Note: for a technical breakdown of Askren's MMA wrestling game scroll down to the end of this post.
According to Wikipedia, Ben Askren (born July 18, 1984) is an American former amateur wrestler for the University of Missouri and U.S. Olympic team. He is now a grappler, mixed martial artist and the former Bellator Welterweight Champion known for his effective "funky" style of wrestling. He is currently ranked as the #7 or #8 welterweight in the world by most MMA websites.
Dana White's first comments on Ben Askren took place some time ago when he referred to him as "some dude in a big f**n afro" (watch bellow, at (1:29). In this article I will try to prove that Ben Askren is not just a dude in an afro and that he belongs in the UFC.
From spectacle to sport or back to spectacle?
As a promoter Dana White and the UFC have to keep a balance between sport and spectacle. MMA fighting, supposedly, has evolved from spectacle to sport. Recently though, the UFC has a tendency of favoring fighters who go "toe to toe" no matter how sloppy their performance. They also intimidate wrestlers and grapplers into becoming strikers. If you are a grappler and try to use your groundfighting skills to dominate the fight, unless you manage to submit your opponent, Dana will say something negative about your performance during his post fight interviews. Obviously they consider pure grapplers boring. Lets not forget that they did not try to sign neither Jacare nor Roger Gracie. Strikeforce did. And they got rid of Roger, Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami after a couple of losses.
I love the UFC. I am not a UFC hater. I also like Dana White, I think he is great for the sport. He is usually right 90% of the time. However he often gets into these unnecessary wars of words with fighters that are sometimes both unfair and unjustified. For example how did he expect Fedor to sign with the UFC when he was bashing him with negative comments for years?
Another problem with Dana is that he has to approve the way you look. You can't have a belly like Roy Nelson. You can't have a beard like Nelson too. And he obviously does not like afros. But if you have a suspicious looking physique of a bodybuilder like Brock Lesnar or Kimbo, or Hector Lombard he will sign you and he may give you a title shot with just two wins and one loss in your record.
Dana has to approve your fighting style too. He does not like grapplers who do not finish fights. He prefers to see two grapplers trade haymakers than to see them grappling their way to a decision victory. Generally speaking, if you do not finish fights you will get negative comments by him. Even if you are GSP. It does not matter if you dominate your opponent. And the problem is that the fans get influenced by his comments. So GSP, UFC's most popular fighter gets labeled as "playing it safe" by his own promoter. As if it is easy to dominate a top-5 opponent in any sport.
Even Lyoto Machida, according to Dana, is running not fighting. If Floyd Mayweather was an MMA fighter he would not get any love form Dana, no matter how dominant he is, because he does not finish fights. Dana prefers to see a Leonard Garcia type of fight resulting in head trauma caused by the lack of any real fighting skills than a high level grappling match where a grappler wins using his skill-set, while playing by the rules.
I know that a lot of new fans are uneducated in the great sport of MMA but the UFC has to make a decision. Is their product a spectacle or sport? There is a TV product where the promoter can decide which style of fighting is used and can always guarantee exciting outcomes. It is called pro wrestling. In real sports fighters can get hurt, so they get to decide how to fight and top-10 fighters get signed they do not get cut.
Finally, as a fan, when you get two elite athletes for example Miguel Cotto and Floyd Mayweather fight, you should understand that you will probably see a technical war that will not result in a knockout. However, you should realize that you have the privilege of watching greatness perform and enjoy that performance no-matter the outcome.
Changing the rules to make things difficult for wrestlers.
Promoters like Dana who favor stand-up wars, hate the " No Knees and Kicks to the Head of a Grounded Opponent" rule under the unified rules of MMA. This rule makes it easier for wrestlers to go for continuous takedown attempts since it is difficult to inflict damage using punches against an opponent who shoots for your legs. But these promoters do not realize that if this rule goes away, wrestlers would also be able to knee their opponent from the top, the way Ricardo Arona kept kneeing Sakuraba's head into oblivion back in Pride as you can see in the gif bellow. By the way I agree with Dana. This rule has to go.
The case for Ben Askren: why the UFC dispespects such an amazing wrestler
There is nothing more disrespectful to the great sport of wrestling, than the UFC not signing a great athlete like Ben Askren, humiliating him and forcing him to offer to fight for free.
I truly believe that the UFC does not want to sign Ben Askren because if Askren wins the title, this will legitimize Bellator in the eyes of the fans. You will have a Bellator champion beating a UFC champion. However such an outcome is rather unlikely because as good a wrestler as Askren is, the welterweight division is a division dominated by wrestlers and submission artists. That being said he is only fighting since Feb 2009, he is getting better with every fight and he is part of a great team. Also if the fight reaches the fifth round I can guarantee that Askren will have more gas left in his tank that most top welterweights.
So, let me make this clear: If Askren eventually signs with the UFC, he will probably lose. I can't imagine him beating Demian Maia. And I do not believe he can "manhandle" Jake Ellenberger or Johny Hendricks. He is far from perfect as a fighter. His opponents catch him into submissions attempts and he gets hit a lot. If it weren't for his cardio, toughness and iron chin he would have lost by now. But if the UFC can sign a fighter who has only fought for promotions like Jungle Fights, surely they can sign an unbeaten 12-0 MMA fighter, a former member of the U.S. Olympic team and a two-time NCAA champion at the University of Missouri who finished his collegiate wrestling career with a record of 153–8, with 91 of those victories coming by way of fall. Not to mention that those 91 pins put him at third on the all-time NCAA Division I pins list according to his Wikipedia page.
Ben Askren is not a "blanket".
"There are some wrestlers who are really exciting fighters to watch. There are also some wrestlers who use their wrestling to win fights, or lay and pray as people call it," Lamas said. "I don’t hold anything against any fighter who has to do what they have to do to win. If you don’t want someone laying on you for three rounds then learn how to GET UP! Or learn how to defend a takedown. People are quick to blame the wrestler but if the other guy trained like he should then he should be able to stop a takedown."
Ric Lamas interview, Chicagosmma.com
I could not agree more. However Ben Askren's style is not lay and pray, thus he is not a "blanket". Ben Askren is the master of funk.
But what is a "funky style" in wrestling?
Here is a definition of his "funky wrestling" from an article about Askren on the USA Today website:
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.
I also use the word "manhandle" a lot in this article as a tribute to Askren's recent instructional series: "The Manhandling Manifesto". Askren was able to successfully apply his wrestling style in MMA. He "manhandles" his opponents in his relentless pursuit of the takedown. His athletic abilities serve him well as he can go full 5 rounds without getting tired, has a granite chin and he is able to get out of submissions. However his weaknesses, both in his striking and in him getting caught in submissions attempts, serve his funky style of wrestling.
His opponents believe that his striking abilities are so bad that they can catch him with something and chose to throw punches and kicks at him and not lower their level so that they can defend the takedown. Jake Shields' opponents make the same mistake. Then they get taken down. Again and again and again.
While on the ground, Askren's opponents may almost catch him in a submission or a sweep. And instead of using the submission attempts or sweeps to get up, they continue to grapple with him. They do not realize that Ben will use his funky style, escape, get on top and will probably do something crazy and unexpected. Take a look at the gif below. His opponent catches him into an omoplata and Askren defends by jumping over to the other side, catches him in a headscissors lock (catch wrestling style) and then jumps to side control. This is a rarely seen technique.
So instead of applying a strategy where they use a low stance to sprawl and prevent takedowns and use submissions or sweeps as a way to get up, his opponents get trapped into a spider-web of grappling chaos against a wrestler who while he does not look intimidating, has beaten some of the scariest and toughest wrestlers in the world.
Let's go to another gif. Here Ben Askren is on top using the crucifix position. What is so unique is that he uses an overhook to control one of opponents arms. This is a wrestling based version of the crucifix and as you can see his opponent is defenseless.
Next is another example of great wrestling. His opponent tries to stand up and Askren has a grasp of a low single. He finishes with an amazing hip throw.
Askren often uses BJJ type controls like the over-under (aka the "seatbelt") but where he shines is when he applies wrestling groundfighting to his offensive MMA game. Instead of using the seatbelt to control someone's back, he uses 'leg rides" where you only have one hook in. In the gif below, from a leg ride he traps his opponents arm behind his back and goes to mount. Have you ever seen something like that in MMA? Ever?
In the last technique Ben gets double underhooks, locks his hands and gets the guy down. I was amazed that his opponent did not break a hand or a shoulder or his neck falling down with both hands trapped. Again, have you, Dana White or Joe Silva ever seen something like this? The man is an artist. Who cares if he finishes opponents. He dominates and that is all that counts in sports.
We must also note that Ben studies BJJ. He does not rely on his wrestling alone. For example he trained with Marcelo Garcia. Marcelo tapped him fast a couple of times but you can see in that rolling session that Askren adapted and Marcelo had to try more to tap him. Marcelo is the best BJJ submission artist ever.
Askren also competes in BJJ and submission wrestling tournaments so he is getting better. The odd thing is that he gets submission holds all the time in his MMA fights: rear naked chokes, arm-in guillotines, kimuras etc. However he does not submit his opponents. He is either afraid that he will burn his hands by forcing submissions or he does not trust his submission skills and falls back to his bread and butter which is his wrestling.
Askren is a unique wrestler. Not all wrestlers are good in applying wrestling ground control skills like hammerlocks, power halfs, cradles, leg rides etc. Some are just explosive athletes who rely on power doubles and singles and do not use ground control to pin their opponents and win fights. Part of Askren's style is clinch wrestling and ground control. And his ground control techniques are completely different than the ones used by BJJ fighters and unlike any others I have seen applied in MMA fighting.
As fans we must put pressure on our favorite promotion to sign the greatest representatives of all fighting sports. Ben Askren is a wrestling great. He belongs in the UFC. Let him have his chance and give him his due.
About the Author: Kostas Fant AKA Mr. Fantastic (named by Dallas Winston) is a BJJ brown belt under Wander Braga and a MMA trainer to a select few. He is a fan of Marcelo Garcia, Rickson Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, Rob Kaman, Ramon Dekkers, Floyd Mayweather and Ernesto Hoost. He believes in pursuing lost causes like real friendship and true love. Also as a Spiderman fan he believes that "with great power, comes great responsibility".
If you tweet me, please be polite or I will block you faster than Marcelo Garcia tapping a white belt (and that is pretty fast)