Ben Askren is the Bellator welterweight champion. By just about any measure, he's been the most dominant fighter in the short history of the company.
Granted, much of the dominance has come at the expense of viewer entertainment. Askren has pushed his mixed martial arts record to 12-0 solely on the strength of his world-class wrestling. Oftentimes the term "world class" is thrown about by announcers with abandon; in nearly every case, it's not actually true.
With Askren, it's different. His wrestling is world class, tested on the highest levels available in that sport.
In the cage, he's a throwback to a different era. As we inch ever closer to the UFC's 20th anniversary card in November, it's fitting that one of the most talked about free agents currently on the market specializes in one skill in the same way many of the early UFC tournament entrants did.
He's absolutely brilliant at wrestling and nullifying just about anything his opponent might want to do by stifling and smothering them with his top control. When you're that good at something, and when it's been proven thus far that nobody has an answer for that one thing you do better than anyone else, well, it makes sense to rely on it. I'd love to see Askren evolve into a complete mixed martial artist, but thus far he hasn't faced a single opponent who can force him to do so.
Put simply, he just wins, even if it makes your eyeballs bleed watching him do so. As former UCLA Bruin "Red" Sanders famously told his team (if not quite as famously as the time Vince Lombardi used it): Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.
You'd think Askren would be a perfect fit for Bellator and its "we are a real sport" marketing angle. He's an incredible athlete, and he repeatedly wins sporting competitions. If Bellator were truly focused on sports above everything else (and not pay-per-view buys), it never would have allowed Askren's contract to expire after his last defense of its welterweight title. It would've offered him a sizable bonus and a growing contract to stay under its umbrella.
But it didn't. Instead, it's letting him go out and get an offer from the UFC, likely hoping its competitors (and I say that in the loosest sense of the word) will offer Askren a contract that is high enough so as to claim it's out of its price range.
Here's what Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney told Inside MMA last week:
I've been a staunch supporter of Ben Askren. We can all agree: He's ridiculously one-dimensional. But the issue with that one dimension is that he's better at it than anyone on the face of the earth. He's been dominant inside of our cage. He's the best wrestler in MMA that we have in this sport. So look, if you don't like wrestling and you don't like what Ben does, then stop it. That's why they call it a fight. Ben famously said up in Canada, 'If you want to see two guys stand in the middle of the cage and hit each other in the face, there's a sport called boxing.' He's executed beautifully.
Well, if that's not a backhanded compliment, then I don't know what is.
Let me translate Rebney's response: Ben Askren is boring because he does one thing and one thing only.
This self-created notion that Bellator is a different organization from the UFC because of its values on traditional sports is a silly one. Perhaps it was true a year ago, but that's no longer the case. Rebney's mantra was once that he wouldn't sign UFC castoffs, preferring instead to build his own superstars.
Now? He'll sign just about anyone the UFC cuts from its roster, especially if said fighter is a heavyweight. And it doesn't matter if they're coming off a drug test failure earlier this year either. If they've got some kind of name value, they're likely going to get an offer from Bellator.
And that's fine, of course. The name of the fight game is promotion, and the idea that Bellator could thrive or even survive by focusing solely on the athletic side of the coin was a misplaced one.
But when you are seemingly willing to let one of the best fighters on your entire roster walk to the biggest promotion in the world because he's "one dimensional," well, you can't very well pretend that you're putting the integrity of your sport above all else.