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Winning the War of Words Is Key for Jorge Masvidal and Ben Askren at UFC 239

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 2, 2019

Ben Askren
Ben AskrenMike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Ben Askren's style is often likened to a blanket. He gets you on the ground, engulfs you with his wrestling and happily lulls everyone into slumber as the minutes tick by.

But there's a better comparison. Askren is no garden-variety bedspread; he's really more of an electric blanket. As down-tempo as his approach to fighting is, he still finds a way to be flamboyant.

Even when dominating no-name welterweights in MMA's B leagues, he still knew how to keep himself in the news, to evoke real emotion in fans and rivals, including UFC President Dana White. The smirking Midwesterner can get inside your head simply by telling you he's already there.

Hence, electric blanket. Askren's a little more complicated than your average blanket. There's an unnatural current of energy running through him. The blanket gets a little hotter, maybe a lot hotter, than its counterparts. And if you'll permit me a bit of humor, it can make you lose your cool.

Everyone keeps waiting for someone to flip the script on the inarguably great welterweight, who is 19-0 (1) as a pro. It would take someone with skill, incredible takedown defense, and the stones to finally throw cold water on the electric wrestling showman.

Enter Jorge Masvidal.

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As these two get ready for their pay-per-view tilt Saturday at UFC 239 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Masvidal is reaching deep into his bag of swag to match Askren on the psychological front. That's no small part of the equation with Askren. And Masvidal may have an edge where it really counts, too.

Following last year's historic "trade" that sent Askren to the UFC in exchange for flyweight kingpin Demetrious Johnson, he wasted no time planting his distinctive heel on the new landscape.

Facing the violent and revered, if fading, Robbie Lawler in his UFC debut, an early barrage had Askren looking dead to rights. But he found a way out with an assist from referee Herb Dean, avoiding a justifiable TKO stoppage then winning by submission following a questionable tap. Unperturbed, Askren metaphorically stepped over Lawler's body following the match, congratulating himself on another war well waged.

Fast forward to this week and the culmination of a furious period of psyops between Askren and Masvidal. In some ways, it's adhering perfectly to the Askren playbook, the electric blanket working Masvidal into a lather.

Askren's trash talk is quiet, efficient and infuriating. He knows how to make a fighter feel small. Fighters don't like that feeling. It might seem silly or even rote, but he has a knack for getting under peoples' skin—and he doesn't even need to raise his voice to do it.

Ben Askren @Benaskren

Jorge you just wish at some point in your life you had a belt to throw over your shoulder. https://t.co/B3Cp7nKKFR

I'm not going to go back and retrace the long and winding road of vocal enmity between these two. That would take a long time. But a few threads nicely illustrate the dynamic.

Before Masvidal defeated Darren Till a few months back, Askren focused his attention on Till as a potential opponent, obviously believing Till would win. But it's not like he adjusted when Masvidal won; he simply viewed Masvidal as an even easier win, noting he only had to "goad" Masvidal into taking a fight Askren clearly believes he'll win.

"I think it's pretty easy," Askren told MMA Fighting. "He's simple, right? He's got good hands but his wrestling's not great. His jiu-jitsu's not great. His strength is not great. His cardio's not great. So when you break it down like that, it becomes pretty simple."

Askren (left) and Dana White
Askren (left) and Dana WhiteCarmen Mandato/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

But Masvidal is a worthy foil. He made a name for himself winning brawls in the backyards of Miami, so he's a fish in trash-talk water. And his blood runs just a touch hot, and it hit the boiling point not long after the electric blanket wrapped around him.

Masdival told CBS Sports:

"I just want to f--k him up. I don't think anything of him. I'm going to make sure his bloodline doesn't reproduce or nothing after July 6. Extinction of the Askren blood by the Masvidal blood.

"...Every once in a while my manager shoots me an email that Ben said this, and half the time I don't even respond because it's a multitude of corny s--t. Ben is not my chick, so I'm not going to go back and forth with this guy. I'm not going to be texting with him. I have enough problems texting back and forth with my chick. Now I've got to text with a dude on social media? That's below my pay grade. They don't pay me enough in this f--king sport to mess around with this guy."

That's some good smack from both sides, though it's not hard to see why Askren believes he's "very far" under Masvidal's skin.

Monday, after Masvidal skipped yet another media event to kick off fight week, Askren repeated that and similar claims.

Jorge Masvidal
Jorge MasvidalJames Chance/Getty Images

But Askren may not realize he's playing with fire. Masvidal seems to thrive when he has plenty of external motivation—otherwise, he tends to coast for long stretches of a contest. Oh, and also, he's good. He's awfully good.  

For all his hot-bloodedness outside the cage, Masvidal's is a more calculated aggression once the cage door closes. He'll have a clear standup edge, and his wrestling and jiu-jitsu are not as deficient as Askren believes (or wants to believe). According to official stats, Masvidal defends 77 percent of his takedowns—rock solid, if not unassailable, particularly for an Olympic alternate wrestler in Askren. 

To draw another analogy, Askren is like a great fastball pitcher. You know what's coming, but you still can't hit it. If he can get you down, the next time you get up is probably when the horn sounds to end the round. Can Masvidal avoid that? Can he touch Askren's chin on the feet, where Askren is an unabashed sitting duck?

It's an open question and we'll see Saturday. But there's an interesting dynamic here, and it's embodied in the verbal altercations between these two fighters. There's a difference between confidence and complacence.

Askren's prefight routine is unfolding according to the usual plan, but this time he may be playing into the other man's hands. Is the electric blanket set for a short-out? Or does Askren take another step toward Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington and UFC gold?

          

Scott Harris covers MMA and other sports for Bleacher Report.

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