ben-askren.jpg(This story initially appeared on usatoday.com.)

Ben Askren isn’t the type to sugarcoat his opinions. Ask him what he thought of fellow Bellator MMA champion Michael Chandler when he first encountered him on the University of Missouri wrestling team in 2004, and he’ll give it to you straight.

“In the beginning, he really wasn’t very good,” Askren (11-0 MMA, 8-0 BMMA), a two-time NCAA Division I national champion who now reigns as Bellator’s undefeated welterweight champ, tells USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com).

Lightweight champion Chandler (11-0 MMA, 8-0 BMMA) doesn’t disagree. Askren was a superstar at Missouri almost from the day he showed up on campus, but Chandler was a walk-on. His path, he admits, “was a little bit rockier.” But the important thing is where he ended up.

Tonight in Rio Rancho, N.M., the former Mizzou Tigers teammates will be reunited on the Bellator 97 fight card as both look to defend their titles and their perfect professional records in back-to-back fights on Spike TV (7 p.m. ET/PT).

To hear Askren tell it, it’s not such a surprise that two guys from one the nation’s top collegiate wrestling programs would go on to become champions in the same MMA organization.

“People don’t understand how competitive it is when you’ve got 45 bad-asses in one room, trying to beat the crap out of each other every single day,” says Askren, who will defend his 170-pound title against Russian fighter Andrey Koreshkov (13-0 MMA, 5-0 BMMA). “There are zero MMA camps in the world that are as competitive as a (Division I) wrestling room. Mentally, it just builds you up to be tough and resilient.”

That’s a quality Chandler says he learned from having Askren as a teammate for three years, and a coach for the next two. When he started at Missouri, Chandler didn’t have much going for him aside from a little natural ability and a strong work ethic, he says. Being in the same room with Askren taught him what it takes to become a champion.

michael-chandler-missouri.jpg“To be honest, Ben is a freak of nature,” Chandler says. “He could’ve gone to any school, under any coach, and still done exactly what he did at Mizzou. He’s just such a ridiculously hard worker, with a crazy mind-set, and he’s the most mentally tough person I’ve ever been around in my entire life.”

These days Chandler and Askren have traded places in some ways. They’re both Bellator champs with identical pro records, but it’s Chandler whose star seems to be on the rise. Bellator recently announced that it had signed the fighter, who meets title challenger David Rickels (14-1 MMA, 8-1 BMMA) tonight, to a new eight-fight contract that would make Chandler “one of the highest-paid lightweights in all of MMA,” according to Bellator Chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney, who seems to have positioned Chandler as the face of the organization moving forward.

Askren, meanwhile, continues to win fights, but he’s struggled to gain much of a fan following. Some complain that his wrestling-heavy style, while effective, is boring to watch. Not that Chandler sees a problem with it.

“I’m always the first one to defend Ben whenever anyone says one thing negative about him, because I’ll tell you right now, I would not be the man I am today or the competitor I am today without his mentoring in college,” Chandler says. “I did not totally believe in myself in college, and it took years under his mentorship for me to change that. If those critics knew what kind of person he is and how hard he works, I think they’d have a different mind-set.”

This time it will be Chandler who gets top billing in the main event, yet it may still be Askren who sets the tone for his former protégé.

“He’s going to go out there and dominate, and then I’m going to follow suit,” Chandler says. “Then we’ll hang out afterward.”

For the latest on Bellator 97, stay tuned to the MMA Rumors section of the site.

(Pictured: Ben Askren, top, and Michael Chandler)

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