In 2018, the UFC engaged in a historic “trade” with ONE Championship. Former longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson went to the far east as Ben Askren signed with the UFC for his long-talked-about debut with the company.
It was a deal that hadn’t been done in the sport, and for “Funky” Ben, it should be happening more often.
“Honestly, there should be more trades in MMA,” Askren said during his recent appearance on the MMA Hour. “There really should be. I don’t know what they’re doing. The only one that ever happened was awesome. Like, why has no one said, ‘Hey, that was really cool. Why don’t we go do that again?’”
For Askren, a trade could fix the long-standing issue of having a bunch of disgruntled fighters under one organization who eventually jump ship to find greener pastures elsewhere.
“Even with the egos, between the four more major ones — PFL, ONE Championship, Bellator, and UFC — surely there are some fighters in all those organizations that don’t really want to be there anymore. So you’ve got to like, ‘Hey, we have 500 fighters. If these 50 really don’t want to be here anymore, and they’re kind of tough to deal with, pains in the butt, who can we go get in exchange for them? How can we get rid of them? They don’t even want to be here.’
“Let’s go, let’s get rid of them. I don’t know, it seems reasonable.”
Askren also believes the trade worked out well for “Mighty Mouse,” who’s had a tumultuous relationship with the UFC.
“With the trade, the other thing about the trade that was tremendous is Demetrious, he’s still over there kicking butt. But it’s like, I was retired. Honestly, ONE Championship, yeah, they did do a good job, because I wasn’t going to do nothing else for them.
“I said I’m done, so they had an asset that was going to do nothing. I was happily retired doing nothing. And then they were able to get Demetrious Johnson, who’s now had — I don’t know, 10 fights, he’s had a lot of fights for them.
“The UFC, I think it was just like, obviously if they really, really wanted to keep Demetrious, they would have. And I think it was just one of those things where, for whatever reason — and I guess I would have guesses, but I’m not going to put it out there because I don’t know — like, their relationship wasn’t that great.
“They just didn’t really like each other. There was a lot of bitterness there, and he wanted out and they let them out, and it worked out great.”
The concept sounds interesting, but in reality, these “trades” aren’t likely to be a common occurrence in MMA because even without all the politics involved, it’s technically more complicated than the ones in other sports.
MMA promotions aren’t under the same league with player unions and team owners that negotiated set rules and stipulations, so the many differences in details and terms means fight contracts can’t just be transferred. One promotion will basically have to release their fighter, who will then have to negotiate and sign new terms with the other promotion. That deal they agree on will also be contingent on the other fighter coming to terms with their new promotion as well.
So technically, Johnson and Askren’s situation was more like two releases and two new free agent signings than an actual trade, but it worked out in the end.
Johnson did carry over his success at ONE Championship, where he currently holds the organization’s flyweight title. Askren, meanwhile, had a short-lived UFC run where he went 1-2 before retiring from MMA competition in 2019. He did have a one-off boxing match with Jake Paul in 2021, an opportunity he deemed the “biggest payday” of his career.