As retirement fights go, Ben Askren’s couldn’t have been much more fitting. On the other side of the world, against an opponent who had no business being in there with him, he worked a can opener to a suffocating ground-and-pound attack, earning the quickest stoppage of his nearly nine-year career.
And now it’s over. You know, unless …
Unless he gets what he’s always wanted, which is the chance to prove he’s the best.
According to Askren’s immediate post-retirement callout, that opportunity would have to come in a fight with current UFC middleweight champion Georges St-Pierre. The bruises on Shinya Aoki’s face from ONE Championship 65 were still fresh and already Askren was throwing out the invite in GSP’s direction, which is telling in its own way.
First of all, Askren’s a welterweight. If he’s going to challenge someone to prove he’s the best in his weight class, why not challenge UFC welterweight champ Tyron Woodley, who also happens to be a friend and training partner? Actually, you know what, think I just answered my own question there.
So then fine, it’s up a division to talk some smack to St-Pierre (26-2 MMA, 20-2 UFC), who’s still known as the greatest welterweight in MMA history, not to mention one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time. And if he also has the distinction of being one of the biggest pay-per-view draws in the sport, hey, even better.
But the UFC’s not about to even consider that, right? You’ve got a cash cow like GSP just sitting there with a title around his waist, and you’re going to feed him to a human cement mixer like Askren (18-0), one who’s been off fighting for ONE in Southeast Asia these last few years, where he is effectively invisible to all but the hardest core of MMA fans? It’s madness.
That right there tells you something about this sport, doesn’t it? The reason Askren stands so little chance of getting a fight with GSP isn’t because he’s not good enough. Skill doesn’t even enter into the conversation. Style certainly does, but that’s not the same as skill, and it’s skill that most sports purport to measure with their competitions.
As you probably already know, MMA is not most sports. It doesn’t function the same, doesn’t follow any of the usual rules. You could conceivably be the best, and it could simply not matter. The career arc of Askren is proof of that.
Remember when he exited Bellator as the undefeated champion back in 2013? Then, as now, no one could say they’d seen the ceiling for Askren, because no one could say they’d seen him beaten. It’s the simplest calculus there is. As long as you’re still undefeated, hey, for all we know you might be the best. That is, at least in theory, why we keep giving you tougher competition as you progress, in order to find out if there’s anyone who can beat you.
Askren didn’t get the chance, because the UFC refused to sign him. It wanted him to get some more experience, preferably in the organization now known as PFL, which at the time was WSOF. Nevermind that he was a highly decorated amateur wrestler who was unbeaten in 12 pro MMA fights. (Side note: Of the 24 fighters to compete at UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai this past weekend, 10 of them had 12 pro bouts or fewer when they showed up.)
So Askren took his talents across the globe and spent the next four years beating people you never heard of at events you probably didn’t watch. Some of that was Askren being stubbornly independent, but some of it was necessity.
Having done more than what is typically required to get a shot in the UFC, and having finagled his release from the UFC’s main competitor, he was denied the chance he had clearly earned. And, vague promises about WSOF aside, there was nothing he could do that would guarantee an opportunity to compete in the UFC. So he followed the money elsewhere, which was an entirely reasonable decision.
Now here we are, nearing the end of 2017. At 33, Askren is still undefeated and without a ton of miles on his body’s odometer, and he’s willing to reconsider retirement for a shot at GSP. Of course he is. And the UFC likely won’t even consider it, because of course it won’t.
This isn’t that kind of sport, where being really good is good enough. It never really has been. It’s just that we forget sometimes, either because we want to or because we get tricked by talk of rankings and wins and the earning of title shots, those little things promoters feed us to make us believe that the game is driven by sense and not just dollars.
Every once in a while, we need to be reminded how it really works – and how it doesn’t. For the last few years, Askren’s been a walking, talking reminder that, while MMA takes place as a series of athletic competitions, it’s still not exactly a sport.
Now he’s leaving, or so he says. Let the circumstances of his withdrawal be one last reminder. Unless …view original article >>