While it's easy to say that all MMA fans are the beer-drinking "just bleed" neanderthals they're often alleged to be, they do have an eye for talent. If a fighter is perceived to be an elite-level athlete, they want to see him. Sure, many have called Askren, a former Olympian and quite possibly the single best "MMA wrestler" in the sport, boring or one-dimensional. But fans want to see the world's best all under one umbrella, and only people still preaching that WEC fighters won't hold up in the UFC don't believe Askren meets that criteria.
Still, the UFC passed on him. The exact reason remains unclear, but the possible explanations range from being a drag on Bellator's ratings its their move to Spike TV from MTV2 because of his wrestling-focused style, his unwillingness to go along with the UFC's carefully scripted message on drug testing and the fact that he was a Bellator fighter who could have legitimized the promotion in short order by becoming the UFC welterweight champion.
Few could have predicted what has happened since, however, with all three of those points becoming (more or less) moot.
While Askren became notorious for his decision-filled run to the top of Bellator, he has finished each of his last four fights. Both of his fights in One FC have ended in the first round. While PED use in MMA and the UFC's willingness to remain part of an overly permissive status quo remains a serious problem, the Vitor Belfort vs. Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva saga shows that things really are getting better. Finally, the relationship between the UFC and Bellator isn't as frosty as it once was, with Scott Coker taking the promotion's helm and former Bellator champions like Zach Makovsky, Hector Lombard, Joe Soto and Eddie Alvarez all likely to be in the UFC's rankings by September's end.
Out of the cage, however, is where the biggest change has occurred for Ben Askren. Over the last few months, Funky has become the greatest antihero in MMA today. He is a unique blend of Chael Sonnen and Nick Diaz: a surly, uncaring rogue who can cut a masterful promo. The fact that his brand has actually grown stronger while fighting out of sight from most American fans attests to that fact is nothing short of remarkable.
Fans have either come to love him or love to hate him. For the personality-starved UFC, that on its own makes him a must-have commodity. It's his long-term promotional value, however, that makes him not just somebody to pursue but somebody to give a dump truck full of cash to.
One of the most important news stories of 2014 is how One FC signed a blockbuster deal with AMC Live Group, a media organization in China with a reach of 1 billion viewers, which will see the organization put on 10 televised events per year in mainland China. The stakes here are obvious. The UFC has struggled to get a strong foothold in the world's most populous country, and with One FC poised to possibly upend them, now would be the best time to scoop up a competitor's best fighter.
To Askren's credit and the UFC's dismay, Askren isn't genuflecting and kissing the proverbial ring for the chance.
While many fighters are reverent regarding the UFC and its leadership, Askren is still calling 'em like he sees 'em. He made the most of an opportunity on The MMA Hour. Speaking with Ariel Helwani, he ripped the UFC on a variety of topics, ranging from the dwindling quality of UFC fighters, Dana White's epic turn on Renan Barao and the UFC's policy on drug testing. Most notably, however, he said that he would be content in his MMA career without ever joining the UFC.
That puts the UFC in a bit of an awkward position, but that's ultimately irrelevant. The UFC needs Ben Askren, and they're only hurting themselves by not begging him to enter the Octagon.
So Dana, get on the phone and make things right with the funky one! Do it for the fans, do it for your fighters, and above all, do it for yourself.
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