This past weekend, a highly anticipated fight between Robbie Lawler and Ben Askren ended in controversial fashion, during the UFC 235 event that took place in T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada. Askren had Lawler trapped in a headlock, and referee Herb Dean stopped the fight when Lawler’s arm went limp, indicating that Lawler had passed out.
Fans begun debating all over social media whether the call was correct or not. Lawler seemed to get up immediately after Dean stopped the fight. During the replay, Robbie also seemed to give the referee a (weak) thumbs-up sign right before the fight was stopped.
But, before analyzing the three basic sequences of this fight – the head slam, Lawler’s ground and pound, and the bulldog choke that ended the fight – I must confess that I am a fan of both fighters but have also been campaigning for Askren to join the UFC since 2013. Here is one of my fanposts before I had the opportunity to join the Bloodyelbow team: The case for Ben Askren: how the UFC disrespects a wrestling great!
I was rooting for Askren to win this fight against Lawler, but did not expect him to do so. There is a reason why Robbie was booked to welcome Ben to the UFC: Lawler is an explosive “sprawl and brawl” type fighter with dynamite in his hands.
As Chael Sonnen mentioned on his show, Lawler has wrestling experience. According to his bio page, Lawler attended Bettendorf High School where he received All-State honors in wrestling and football. Lawler was taken under the wing of Pat Miletich when he was 16 years old and began training with Miletich Fighting Systems as soon as he graduated in 2000.
Lawler is a pretty good wrestler himself and also enjoys a significant 69% takedown defense ratio. This is why I was expecting Askren to lose. Robbie is dangerous against everyone in the division.
Several thoughts about the stoppage
- I was against stopping the fight after the slam and I was also against Herb Dean stopping the fight early during the choke. As a fan, I believe we often get robbed from great comeback wins due to bad stoppages.
- I totally believe that Lawler was choked out for a second and that is why his arm dropped. So, I understand why Herb Dean decided to stop the fight. The fighter’s safety comes first.
- It makes no sense for a fighter to leave his neck unprotected and rely solely on the power of his neck in order to defend a headlock. Especially when a wrestler as experienced as Askren is using his full weight to control the neck.
- Chokes can be effective when the arm is not under the neck. And if fans believe that a decorated wrestler like Askren does not squeeze hard enough with an s-grip or a gable grip, then they obviously have never been smashed by a wrestler. In the Tweet below you can see a demonstration of Askren’s strength.
5. About the thumbs up sign: people can still move their hands as they are getting choked, that is why they are able to tap. Askren probably relaxed his grip when Dean intervened. And experienced fighters like Lawler recover fast.
6. The stoppage was bad because it deprived Askren of the chance to prove himself. However, Askren did not expect the headlock to submit Lawler, he used it as a wrestling hold and not as a submission and there is a chance that he would let go and transition to another move.
7. Can I be sure that Lawler was out? No. But it is rather likely that he was. That being said, Robbie should not have dropped his hand like that (if he did so intentionally) as it does not look good in a the eyes of a referee.
Readers should let me know their take regarding the stoppage in the comments below.
That being said, let’s proceed in analyzing the fight. Before I start please watch the beginning of the the fight from an amateur cam:
Breaking down the fight
GETTING THE CLINCH
Askren was able to get the clinch every time he attempted to do so. Here is the initial sequence.
The sequence above shows that Lawler is able to sprawl and get an arm-in headlock but Askren is able to grab with his left arm over the top (photo 4) and get waist control. This enables him to cut the corner, stand up and pop his head out.
FAILED INSIDE TRIP
Notice how Askren is able to transition from a back control attempt to a right inside trip (photo 4). However, Lawler is able to pull his left foot out (photo 5 above) and this puts Ben in a compromising position.
In photo 1 above, Askren seems to try and get a seat belt control but his feet are exposed. Lawler grabs the left foot, picks Askren up and drops him on his head. Askren seems to survive the impact and goes for some sort of kimura control.
WRIST CONTROL TO GROUND AND POUND
Lawler lifts his elbow up, thus neutralizing the kimura and transitions to the back while keeping wrist control. Askren gets hammered due to his left arm being trapped. Once he goes with his back down he is able to free his hand and defend better, but Robbie still lands a vicious elbow.
ESCAPING FROM BOTTOM
Askren is in bottom half guard with an underhook control. This enables him to post his right elbow on the floor, pull his hips back and go to the turtle position. Lawler keeps a tight whizzer control (overhook). During the transition Robbie is able to land a left punch, but this prevents him from posting his hand and causes him to land on his forehead. This allows Ben to get some space and stand up.
GETTING THE FINAL CLINCH
Surprisingly, Lawler beat Askren in his own game in the beginning of the fight. In the standing portion of the fight however, he was able to land a hard knee but other than that, nothing with fight ending potential.
In the photos above, Robbie is in a southpaw position. As the fighters touch hands, Askren throws a right hand, retracts his hand and extends his arm again, this time getting a right neck tie. He pushes Robbie with his back against the cage.
I was surprised Askren was able to get the clinch so easy.
GETTING ROBBIE DOWN
Askren often goes for takedowns that seem unconventional in their execution, he even seems to lack proper form at times. I believe he just tries to get a hold of something and go from there. In photo 6 above Robbie sprawls hard and pushes Askren’s head down with his hips. This, initially, seems like poor posture and technique on Askren’s behalf.
However, this enables Ben to push Lawler against the cage, get a left outside hook and take Robbie down.
THE BULLDOG CHOKE
As shown above, Lawler attempts to scoot his way back towards the cage. Askren gets wrist control and Robbie tries to go to the turtle. Ben is able to establish neck control and gets Lawler’s back without hooks in.
In order to avoid the choke. Robbie moves towards the opening of the choke (the wrist) while attempting to control Askren’s head with his right hand. Lawler goes to his knees but Ben keeps the neck control and gets him in a headlock position. Watch the Gracie Breakdown video below, which explains the problem for Lawler: that his chin is not facing Askren’s ribs but the opposite direction (photo 6). This is what enables the choke and makes a ton of difference.
Askren lifts his hip up and that puts enormous pressure on Robbie’s neck. Lawler’s arm goes limp for a second and the rest is history.
It is ironic that Lawler’s mentor, Pat Miletich was choked in a similar manner by Carlos Newton back in UFC 31. Examine the sequence below.
It is still my opinion that Askren belongs in the UFC. He may not be able to become a champion – as he is getting older – but if and when he loses, this has to happen in the world’s largest MMA organization. The UFC also failed to give Fedor Emelianenko the opportunity to finish his career in the Octagon.
The truth of the matter is that even if Askren got to choke Lawler unconscious, the fans would still complain about the fight not getting stopped after the slam and the following ground n pound. Ben Askren is a polarizing figure and this is not necessarily bad for business and fans will pay to see Lawler beat him up in a rematch.
That being said, Lawler does not have anything to gain from fighting Askren again. He is an exciting fighter. He will get a shot if he wins a couple of fights.
Finally, regarding the choke, if anyone thinks they would not get choked by a bulldog choke if the arm is not under the neck, they can give it a try at their local grappling school. It is a humbling experience. (Do not try at home or without professional supervision, neck cranks are dangerous).
For additional analysis, here are some very detailed breakdowns of the bulldog choke.
For a list of my previous technique breakdowns on Bloody Elbow, check out this link.
About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state-certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system © which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the Continuous Feedback © mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a brown belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).