For years, whenever it was asked who was the greatest fighter to never compete in the UFC, the answer was always split between two names: Fedor Emelianenko, the greatest heavyweight of all time, and Ben Askren. Askren might not have the name recognition of Fedor, but the mop-haired former Mizzou wrestler garnered a lot of hate.
People hated him despite the fact—or because of the fact—that they all knew he could render UFC-caliber welterweights utterly helpless. How good has “Funky” Ben Askren been since segueing from wrestling to MMA in 2009? He compiled an 18-0-1 record, won titles in both Bellator and the Asia-based ONE Championship, and defended those belts until he got bored. He outstruck Andrey Koreshkov by a staggering 248-3 margin and broke records in Singapore by showing up as a -4600 favorite in his fight with Agilan Thani. Thani somehow managed to last more than two minutes in the cage with Askren before succumbing to an arm-triangle choke.
Askren “retired” after beating the brakes off poor Shinya Aoki in just 57 seconds back in 2017, with the caveat that he would return to the cage only if it were against the best in the world. By that he meant the UFC, a promotion that publicly condemned him but secretly coveted his services. And now that he’s in the UFC, getting set to face the company’s great hatchetman Robbie Lawler at UFC 235 in Las Vegas, he’s worried that fewer and fewer people are showing him hate.
He’s worried that by finding his way to MMA’s greatest cult—the UFC, where he’s always belonged—he’s become too goddamn lovable.
“It’s crazy,” he told The Ringer this week. “My Instagram went 10X since I got traded. I’ve had my Twitter forever and I’m fairly active on there, but my followers went up two and a half times. You’d think that with all the new fans there’d be a proportionate amount of haters, but that hasn’t been the case.”
The 34-year old Askren is fighting in the United States for the first time in four years, and in Vegas for the first time ever. He’s used to competing in places like Thackerville, Oklahoma, and Shanghai, but he’s never competed in the fight capital of the world. Vegas doesn’t have any charms for him, other than he gets to play disc golf—his other passion—Saturday under a warm sun, hours before his appointment with Lawler. If there’s anything striking about Askren during his first UFC fight week, it’s this: He seems remarkably unconcerned with the idea of fighting a headhunter like Lawler, whom he suspects is being commissioned by the UFC to beat him.
“What’s there to be tense about?” he asked when I brought this up. Well, other than the fact that Lawler didn’t just beat Johny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, and Rory MacDonald, but truly affected them—took vital pieces of them and altered their careers for good—there’s no real reason to be troubled. Askren is wearing flip-flops and a Reebok T-shirt with the letters U-F-C strewn across his chest, and Lawler is seemingly the last thing on his mind.
What’s bothering him is whether there will be time for a trip to the bookstore between some radio hits and the UFC media day. He wants to pick up Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle and Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari—books that were recommended by alt-right Twitter troll and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich.
Askren loves conspiracy theories as much as he hates hypocrisy and double standards. He went on Joe Rogan’s podcast and discussed, among other things, whether the moon landing was faked. (He’ll point out that his show did 3 million views, more than Georges St-Pierre’s.) Comb through his Twitter feed and you’ll find his opinions on anyone from Colin Kaepernick to President Donald Trump. It’s one of the reasons people love to hate him; he isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
He has his own rental car, rather than accepting the UFC’s offer of a driver so that he can stop at the bookstore on his own free will. “I like freedom,” he said. Askren is not a fan of authority, especially the kind that UFC president Dana White likes to exercise over his roster. He has butted heads with White since before it was fashionable, all the way back in his Bellator days. The two have gone at each other through the press and on social media. White would commonly dismiss Askren as a undeserving fighter when asked about him (which was all the time), or he’d snipe at him on Twitter, saying things like, “When Ambien can’t sleep, it takes Ben Askren.”
For his part, Askren was never afraid to take his shots at White, either, and that hasn’t changed since he was traded to the UFC from ONE Championship for Demetrious Johnson in October. Askren is still poking the bear. In an interview with 920 The Game, Askren told host Ryan McKinnell that there’s real value in such a strained relationship. “Everyone hates their boss,” he said. “It’s such a common theme in America.”
Askren sees himself as a metaphor for the common employee who is pushing back against authority. If he were just another loudmouth fighter before, now that he’s in the UFC, it’s clear that fight fans have finally fallen in love with his insubordination. UFC 235 is a deep pay-per-view with champions like Jon Jones and Askren’s good friend Tyron Woodley on it. But the buzz in Vegas is all about Askren. And he knows why.
“There’s an obvious dynamic in play there,” Askren told me on the drive to the bookstore. “Everyone brings it up, but the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin–Vince McMahon angle was one of the biggest angles running, for years, in the WWE. Stone Cold gave Vince the middle finger and the Stunner and everyone loved it.”
Why does Askren suspect Dana hates him so much, especially now that he’s in the UFC and stands to make the promotion money?
“I think it’s a whole bunch of things,” Askren said. “He doesn’t like that I won’t kiss his ass. I think he knows that I’m intelligent, I’m not going to buy into the bullshit. There’s something about his personality type. I try to study the psychology of people. As much as he’s accomplished and as wealthy as he is—and obviously, as much as I don’t like him, you can’t take those things away from him, he’s fucking made a boatload of money—he’s still so insecure. I feel it when I’m around him. It’s a weird feeling.”
Askren was driving down Tropicana without his seat belt, ignoring the car’s constant dinging to remind him to buckle it up. He continued on about Dana. “I don’t know if there’s some love he missed out on as a kid. It’s sad. We’re going deep now, but some kind of love or acceptance that he missed out on as a kid for some reason. … I mean, his mom wrote the book that he’s a shithead. That can’t help. Mom writing a book that you’re a shithead.”
A closer look at Askren tells you everything you need to know about why he’s so confident. The neck is large, the frame is lean, and the thick, cruciferous ears tip you off that he’s as stubborn in the cage as he is outside of it. He is a world-champion wrestler who loves wrestling. Back in the day, when St-Pierre was dominating the UFC’s welterweight division in large part because he could dictate where the action took place, Askren was a compelling hypothetical matchup. What will happen when St-Pierre faces a guy who can’t be pushed around?
With GSP retiring last week, we’ll (probably) never know, but these are the questions that fuel the UFC—the guesswork in the dictation of wills. One difference is that Askren has never been afraid to telegraph his game plan. When asked how he’ll handle Lawler, he said he’s going to “grapple the hell out of him.” It’s the surest way to neutralize one of MMA’s most deadly knockout artists.
“The thing is, Lawler only fights in spurts,” Askren said. “He comes in hard, throws, then relaxes, comes in, fights, then relaxes—but what happens if you don’t allow him to relax?” Askren didn’t fill in the rest, because he didn’t need to. The idea is to put a pressure and a pace on Lawler until he breaks. It’s what Askren has done to get here, and it’s why he a near 3-to-1 favorite against a former champion. That he makes it sound so easy is one of the most endearing things about him. It’s as if he’s saying a buzz saw isn’t all that scary if you simply unplug it. How hard can that be?
Besides, Askren helped his former Mizzou teammate and current welterweight champion Woodley prepare for Lawler in 2016, when Woodley won the title. It’s like he’s already faced him once before. And now that Askren is in the UFC and free to plot his course, he has a plan.
In a couple of weeks, he said he’s going to fly out to London for Jorge Masvidal’s fight with Darren Till. He wants to take care of Lawler, then face the Englishman Till. “That’s an easy fight,” he said. He doesn’t anticipate fighting for the 170-pound title anytime soon, not with Woodley—who fights Kamaru Usman on Saturday night in the co-main event—holding the belt. Ultimately he plans on winning the 165-pound title—a division that, as of now, doesn’t exist in the UFC.
When it was brought to his attention during an appearance on Eyes on the Game that Dana White has said on multiple occasions that there would never be a 165-pound weight class, Askren laughed. “You just had Tecia Torres on your show, and what did Dana say about women ever fighting in the UFC?” (In 2011, Dana White famously declared that women would never fight in the UFC, words that Ronda Rousey forced him to eat fewer than two years later.)
Askren gets a lot out of a word like “never.” He was told he’d never fight in the UFC, and yet here he is. His popularity only grew in his semiretirement, because, above all else, he thinks like a fan. A fan who wanted to see himself fight in the UFC. A fan who can actually fight and do it well, and who will say exactly what’s on his mind after every punch.
“You can’t get Amanda Nunes over?” Askren asked, wondering how the UFC hasn’t made its current bantamweight champion into a star. “You got to get that lady fucking over! She’s a lesbian, she’s got that whole thing going, and nobody cares about her? There’s a way you can get her over, you just got to figure out how to do it.
“[Current strawweight champion] Rose [Namajunas] is the same thing. No one gives a damn about Rose, but I feel like she could be a huge star if you figure out the right way to market her and push her. Same thing with [Demetrious Johnson]. They never figured out how to market DJ. He had all the qualities, but he didn’t fit this thing that they want.”
The irony of what Askren’s saying isn’t lost on him. The UFC traded Johnson to acquire him, who in 2019 is exactly what it wants—that is, a fighter who people care about, specifically because he talks a big game and backs it up. Askren’s stubbornness wore down White’s ego, and in the end those things are in business together.
“Dana thought everyone was going to forget about me, and they didn’t,” Askren said. “The Rogan thing was gigantic. People got to see me in more than 140 characters, and got to see who I was, which was huge. People that followed my career wanted to see more, wanted to see me against the best guys. That’s what pushed this to happen. If there was no popularity push behind this, it would never happen.”
The UFC may have picked up its next big star by finally embracing its biggest critic. Can you imagine if that critic happens to be everything we suspected he could be if he’s given a chance?
“I feel like, if I do win this fight, I’m going to become a mega-superstar overnight,” Askren said. “And it’s a really weird feeling, but you just feel the energy around it, you know? And you don’t know why. It’s a weird feeling, but I feel like it’ll fucking explode.”