When Georges St-Pierre hung up his gloves to start living the sweet life, then-Bellator champion Ben Askren suddenly became, quite possibly, the best welterweight fighter in mixed martial arts. At the very least, he's in the top 10.
Askren is the Wolverine of MMA—he's the best there is at what he does, and what he does ain't pretty. In fact, what he does is pretty boring, many would say. He takes down opponents, pushes them up against the cage, and contorts them to set up measured, methodical punches.
It's the small ball of combat sports. Flashy? No, but style points don't appear on the scoreboards, and they certainly don't appear on the win-loss record.
They do, however, appear on promotions' balance sheets, and when Askren was adversely impacting Bellator's ratings after their much-hyped move to Spike TV, they were nothing but happy to set him free. That, seemingly, left no barriers between him and a potentially excellent run in the UFC.
The news Bellator had fully released him came in November 2013, just days before the UFC welterweight title bout between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks. The talk of Askren getting released, though, was largely overshadowed by a looming question: Was this St-Pierre's final fight?
As we all know, St-Pierre would indeed step away from the sport following his fight with Hendricks and, by doing so, fired the starting gun to a race for the belt. Again, Askren is one of the best welterweights in MMA. A race toward the belt is a race he most certainly could have won.
That, unfortunately, is exactly why the UFC sent him packing.
Three Strikes, He's Out
While the UFC pitches itself with the tagline "as real as it gets," the reality is they want to keep it real while still keeping fights at striking range as often as possible. Keep in mind, this is the promotion that released Yushin Okami for doing too much of that "push-against-the-cage s--t," as White put it.
Askren is an unrepentant wrestler. Speaking with Bleacher Report last year, he flatly said, "I'm a wrestler, I'm the best wrestler in MMA. Wrestling is, was and always has been the most dominant mixed martial art on the planet. That's all there is to it."
Bold words, but ones that have kept him from gelling with fans.
Thus far, Askren has exclusively won through his wrestling, taking down random Bellator welterweights, holding them down and scoring points through top control and ground and pound. The fact that he has been so dominant with just one aspect of his game is undeniably impressive.
But as said, a sizable portion of fans don't want to see somebody cruise to a win by out-wrestling some anonymous mid-tier welterweight. They just want to see two men bleed.
Making matters worse, he demonstrated an unwillingness to go along with the UFC's carefully-scripted message on PED use in MMA.
The UFC firmly plants responsibility for drug testing on athletic commissions. While there's no denying they could do more to stifle steroid use, the discussion instantly prompts a pass of the buck and a ruthless attack on the character of the accuser.
There are few no-nos on par with pointing out the unfortunate truth that the UFC lets PED use slide because there is no financial incentive not to, and nobody, not even St-Pierre, is allowed to discuss the subject.
The cherry on top? The UFC is, rightly, reluctant to legitimize Bellator as a home to elite-level mixed martial artists. The UFC treats Bellator as a second-rate organization at this time. However, if a fighter like Askren, a talent honed by the so-called "Toughest Tournament in Sports," rose to the top of the UFC, that idea would be turned on its head.
While the UFC has welcomed in many former Bellator fighters in recent years, few are as instantly associated with the promotion as Askren. Not many fans saw or remember Hector Lombard as Bellator middleweight champion or remember Zach Makovsky's ugly exit from the promotion. Askren, though, rose to prominence with Bellator, and headlined some of its early cards on Spike TV.
All that adds up to the point in which even casual fans have to ask: Why would the UFC even want Askren?
What Could Have Been
So let's say the UFC signed Askren back in December.
St-Pierre had just announced his hiatus, but the welterweight division was downright overflowing with top-tier talent. Hendricks and Robbie Lawler were matched to face off for the belt not long after, and a slew of critical bouts were announced around that time.
Rory MacDonald, a fighter he had been sniping for a long while, was already booked to face Demian Maia, but other options were plentiful. In all likelihood, he would have been booked opposite either Jake Shields or Hector Lombard. In all likelihood, he would have beaten either of them.
From there, he would only be a fight or so away from being the logical top contender. Not coincidentally, things would have been perfectly aligned for an Askren vs. MacDonald grudge match with a title shot on the line.
Askren's stand-up is almost certainly not as refined as MacDonald's, so the fight would ultimately come down to Askren's takedowns against MacDonald's takedown defense and stifling striking. Picking the winner would be quite difficult at this point, but there's no question that he is two takedowns away from beating any welterweight in a three-round fight.
From there, the only thing standing in the way of Askren becoming the first Bellator and UFC champion would be a match with Hendricks this fall.
What Does the Future Hold?
Askren's mouth may have undermined his UFC hopes previously, but now he happens to be using his gift of gab in the same way Chael Sonnen did: ruthless smack talk of potential opponents.
Askren has been jabbing at Kyle Dake for months, adding intrigue to a potential wrestling showdown in Agon WC:
Not only that, but he got in a preemptive war of words with UFC vet Phil Baroni shortly after signing with One FC.
While Askren's style may not be every fan's cup of tea, Sonnen has shown that fans always love a grudge match, even if it is likely to end in a decision. That, however, may not even be the biggest game-changer for Askren.
One FC has a pride-style rulebook, allowing for knees to the head of downed opponents. For a wrestler of Askren's caliber, that opens up opportunities for truly scary knockouts. Just re-watch Askren's crushing victory over Andrey Koreshkov and think about how quickly that fight could have ended if he was allowed to go full-blown Mark Coleman vs. Igor Vovchanchyn.
That opens the door for Askren to shed his "boring" label and quickly become one of the scariest figures in MMA.
Unfortunately, he is locked up with One FC for two years, or six fights. Because One FC has a truly thin crop of talent above lightweight and no recognizable names, every fight for Askren is a risky one. Still, the opportunity is there for Askren to build his brand.
The fact that he has to do that before being brought into the UFC, though, is more than a little bit sad.