UFC: Passing on Ben Askren and the Creation of a People's Champion

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2013

LAS VEGAS - JUNE 15:  Ben Askren (blue) celebrates his win over Tyrone Lewis (red) in the Freestyle 74kg division championship match during the USA Olympic trials for wrestling and judo on June 15, 2008 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Neveda.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

It's been a rich week in the world of MMA.

There are fights this weekend. Lots of them.

The lead-up, however, has been as much about a UFC digital subscription network and Ronda Rousey charming Jimmy Kimmel (who knew she still had it in her?) as it has been about the return of Mark Hunt and the Down-Underrated card he's headlining in his homeland.

Oh, and Ben Askren. It's been about him, too.

You see, no one really wanted Askren.

Dana White sure didn't, and he told him as much.

His old Bellator boss Bjorn Rebney didn't either. That's how we got here.

World Series of Fighting had some interest, but White was so adamant that Askren sign there that he practically didn't out of spite.

That's when OneFC, Asia's top promotional dog, swooped in and tentatively signed the former Olympian and technically still Bellator welterweight champion. Apparently, Asian MMA is grossly more interested in competitive balance than it used to be.

In all of this—the circus surrounding Askren and the human hot potato he became in the time since his Bellator release—the main question has remained: How much of modern MMA is sport, and how much is entertainment?

No one has the answer.

If MMA is sport, Askren needs his place in the UFC. He's undefeated and would beat the vast majority of the 170-pound roster in the promotion. He is adept at putting opponents out of their comfort zone and into his, and as a result, he has won on a regular basis.

If MMA is entertainment, it's easy to understand why a 1-0 Brock Lesnar rode into the UFC on a speeding hype train, while Askren is a toxic commodity five years later. His style isn't for everyone, and even those who accept it can't argue that he's thrilling 100 percent of the time.

But in the midst of this fight to find a home and prove his relevance in the cage, Askren pulled an unexpected move: He proved his relevance without needing the cage. Actually, it could be argued that the move was pulled for him instead of him pulling it of his own volition.

The rumblings were alive all throughout the Askren free agency, but with the official pass by the UFC and its reasons, the rumblings became a full-blown quake. Even though his Twitter trolling and interview braggadocio have often been more awe-inspiring than his fights, people wanted him in the UFC.

The UFC is where the best fight the best, and he is perceived as one of the best. Boredom be damnedput him in the Octagon and let that fact be proved wrong if you think differently. Don't tell the world he's not worth your time and never give him the chance to prove otherwise.

At least, that was the sentiment of MMA media and a surprising portion of the fanbase.

It's all largely irrelevant now, as Askren is a OneFC property and is already talking up a fight with Phil Baronia veteran scalp he'll surely collect with alarming ease if the fight comes together. Look for him to possibly even earn the first of several knockouts on the ground thanks to the use of knees that is illegal in North America.

One thing is for sure, though: The sport of mixed martial arts has spoken. The community surrounding caged combat has made it clear that it's the responsibility of the top promotion in the game to sign the best fighters when they become available.

It's not about entertainment; it's about proving who's best.

Askren became the poster child for that movement in recent weeks. More people cared about his career than ever before, and it happened without him having to throw a punch. He became a proper people's champion because he was being overlooked and bullied, and the vast majority of people didn't like it.

No matter. He landed on his feet with a promotion that genuinely wants him, and the next time he's called a champion, he'll be getting another belt for his troubles.


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