Ben Askren has a simple secret to his MMA success as One Championship comes to Shanghai – ‘I just don’t get hit’
Former Olympic wrestler is 16-0 since taking up sport in 2009
Former Olympic wrestler Ben “Funky” Askren has developed into arguably the most complete mixed martial arts fighter on the planet and the secret to his success inside the cage is simple.
“I just don’t get hit,” says the American.
The 33-year-old puts his One Championship world welterweight title on the line at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Centre on Saturday night against unheralded Swede Zebaztian “The Bandit” Kadestam (9-3) and Askren has no doubt the result will be the same as it has so far been the 16 times he has stepped inside the cage since turning to the sport in 2009.
“Oh, I’ll win,” says Askren. “And then I’ll look for another fight as soon as possible. This is what I do for a living. I’m only young for so long and I haven’t been that active in previous years so I just need to fight as much as possible.”
Askren has carved himself a unique niche in MMA, a modern-day version of a prize fighter hunting down purses and opponents wherever they might be. It’s taken him from the Bellator organisation in North America to Asia’s largest show in the One Championship and what’s been remarkable on his travels is the gap between Askren and whomever MMA has thrown at him.
Last time out – in Singapore back in May – it took Askren two minutes 20 seconds of the first round to dismantle rising Malaysian star Agilan Thani, who was no match for the American’s skillset inside the cage, nor the mind games he is wont to play outside it, and suffered his first loss, falling to 7-1.
Askren – who wrestled at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and was a two-time All American during his college days – says the sport is all about playing to your strengths. In the earlier days of his career, that meant lots of grappling from him, which led to criticism in some quarters that his bouts lacked the fireworks that bring fans through the gates.
The bout against Thani was proof that times – and the fighter – have changed.
“As a fighter after a while you realise you can’t control what goes on outside the cage all the time, all the politics and the contracts,” he says. “The one thing you can do is when you get in the cage you can win. Every single time. People like to say ‘Oh you have to have a flashy style.’
“And that is a reason why maybe I am not more popular. But GSP [Georges St-Pierre] had like nine decisions in a row and he was the most popular fighter of all time. So that’s just not true. You do what you need to do to win.
“As my career has progressed I’ve had a lot of first-round finishes [four since 2014] because I’ve figured out how to fight, the other parts of the sport other than wrestling.
“Obviously wrestling is still my base but I’ve learned more and I do the same in the end. Every time I step into the cage, I win. Every single time.”
Word from the Kadestam camp is that the Swede has been both down to the Bali MMA Club and back home to Stockholm to work on his own grappling game in order to combat Askren’s strengths – but throughout the American’s career a common mistake made by his opponents seems to have been that fixation with what the American might do, should he get them to the mat.
“No matter,” says Askren. “I approach every fight in the same way. It’s like when you find your groove in life. You are able to identify what goes really well for yourself. In wrestling I’d had thousands of matches. I’d identified how I could compete very well. Now it’s just crossed over into mixed martial arts. I’ve got my performance and my peaking down to a fine art.”
Saturday night’s 10-fight card is the One’s first in Shanghai and comes heavy with local fighters – there are eight Chinese involved as the Singapore-based organisation looks to spread its reach across the mainland. But Askren is the undisputed star of the show – even though most on the streets out here in Asia might pass the Milwaukee-based fighter without a glance. It’s just the way Askren likes it, too.
“I’m enjoying the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’m winning, I have my title, and I can live life the way I want to.”