MMA Debate: Was Ben Askren's UFC Career a Colossal Disappointment?

Tom TaylorContributor INovember 19, 2019

Ben Askren celebrates after beating Robbie Lawler in a welterweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 235, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

There will be no more fistfights for Ben Askren. At least, as long as he's able to steer clear of Jorge Masvidal at Whole Foods.

The former ONE Championship and Bellator welterweight titleholder announced his retirement on Monday's edition of Ariel Helwani's MMA Show. Unlike his previous retirement, which ended when the UFC came knocking, this one seems likely to stick, as he added that he plans to undergo a hip replacement in the coming weeks.

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"I'm retired from the sport of mixed martial arts and frankly, I'm retired from everything." @Benaskren cites needing a hip replacement as a factor in his retirement (via @arielhelwani) https://t.co/OZLG2ZDTBj

One generally doesn't fight with an artificial hip squeaking around under their shorts. Certainly not comfortably.

"I'm retiring from the sport of mixed martial arts, and frankly I'm retiring from everything," Askren said. "... I've been having hip problems and I finally had the discussion with my doctor and I actually got the MRI before my last fight and I need a hip replacement.

"That's it for me. I've been thinking about this for a week and kind of what I was going to say. Really I've just been filled with gratitude for how great of a career I've been able to have even though, obviously, in the end it did not turn out to go my way."

Before Askren had even finished his interview with Helwani, fight fans were yanking the caps off their red pens, keen to grade his three-fight stint in the UFC.

But what grade does it really deserve?

That's surprisingly difficult to discern.

On the one hand, he went a tough 1-2 in his three UFC bouts, defeating Robbie Lawler with a controversial submission and losing to Masvidal and Demian Maia by knockout and submission, respectively. He certainly talked the talk before joining the UFC, but you can hardly argue that he walked the walk.

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - OCTOBER 26: (R-L) Ben Askren punches Demian Maia of Brazil in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Singapore Indoor Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Singapore. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

On the other hand, he generated as much fan interest as any other fighter on the UFC roster in 2019. It could even be argued that he helped orchestrate Masvidal's recent ascension into superstardom—even if it was just by talking a lot of trash and chowing down on a flying knee. He might not have been a winner, but he was a needle-mover.

So, was it all a colossal letdown? Or was it an unconventional success?

Kelsey McCarson: What else can a fighter really hope to achieve in a business as tough as the UFC than to compete in good fights against top-level competitors, provide fans with genuine entertainment and pull down some decent coin for doing it?

Askren's UFC career might not have gone as the fighter hoped it would, but it's not as if it damaged his overall legacy. Let's face it. What Askren was able to achieve over the course of his career is something most fighters can only dream about.

He traveled all over the world. He won a bunch of fights. He entertained tons of people.

And Askren went 19-2 (with one no-contest) doing that with two separate championship reigns in Bellator and ONE Championship that ended without him ever actually losing those belts in a fight. What's even more amazing to me is that he did all that with what I would respectfully call average athleticism and almost no stand-up striking game worth mentioning.

Entering the UFC at age 34 after being out of the sport for nearly 18 months was never going to be easy. But Askren talked as big a game as ever and backed it up by coming into yet another MMA promotion to make short work of former champion Robbie Lawler at UFC 235.

Even the subsequent losses can't really be called failures. Masvidal's fastest KO in UFC history against Askren at UFC 239 was just one of those things. Those two guys could fight 1,000 more times and that would never happen again.

And against Demian Maia in Singapore, Askren competed at an extremely high level in a fight most people considered a contest between the two best MMA grapplers in the world.

What did that loss do? Make him the second-best MMA grappler on the planet?

So sure, Askren's UFC's career wasn't the storybook ending he probably envisioned when he entered the company last year, but it was never going to be that for a fighter his age coming into such a tough situation.

More importantly, Askren had to know all that going into things, but he came to the UFC anyway. That's something I'd call a tremendous success or, to riff off how Tom phrased it, unconventional awesomeness.

Lyle Fitzsimmons: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

As for the ones who can't do or teach...well, we write about all those other folks.

So, of course, before anyone gets riled up and says it—it goes without saying that Askren's MMA resume exceeds anything we keyboard warriors would do if presented the same opportunities.

John Locher/Associated Press

He wore a champion's belt in two promotions and parlayed those baubles into a spot among the sport's gold-standard competitors. That's a successful run no matter who's doing the hair-splitting.

But that's not exactly the point we're debating here.

While 19 wins in 22 fights across a 10-year career is certainly worthy of high-end acclaim, the flood of success that buoyed the chatty Iowan before his "trade" dried to a trickle once he reached the Octagon.

Seemingly within seconds of his UFC arrival in 2018, Askren was already calling out the likes of stalwarts Khabib Nurmagomedov and Georges St-Pierre while all but dismissing imminent opponent Lawler and labeling Colby Covington—then an interim champion among the welterweights—"despicable."

Eric Jamison/Associated Press

Though some surely branded it as routine trash talk, it reeked of a brazenness not yet earned.

Beat someone convincingly? Mouth off all you want.

But until then, please don't tell us you're the be-all and end-all...we'll tell you.

As it turned out, the defeat of Lawler was something far less than a tour de force—given what many considered an iffy stoppage—and the follow-up erasure by a 13-loss foe simultaneously exposed a flaw of predictability in Askren's style and made him a YouTube laughingstock of viral proportions.

So while the career-ending Maia loss itself is no crime—given the Brazilian's obvious grappling street cred—its place amid a pattern of over-promising and under-delivering can't be entirely dismissed either.

With all due respect to my man Kelsey, let's forget unconventionally awesome.

As far as the UFC portion of Askren's career is concerned—to these eyes anyway—it was far closer to obnoxiously mediocre.

Tom Taylor: The pragmatist in me agrees with Lyle.

There are many, many paths to success for a fighter but there's really no substitute for victory, and that ingredient has been conspicuously lacking from Askren's spice rack during his time with the UFC.

As I attempt to appraise his time with the promotion, though, I keep coming back to one question: What would this year have been like if the ostensibly retired ONE champ had never heaved himself out of his recliner, slipped into some flip-flops and a pair of UFC gloves, and stepped into the Octagon to take on the world's best welterweights?

It seems to me that, sans Askren, this year would have been much less interesting. Much less fun.

We wouldn't have heard nearly as much of Askren's entertaining trash talk, which has zapped everybody from Masvidal to Covington to Conor McGregor.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 06:  Jorge Masvidal finishes Ben Askren in their welterweight fight during the UFC 239 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We never would have seen his ridiculous fight with Lawler, which not only featured Lawler going absolutely berserk—always a treat to watch—but also one of the most haphazard "how did that even happen?" comebacks in UFC history.

Without Askren, we probably wouldn't have seen Masvidal shatter the record for the fastest knockout in UFC history, and without that star-making knockout, we likely wouldn't have gotten Masvidal's recent BMF title fight with Nate Diaz. That means no unprecedented special-edition UFC belt, no guest appearance from The Rock—none of it.

I mean, just think about the domino effect this guy's move to the UFC has had. Some of the year's best moments are a direct result of his being around.

For that reason, I've got to side with my guy Kelsey on this one.

How can we possibly call something as fun as Askren's UFC stint a disappointment?