A Career at a Crossroads: Forecasting Ben Askren’s Next Steps

When Ben Askren retired from MMA in 2017, fans around the globe took a collective sigh of frustration, forcing themselves to come to terms with never seeing the undefeated wrestler in the UFC octagon.

For years, they had watched “Funky” dominate his opponents in various promotions, using his elite wrestling to render them utterly immobilized. They had long wondered what would happen if Askren fought the elite talents of the UFC. Nonetheless, that hope quickly transformed into a stillborn dream. Askren the MMA fighter was no longer.

Shockingly, just months later, in one of the biggest MMA stories of the year, Askren was back; this time, a UFC fighter. Not only that, pound for pound great and former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson was traded to ONE FC in exchange for Askren. Traded? But MMA is not a team sport. Wasn’t Askren retired? The UFC is letting one of the greatest modern fighters leave? These questions swirled around the minds of fans across the community. With time, it was all explained, but it was still just as shocking. The UFC “traded” Johnson’s contract to ONE for Askren’s contract. Alas, Ben Askren would square off against the world’s foremost competitors as a UFC fighter.

Like they say, however, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Askren’s UFC debut was against the ferocious Robbie Lawler, and Askren won an incredibly controversial bout in which he was bruised and battered for much of the short contest. Still, however, the Askren hype train barreled forward, and he’d face perennial contender Jorge Masvidal in a tense grudge match at UFC 239. This time, there was no controversy. There was no back and forth. Masvidal scored the fastest knockout in UFC history, stiffening the 19-0 wrestler with a lightning bolt of a flying knee in just 5 seconds. The win propelled Masvidal’s career into the stratosphere, and he is now considered one of the preeminent stars in the organization.

Although Askren was the centre of much criticism from detractors, anyone can get caught, right? Askren never really got a chance to implement his game plan. Had the two engaged in a grappling scenario, surely Askren would’ve fared better right? For Askren and his supporters, this was the narrative put forth. His next fight would be a highly anticipated bout against Demian Maia. Finally, Askren was given a beneficial matchup that would showcase all of his magnificent abilities. The fight was billed as a determinant of the best grappler in MMA.

Although Askren showed improved striking and excelled in a variety of exciting grappling exchanges, he was ultimately submitted in the third round by rear-naked choke. While the Masvidal knockout was devastating, one could argue that this fight was more of an indictment on Askren’s skills and place in his career. Askren was not caught by a low-frequency technique. He was meticulously out-manoeuvred at his own game. Askren has now lost two fights in a row in which he was the betting favourite to win. Where does the Funky one go from here? There are two conceivable options for Askren moving forward.

Given that Askren only came out of retirement for the opportunity to fight in the UFC, he is certainly not going to leave the promotion to fight elsewhere. Now on a two-fight skid, Askren may retire once again, now no longer questioning the “what if?” of fighting in the octagon. Askren recently expressed that he was considering retirement on the latest episode of Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show. That is option number one – retirement. If he retires, Askren will likely be remembered as an exceedingly competent grappler that neglected vital aspects of the sport and eventually, it caught up to him.

Option number two is to get back on the horse and pursue more wins in the UFC, perhaps ridding the sour taste in his mouth from these last two performances. Concerning potential matchups, Askren vs Neil Magny, a well-rounded fighter in the top 15, would certainly be a viable fight night main event or co-main event. Similarly, a fight against someone like Gilbert Burns, Michael Chiesa, or Gunnar Nelson certainly makes sense. Indeed, it is time that Askren reassesses his place in the division and works his way back up. Overall, if Askren desires to remain in the UFC, he must take a step down in competition, at least for now, to gain some traction. If he gains some wins, he may be able to reinsert himself into the top of the division once again. That is option number two, an opponent in the lower top 15. In reality, these are the likely two options that potentially await Askren.

Regardless of which road Askren takes, the same detractors that were present before his UFC entry are now armed with even more ammunition. However, lest we forget that Askren did not have to exit retirement. He did not have to join the UFC in the twilight of his career, but he wanted to explore his potential. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

Written by Richard Felicetti


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