Bloody Elbow Roundtable: What is the deal with the Ben Askren situation?

The Bloody Elbow staff discusses the saga of Ben Askren and shares their thoughts on why he didn't sign with the UFC, his deal with ONE FC, and a possible relationship between the UFC and World Series of Fighting.

Nate Wilcox: I want to get a discussion going about the Ben Askren situation. Here's a few questions to get things started.

What just happened there?

Why is the UFC not signing an undefeated Olympian with a big mouth (albeit a boring style) who gets attention where ever he goes?

Why is Dana pushing fighters to WSOF? Was there more to the Fitch & Okami cuts than just clearing the roster? Where they being sent to WSOF to build their roster as much as anything else?

Is the WSOF as Zach Arnold has accused, simply a placeholder/stand in for the UFC on NBC in a way similar to the WEC or Zuffa Strikeforce just with different ownership?

Brent Brookhouse: The general thinking on the WSOF over Bellator thing the UFC has embraced is the idea that there's a big grudge between the UFC and Bellator for a variety of reasons. The Spike TV stuff, deciding they want to play in the PPV realm, the Eddie Alvarez stuff. If true, that means that the UFC doesn't want to be seen as lusting after a champion from this promotion they'd rather trash.

But I don't know how true that could be given that it doesn't line up with anything else they've done with rival promotions. I mean, they did go after Alvarez so unless that and the PPV was a gamechanger. It could be all that, combined with the idea that he is a very hard guy to place in your promotion. He's going to beat a lot of guys he faces, maybe even most, slim outside possibility that he beats everyone on the roster. In a world where the UFC does really need to create new stars, is Ben Askren the guy who can be that star and replace GSP. Yes, people didn't always enjoy GSP's style. But he was a transcendent figure for the promotion and he brought the massive support of an entire fight crazy country with him. Askren has a "bad for action" fighting style and doesn't bring that kind of support. Maybe the hope was that he could take a year in WSOF to just work his skills without a ton of risk and then be more "UFC ready."

The WSOF is just a safer alternative to Bellator for the UFC right now. They aren't as ambitious (or, rather, they are, but not as likely to see those ambitions go anywhere), they don't have Spike helping drive decent ratings and there isn't an existing beef. I doubt it's that they're a shadow version of anything so much as a non-rival.

Tim Burke: Clearly it's because his manager Vadim Finkelstein demanded to co-promote cards that he was on.

Tim Burke: Honestly though, I believe money was the biggest factor. Askren is a free agent and has zero leverage, so I think the UFC totally lowballed him and Askren wanted no part of it. Like TUF contract lowball. It doesn't surprise me that Askren would blame the Dana/Bellator thing, and that probably is part of it. But in the end, even though he said he'd come in "cheap", I think each side just has way different expectations when it comes to cash.

And as for WSOF, they have a good relationship with the UFC because they handle things above-board. While there might be something more incestuous at play there, I don't really see it. If they were looking to dump guys so they'd take less in a "sister" organization, I think they'd have dumped a lot more than they have so far. And WSOF wouldn't be signing guys like Lance Palmer.

Ben Thapa: I was under the impression the UFC plays nice because the money man behind it is a huge deal in Nevada. It's that particular bit of personal history keeping the two Nevada based promotions from going cutthroat.

As for Askren, I actually think this is the best possible move. He doesn't have to sit so long, can take advantage of the new rule set and destroy anybody put in front of him to increase his eventual earnings. He handled this well and as long as he can avoid burning the potential bridge to Joe Silva, he's home free in two years.

Brent Brookhouse:I think that Sig Rogich (the WSOF "money man" Ben mentioned) may play some part in it, but it's not like the two are in any position to really go at it. WSOF gets no ratings that are of any consequence and has very few pieces that I think the UFC covets. And the WSOF isn't going to get aggressive with them anyway because there's nothing to be gained.

Rogich probably is a good reason why the UFC treats them as a "friendly" more than others, but I doubt that it's a reason why they'd want to send anyone there in a situation like this beyond that they could pluck him more easily when they felt they were "ready" to do so.

Zane Simon: At the moment the UFC really seems to be flexing it's muscles in terms of signing fighters and working with promotions... and quite honestly I'm a little surprised it's taken this long. For years it feels like the UFC has been content to cherry pick MMA orgs from the competitive map only when the reach some threshold of competitive practice. For everyone else, the market was open. I think Bellator has now made them realize, for better or worse, that they need to get a firm grip on the MMA landscape, if nowhere else in the US. And the way they're achieving this is by glad-handing a few of the more mid-level promotions and displaying firm relationships.

These relationships may not go beyond the surface level, but they're starting to keep their enemies close and at the same time telling prospects, "Go here and you'll probably end up fighting with us. Go to WSOF, go to RFA, and you'll see a UFC contract down the line. Go to Bellator and you'll never get the call." They have similar, less obvious relationships in place with Cage Warriors and Jungle Fight as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if it represents their future global business model.

As for how this impacts Askren, I still think he made the best possible move by staying far away from it. A suggestion that the UFC might sign him in a year, with a couple of WSOF fights, is just that: A suggestion. If this WSOF glad-handing suddenly turns sour, he could end up once again being the centerpiece of a turf war that has nothing to do with him. And for anyone thinking that what Askren said or did will be a personal affront to Dana White, or Joe Silva, I honestly doubt they care even a little. Fighters are the chattel upon which their business runs. They are signed out of need (and very rarely desire) and are almost entirely dealt with through their management. There appear to be a bunch of fighters in the UFC who've never spoken to either Dana White or Joe Silva at any personal level, or beyond a handshake in a hallway. If the UFC needs Askren, they'll go after him, and if he keeps winning, where ever he does it, the UFC will find a point at which they need him. At that point it'll once again come down to price, but Askren can only be in a better position the further away he is from his past with Bellator, so I doubt that price goes down. And finally, if there really is any fellowship between WSOF and the UFC it would almost certainly harm Askren's future bargaining power if the organization he was leaving had no real desire to compete for his services with the organization he was trying to go to.

Nate Wilcox:The difference between the WSOF and RFA etc is a huge one -- NBC Sports. WSOF is heading to network TV. If you know your UFC history you know that getting a good TV deal puts any MMA promotion in their sites. The UFC's most hated rivals? IFL (crappy as their "network deal" was at the time it was a big deal for MMA), EliteXC, independent Strikeforce, now Bellator.

But there's another category of promotions with TV deals in MMA history -- Zuffa's alternate brands -- WEC and Zuffa-owned Strikeforce. They seem to have given up on that realizing that a real network is never going to want your second best stuff. However an alliance with the WSOF may be a new way to crack that deal.

And in that light the Fitch and Okami moves and the suggestion to Askren are very telling. They're acting like an NFL franchise sending a few quality veterans to a new team. That's very different than just "getting along" with the WSOF. Anyone who thinks it's because the WSOF is "nice" is being a bit naive.

Nor is it because the WSoF "knows their place" and "isn't a threat" -- the UFC thinks everything is a threat. And if the WSoF does know it's place, possibly it's because there's a sort of informal alliance taking place and it will be very interesting to see how that plays out. Certainly not very good for the fighters and maybe not the sport.

In fact I'd say the failure to sign Askren is an unprecedented failure of the UFC to serve the sporting interests of MMA. Admit it, they've mostly been great for the sport but this one is a big one and sends a message to Olympians and other blue chip athletes -- get lippy, be a big mouth, and it doesn't matter how good you are, we're not going to be building you up.

Even more than serious rival promotions the UFC fears independent star fighters. An MMA Mayweather is their nightmare.

Zane Simon: It is a big game changer, and WSOF has a lot more promise because of it. Of course that also means a lot more room for spectacular failure... But I still don't see this as an alliance as it is the UFC trying to make sure that it creates some semblance of control over WSOF (even if that control is not in fact real). The appearance that they can put fighters in to WSOF and take them out of WSOF whenever they want gives a greater ability to dictate exactly what relationship the organization ends up having with them even if everything remains purely informal. For WSOF right now, much as Nate suggested, this isn't a case of knowing their place, but rather of seeing the obvious short term advantages of having good fighters funneled into their organization both as prospects and seasoned vets. It benefits them a ton, in the moment, while they're trying to grow. I just wonder if they're going to find the UFC leaning more and more heavily on them as time goes on. And that eventually they'll be unable to break free because they will be seen as purely a UFC feeder brand and the threat of removing UFC support will be enough to cripple their growth.

T.P. Grant: To me a big part of this is how the UFC has gotten burned pursuing Bellator talent in the past. The UFC would have been bidding against themselves if they had capitulated and given him big money. I agree with Nate the UFC doesn't want individual fighters to become powerful brands in themselves, but I don't think Askren is seen a threat in any way currently.

As for Dana's treatment of WSOF, divide and conquer. The Strikeforce/Dream alliance created huge buzz when it happened and allowed Strikeforce to put on some of their bigger shows and was as much a powermove by Coker as the signing of Fedor and Hendo. While Bellator and WSOF are a ways behind the UFC, this could be a move to create just a little tension between the two so there is no chance they ever join forces in any way. Keep them weak and divided, favor WSOF to give Bellator a little something to think about and keep named talent away from Bellator and their super restrictive contracts, and the UFC wins.

KJ Gould: I don't think it's Askren's style or his money demands that has foiled his signing with UFC, though on the surface of it they're the seemingly obvious factors.

I think it's the continuing fallout of the Alvarez situation, which if you side with Eugene S Robinson's theory is the continuing proxy war between UFC and Viacom MMA.

Both the Alvarez situation and the Askren situation could be seen as contributing toward a cautionary subtext from the UFC to all fighters and managers out there. Their indirect message could simply be this: 'If you want to fight for the UFC, don't fight for Bellator.'

If anything fighters and managers are going to have to more carefully consider an open door to Bellator if it can close the door to the UFC in the process, even to top 10 talent.

Brent Brookhouse: WSOF is going to network TV like boxing returned to network TV. it's cool and it's fun when NBC shows some random fight or two but the commitment isn't anything like CBS to EXC or Strikeforce. It's just a thing to fill some time and I'm willing to bet it's not going to be in the best time slot (similar to how the boxing has taken place in the afternoon or before major events on premium tv/PPV later that night.

John Nash: Most theories regarding why the UFC didn't sign Askren don't make sense to me. They were worried Ben would somehow make Bellator look good but they weren't worried about Alvarez, Lombard, Shields, or Cro Cop doing the same? That Dana was somehow much more insulted by Askren's comments than he was by what Tito or Josh Barnett said?

A couple of theories I see floating around do make sense, though. The first is that with the decline in ratings and ppv sales the UFC has made the decision to present a more "fan friendly" style of fighting and they're accomplishing this by removing the top "grinders" from the promotion. Cutting top 10 fighters Okami and Fitch and not signing top 10 fighter Askren sends a message to other fighters - "If you want to be in the UFC you can't fight like these guys."

The other theory KJ alluded to already. Previous negotiations with Bellator fighters have caused nothing but headaches for the UFC, perhaps the biggest being the UFC's offers being released for other fighters to see. Apparently the best solution they see for this is to not deal with any fighter from Bellator, but instead only with those from a more amicable promotion, like WSOF.

Where does WSOF fit in? Well, according to Zach Arnold they are a "stalking horse" for the UFC. I don't know if there is any evidence for that, but it wouldn't surprise me considering the links the owners of both promotions share. What is interesting is that the WSOF has conveniently become a repository for fighters the UFC doesn't want but also whom they don't want fighting elsewhere. Right now UFC has an almost complete lockdown of the top of each division with over 90% of the top 10 and 100% of the top 5 signed to Zuffa. If the WSOF is really in collusion with the UFC, then having these ranked fighters under contract with them is this is just one more way to guarantee that no one else can crack the top 10 without Zuffa's consent.

KJ Gould: UFC possibly are treating WSOF like a 'Sheep Dip Machine'. This might not be a familiar term to a lot of people today so I'll quickly explain: when studying Computing in the mid to late 1990's we would use an old, inexpensive PC to run web access through since Anti Virus and Firewall software / hardware were in their infancy, and if problems were to occur with files that had been downloaded it was better for the inexpensive, out of date machine to feel the brunt of it than the entire network of modern, expensive terminals.

If there are still possible hidden problems with Bellator releasing fighters, UFC doesn't want to know, instead allowing a promotion like WSOF to deal with the issues instead. If everything appears on the up and up and a WSOF signed fighter is truly free and clear of Bellator contract nonsense, UFC can probably offer to buy out a contract with WSOF fighter if they're truly interested, or have an easier negotiation environment with WSOF.

Askren not signing with WSOF might be to do with ego and Askren not liking UFC telling him how to manage his career. It might also be a gamble to crush outmatched competition in One FC in an attempt to gain some Fedor-esque mystique in as much as being a top fighter not in the UFC who won't go down the rankings as long as he keeps winning and may rise in the rankings by default when other top Welterweights in the UFC falter. If Askren can destroy 6 fighters in a row while other Top 5 Welterweights in UFC struggle or suffer set backs, it's not out of the realm of possibility for Askren to rise as high as No#2 in the rankings, especially if GSP retires and the champion in his stead isn't as convincing. If Askren can look fantastic in Asia, it could boost his demand by fans and critics alike for UFC to do whatever it takes to sign him 2 years from now.

Fraser Coffeen: I agree with KJ's last point. Because the UFC does have that lockdown already mentioned, those few fighters who are able to build up a serious top 2 or 3 resume outside the UFC become very interesting. We saw it with Shields, with Melendez, and with Overeem. Eddie Alvarez would have been the same too. All of those guys came either directly into a title fight or just 1 fight away. WSOF is doing this same thing with Tyrone Spong right now - it makes sense that Askren would go the same route and potentially come into the UFC in a year or two as a HIGHLY desired #1 contender. That's what I suspect Askren is banking on.

The potential roadblock there is that Shields, Reem, and Alvarez were all, in various ways, pretty spectacular failures for the UFC (Shields less so, but still...). They're been burned by these kind of signings lately, and in the immortal words of George W. Bush, "Fool me once, shame on you... can't get fooled again." Dana and company are no dummies, and I suspect they are far more leery of making that big signing. Askren felt that already - I fear in two years he may feel it again, with the result being just more squandering of the best years of his career.

KJ Gould: I think ufc made their money off Shields since people bought the GSP fight, and made their money off Overeem because people bought the Lesnar fight. Their losses in or subsequently from those fights has allowed a renegotiation of their contracts.

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