There was a time in this sport that saw jiu-jitsu dominate the landscape. When the masses saw the undeniably effective nature of submission grappling, the wise instantly began to implement it into their repertoire.
As is the nature of MMA evolution came knocking. Turns out that to beat jiu-jitsu, a strong wrestling game became a great answer. Today, jiu-jitsu doesn't rule the mats, as wrestling has become the base that builds champions.
Just like many years ago when jiu-jitsu-based fighters were many but the Gracies were few, today, wrestlers are a dime a dozen but the Cain Velasquez-quality wrestlers are rare.
An Olympic-quality wrestler, for example, is the rarest of elements on the wrestling radar. Dan Henderson and Randy Couture are of that level of quality. There is another newcomer to this sport with less than two years experience as a mixed martial artist who brought a wrestling pedigree with him that speaks for itself.
MMA welterweight Ben Askren is a former Olympic competitor and the current Bellator WW champion. He has used his background to force his way to the top of the Bellator Season Three WW tournament and he won it with relative ease.
After decimating the field, Askren is now primed and ready to make his first title defense at the conclusion of the current Bellator season. But first, he has a non-title fight with Nick Thompson in April.
The champ took some time out of his schedule to speak with The Truth Hurts radio show at Hurtsbad MMA. He shared his insight on everything from the current WW tournament field to disc golf.
Askren trains out of The Den in Scottsdale AZ and first talked about his camp and what it is like.
“It's really good. I really like the coaching, it's the main thing I like about the gym. There is great coaching in all aspects of the sport and it's really nice.”
The Champ went on to explain, “When I moved here I didn’t have any hands at all, I had never thrown a punch really. My boxing coach really taught me how to box, and there are great Muay Thai coaches, and have been some great jiu-jitsu coaches. So everything is going really well.”
It has been almost six months since Askren set foot in the cage to compete and when asked if that was a detriment he had this to say:
“No not at all. It isn’t good or bad, I’m kind of indifferent about it. Would I like to fight more? Yes. Does it bother me that I haven’t fought more? No. Ideally I would fight every couple months. I can keep that kind of pace up because I have been used to wrestling my whole life.”
Competition is not the only motivating factor for Askren. “And hell, every time you fight you get paid and I don’t mind getting paid. When I started Bellator and I fought every month I didn’t mind that at all, and it was nice to get a paycheck every month.”
Even still, the time off was a chance for the Champ to work on other interests in his life and he has made the most of it even spending some time playing disc golf, which is quite a contrast to fighting. He explained the appeal.
“I just really love being outside and having something else to do besides wrestling, or jiu-jitsu, or boxing. Something that's not too competitive, it's relaxing, and I can go enjoy myself. It's free so I can go whenever I want. So there's a lot of positives about it. On top of that, you can play anywhere in the country. I travel a lot too.”
Even when he is not fighting, the Champ spends time critiquing the sport and has some insightful ideas as to how it can be improved. He sees a few question marks that could use productive answers. The first of which might surprise some fight fans.
“The takedown is my biggest thing. I should be on the opposite side of the argument because obviously I can take down anyone I want to take down. So it's positive to me for it to be worth a lot of value.”
He pulled no punches explaining his position. “But this bullshit of guys taking people down at the end of the round, not getting any punches off, and thinking that is going to win a round, what did that do to further you towards winning the fight?”
“When we talk about winning a fight, it's all about beating your opponent up or softening them with body blows or leg kicks—essentially just progressing yourself towards ending the fight which means a submission or knockout.”
Askren told Hurtsbad MMA, “If you take a guy down and don't hit him at all, it doesn't hurt him at all by any means. The takedown is valuable because when you take a man down if you hit him from on top it's going to hurt him. If he hits you from his back it probably won't hurt that much.”
“That is why it's a valuable asset. The takedown itself isn't valuable; the fact that you’re on top and can do damage with your punches, that's what is valuable. So takedowns at the end of a round do nothing and should be worth zero.”
Always a student of the game, Askren has stepped up his striking pursuit and seen intricacies that he feels could be improved upon with regard to judging striking exchanges as well. He shared his perspective citing a couple specific examples.
“In the Sanchez Kampmann fight when people look at the stats, maybe it looks like Diego was doing a lot but he really wasn't landing any of his punches and Kampmann was landing a lot.”
Askren explained, “Since I've started sparring a lot more, there will be a lot of times where even the guys in the gym who are standing 10 feet away will think a punch hit me when it hit my glove or shoulder, or didn't hit at all.”
“I can throw a punch and it didn’t even hit and they will tell me 'good hit' when I know it wasn't a good hit—I didn’t hit him. So maybe, a lot of times, where the judge is sitting beside the cage it might actually be difficult for them to see who is landing the punches in a battle that is close.”
The Champ gave an interesting example to add to his theory.
“I wanted to bring up Leonard Garcia. I think he is 4-3 in his last seven fights. If you look at the compu-strike he should be 0-7. He goes out there and just wings punches all over the place and moves forward. But when you look at the numbers he barely lands anything. He is 4-3 because it looks like he is hitting them but he's really not. So they need to find a new way for that to be evaluated.”
Even though he has ideas on how to improve things, he is mostly focused on his upcoming bout with Nick Thompson. While his title is not on the line, Askren is looking forward to showcasing the improvements he has made since his last public appearance to win the Bellator title.
“I feel good. Training is going really well. I'm learning a lot of new tricks on my feet. That's mainly what I've been focusing on because my ground game is pretty solid. My wrestling is good because that is my background. My jiu-jitsu is pretty solid but still getting better.”
But there is one place he desires to improve drastically.
“I've just been working tons of hands, kicks, knees and elbows, just everything on the feet. I've been doing quite a bit of sparring. When I spar I do MMA sparring but I don’t actually go for the takedown at all. I just really want to work from the feet and doing damage there and really being able to protect myself. Eventually down the road I want to be a good stand-up fighter as well as a good ground guy.”
He later went on to say, “I know I have to get better. I have been working on my stand-up five, six days a week for four months. So I think I've made a lot of improvement.”
When his bout with Thompson passes—win, lose or draw—Askren will go on to defend his title against the winner of this season's tournament. With so much talent littering the field, one has to wonder if a champion like Askren has his eye on anyone in particular.
He says no. “I don’t really have a preference who I fight. All these dudes have been talking shit since before the tournament started. I think the funniest thing is that all eight of them are talking shit, and hell they have to beat each other up before they get to me. I've only got to fight one of them, that's what they don’t realize. I don’t have to fight all eight of them, I only have to beat up one of them. That's all there is to it.”
That is a pretty sound outlook from a grounded and down-to-earth fighter who emits a calm, cool and collected demeanor. For a man who spends his days training relentlessly to destroy other men, Ben Askren is extremely laid-back and easy going.
It was quite an honor for the staff at Hurtsbad MMA to have earned a moment of his time. Between his training, disc golf and coaching wrestling at Arizona State University, his time is at a premium and to gain his insight was invaluable.
To hear this interview in its entirety visit Hurtsbad Radio at Hurtsbad MMA where this article was originally featured.