LAS VEGAS—Ben Askren, once and perhaps future free-agent welterweight, sits near a waterfall in the massive Venetian casino.
He is here, in the sin capital of the world, for the World Mixed Martial Arts Awards, a sort of Academy Awards for the face-punching set that takes place Friday night at the Venetian Theater. For now, he is making the most of his time in Nevada by making the media rounds to promote his debut for the Singapore-based promotion One FC. He has done several radio appearances this morning already, and he will do several more this afternoon.
But for now, he is talking to me, and he is talking about being a heel.
A heel, in professional wrestling parlance, is a bad guy. He irks you. If he is good at his job, you will pay money to see someone else beat the stuffing out of him, repeatedly, as he dances all the way to the bank.
Askren, perhaps the greatest (real) wrestler to ever make the move to mixed martial arts, spends most of his waking hours trying to be the best heel he can possibly be. This is his life's work, and he is getting better by the day.
"When I go to do interviews, I think about how I can piss people off that day," Askren says. "Or when I'm watching UFC and something happens, I think about what I can say on Twitter that will make people mad.
"It is definitely a conscious thing. I've played the heel, making people mad. I definitely try to think about what might piss people off. You think about 'if x happens, what will my post-match speech be? If you ask me this question, what I am I going to say?' It definitely comes out."
Like many fighters, Askren was a fan of professional wrestling as a kid. But two other fighters have also inspired him to rachet up the volume on his personality.
"I liked Ali a lot. He wasn't necessarily a heel, but he definitely had his share of detractors. And he wasn't scared to be vocal," Askren says. "Obviously I think the person that's the best at it is Chael [Sonnen]. I'll just watch him. He almost plans a lot of the things he's going to say. You can tell a lot of it is really rehearsed. But when he says it, you're like, damn. That's hilarious. "
I ask Askren if he ever goes in the cage and uses his wrestling just to rile fans up. The majority of the audience, after all, is made up of people influenced by the UFC's marketing pitch that grappling is generally boring and punching and knockouts are awesome. Askren is so dominant in wrestling that he could quite literally go in the cage, stifle his opponents and wait for the jeers to come. Wouldn't it be the perfect thing for a heel to add to his arsenal?
"No. It's just too dangerous," he says. "Okay, maybe when I had Koreshkov's back in the second round and I started chanting USA. Maybe then. But no, we wear four-ounce gloves. You can't be taking risks like that."
Askren's heel antics haven't led him to the UFC's global stage. He is one of the best welterweights in the world, and yet the UFC was not interested in signing him to a contract because of a grudge between Dana White and Bjorn Rebney. White and Rebney puffed their chests at each other in a silly alpha-male duel, and Askren ended up being the victim.
Official UFC Rankings
It's a strange thing, the notion that a man ranked in the top 10 can't get an opportunity with the promotion that claims to have the best fighters on the planet. But Askren wasted little time in moving on. He didn't need to fight; he is financially secure thanks to his wrestling academies, and so money would not be the driving force that kept him around.
Askren quickly signed a two-year, six-fight contract with One FC. Truth be told, he may never go to the UFC, even once this contract is up. He feels unhappy with the way he was used as a "pawn" in the one-sided war between the UFC and Bellator. He doesn't understand what happened, and you can be damn sure he doesn't like it.
"The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth," he says.
How would Askren fare in the UFC?
For now, Askren is figuring out how to revamp his heel act for the Asian market. His new bosses at One FC have given him the lowdown on what the population expects from their fighting heroes, and he figures he probably has some work ahead of him. Ben Askren, Wrestling Heel may not work as well in Singapore as it does in the United States.
"In America, they like the humble fighter. But I think that is even more the case in Asia. They like humble personalities," Askren says. "Playing the heel is an art. There's something to it most people don't get, and it takes a certain amount of effort. I'm not looking forward to putting that away, but I think I have to come up with a new schtick."
"You just don't want to be like Jon Jones and become a total two-face."