propel him back into a title fight. Rory MacDonald won't fight GSP if he wins, and he has to get through Robbie Lawler first. Demian Maia just lost to Jake Shields, a guy that already had his shot and lost. And no one else is even close.
So let's wrap this up - you have an undefeated champion that has been dominant in his career thus far. His style isn't fan-friendly, but the aura of mystery could be used to the UFC's advantage when bringing him in to directly fight for the title. The challenger certainly has the ability to generate fan interest in the fight with his mouth and his keyboard. And barring a strange outcome in the main event of UFC 167, there aren't any real obvious contenders lined up that would be losing out. It all adds up to a situation that could work out very well for the promotion.
This is a chance for the UFC to promote a PPV title fight that fans and media will truly have a hard time analyzing. That will lead to curiosity, and people will watch. Don't spoil it by worrying about resumes or pecking orders or precedent (Lombard, Alvarez, etc). Don't book him against a middling contender and pull back the curtain. Seize an opportunity that doesn't come along very often. Get the most for your money right away, and book him against the champ straight away. It's the smart thing to do.