Of all the athletes that have gained notice for their accolades previous to their fighting careers, Ben Askren is one of the most deserving of the hype. He has a veritable laundry list of collegiate wrestling accomplishments, has been nominated for an ESPY award, competed in the Olympics and taken gold in the FILA World grappling Championship. He has gone on to a wildly successful MMA career, and in 12 fights, he maintains a perfect record.
Recently released from his Bellator contract, Ben is a man without a country, figuratively speaking. Despite his massive list of gold star achievements, the UFC has left him hanging in limbo, and organization president, Dana White has recently stated that they are not interested in signing him. Strangely enough, White had expressed interest in him a few months back, but has done an abrupt about face since.
The ‘Funky' one has gone on record that it's not so much about the money for him, but about the challenge of the top tier talent the UFC has in their stable. Like most athletes, the lure of being the best in the world is what drives him, so much so that he's offered to fight UFC Top 10 contender, Rory MacDonald for free and would retire if he lost.
Earlier in the week, during the UFC Tonight show, welterweight contender, Demian Maia mentioned that he'd like to fight Askren, should he be signed to the organization. This seems like an indicator that a signing could be in the works, and to further bolster the notion, MMA Fighting has reported that Askren will be in Las Vegas this coming week to meet with the UFC brass.
With more than 40 events planned for 2014, the UFC could use some extra world class talent on their roster, and Askren definitely fits the bill. I recently spoke to Ben to get his thoughts on the confusing signals he's received, and what he'd like for his ideal future. Here's what he had to say:
Stephie Daniels: Do you see Maia's comments as a step in the right direction, being that you were mentioned as a potential opponent he would like to face?
Ben Askren: Absolutely. It just shows that even though I got put down in the media a few times, that fighters, real fighters, understand the skill level I'm at.
Stephie Daniels: With the recent announcement of the 2014 year being event heavy, to the tune of more than 40 cards, it stands to reason that the UFC will need to beef up their roster. How soon, in your eyes, do you think they'll be calling on you to sign?
*Please note this interview was conducted before the MMA Fighting news story about Askren's upcoming meeting with UFC brass*
Ben Askren: Yeah, I'm thinking it's going to happen pretty soon. I think everyone realizes that I'm definitely on the contender level, if not better. It's just a matter of time, and letting things cool down so that we can move forward.
Stephie Daniels: There was recently an article that came out that stated that UFC matchmaker, Joe Silva might be the one that isn't sold on you coming to the UFC. What are your thoughts on that?
Ben Askren: It's hard for me to say, because I don't know what's going on in his head. Just coming off last weekend, there's a bunch of good opponents for me that are free. Rory MacDonald, Jake Shields, Demian Maia...they're all free. If it's an issue of time or lining up the right opponent for me, well, I don't really see that as an issue. I've never said anything to him, so I don't think he would have something personal against me.
Stephie Daniels: Do you think the stalling is more of a bargaining chip to get you at a value price?
Ben Askren: 100% I do. When Dana came out and said we're not interested, it was because they don't want to have to pay ‘Hector prices' for me, because obviously, they spent a lot of money on that deal. With Hector, those were the first shots fired between Bellator and the UFC. Lombard was the first big name that Bellator ever had, and the UFC came in and took him. With Eddie Alvarez, they put up a fight and kept him.
Stephie Daniels: Were you surprised with Bjorn Rebney's comments about you being one dimensional and not exciting?
Ben Askren: You know, that quote you're talking about was actually used in a previous interview, so it's not like I haven't heard it before. I don't ever claim to be the most exciting fighter, so he can't take something away from me that I didn't think I had [laughs].
My last fight could have been better but still, nobody wants to watch the 77-0 Florida State go up against Florida A&M. It's just not that exciting. It's a blowout. That's kind of what's been happening in my last few matches. They're not close. The guys are just staying alive and competitive enough to where it's not over quickly. People already know who's going to win. That aspect, the not knowing who is going to win, it has become boring, because everyone already knows who's going to win.
Stephie Daniels: Would you be willing to coach a TUF season as your entry into the UFC?
Ben Askren: I think that would be a blast. I like coaching a lot. I do wrestling camps up here in Wisconsin, so I do definitely enjoy the coaching aspect of things. I don't know about the drama aspect, like the last episode of TUF was kind of ridiculous, but yeah, that would be a good time.
Stephie Daniels: Since you're a veteran of weight cuts, what are your thoughts on the two TUF competitors from this season that didn't make weight?
Ben Askren: I didn't see the first guy miss weight, so I can't comment on that, but this guy that just missed made himself look like an ass. He was eating and talking about this is how he always does it and he wasn't worried about it. That was a really immature kid that didn't take seriously the opportunity he had for himself.
In college wrestling, you see a lot of talented athletes come in and fail, because Division I class wrestling is the pinnacle of wrestling in America. The kids that don't take it seriously enough, they're 141, but they're floating up and down by 15 pounds every week. The guys who take it very seriously are very disciplined on their diets and don't get too far over their weight class. Those huge fluctuations can really affect how you compete on a week in week out basis. I thought that kid on TUF showed a huge amount of immaturity, and he wasn't anywhere near the level of competition he was at.
Stephie Daniels: Have you seen any extreme weight cut nightmares from your collegiate days?
Ben Askren: By the time you get to that level, if you're not really serious, you get weeded out. Those kids I was talking about that balloon up and down, they come in their freshman year, and usually they're gone within the year, year and a half. That's the way it was in my program. They can't do the things they need to do to stay on the team. Those kids don't usually stick around. The disciplined, dedicated guys are the ones who stick around, and they take it very seriously.
Stephie Daniels: What do you think of guys that do well in a weight class, but then they catch a couple losses and decide the best thing to do is drop down a weight class?
Ben Askren: The way I like to look at it is that if you have skills, you have skills. I went up to 185 pounds to wrestle a two time division champ and I was able to beat him, because if you got the skills, you got the skills. That's not saying you should fight outside your weight class. You should be smart and disciplined and fight in the right weight class. If you look at people over the course of time, very few wear the weight drop well. Very few have gotten a title from it. If you look at all the champs in the UFC right now, I think everyone is right where they started.
Stephie Daniels: Have you ever toyed with the idea of moving down or moving up a weight class?
Ben Askren: I don't think I could ever make 155. I made 163 for the Olympics, and that is a super low weight for me. I'm a fairly big person and for me to make 163 was incredibly difficult. I think I'm the best in the world at 170 pounds, so why would I need to go down?
If at some point I beat everyone at 170, I'd consider going up. If I've eliminated all my challenges, yeah, at that point I would consider going up.
Stephie Daniels: Do you believe in super fights?
Ben Askren: Yeah I do. I've been kind of disappointed that they haven't been able to make any happen lately. No one really knows whose fault it is that some of those matches haven't happened, but I think the fans love to see that kind of stuff, and I think it's great for the sport.
You can follow Ben via his Twitter account, @BenAskren