LAS VEGAS – By his own admission, Ben Askren had no clue how to strike when he made his mixed martial arts debut in 2009. It didn't take long for the 2008 American Olympic wrestler to develop a reputation as a boring fighter.
But Askren may have found the spot that will quell those complaints. The former Bellator welterweight champion signed with Singapore-based One FC in December, and will make his debut for the promotion in May.
He'll fight in Singapore for the One FC welterweight title sometime in May – likely May 30 – against the winner of the March 14 title fight in Malaysia between Brock Larson and Nobutatsu Suzuki.
One FC uses the old Pride rules, which permit soccer kicks and knees to the head of a downed opponent, techniques that are banned by the unified rules that are used by the UFC.
A great collegiate wrestler, Askren is all but foaming at the mouth to have the knees available to him. He'll go on at length to dispute the contention that his last two fights, finishes in Bellator title matches over Karl Amossou and Andrey Koreshkov, were boring, but he understands that given his wrestling-heavy style, allowing knees on the ground is a godsend for him.
"I'm excited about the new rules," Askren said. "I torture a lot of the guys in my gym. I'll hold them down and fake like I'm throwing a knee to the head and I'll say to them, 'If we're in Asia, you're screwed right now.' The knees on the ground are going to work beautifully in my style. I've played around with it in the gym and I see at least five or six different ways I can successfully implement that technique, especially."
Askren became a free agent after his win over Koreshkov on July 31, though Bellator had the right to match any offer he received for a year. Askren owns and operates two wrestling camps and has his hand in several other businesses and said he could have afforded to sit out the full year to become a total free agent.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney played a game with UFC president Dana White, telling White he'd release Askren free and clear as long as White guaranteed Askren a title shot against then-UFC champion Georges St-Pierre. White scoffed at the offer and insisted he had no interest in Askren.
The sides did have talks, but couldn't reach a deal. Askren spoke with the World Series of Fighting, but opted for the deal with One FC even though he said the offers were very comparable financially.
But Asia's economy is booming and One FC is already available in nearly 1 billion television homes in the region.
He'll fight for the Singapore-based Evolve MMA fight team, but will still train primarily at Roufusport in Milwaukee, Wis.
His striking, he said, is exceptionally better after having worked several years with Roufus, one of the top striking coaches in the world.
His ability to repeatedly take down, and hold down, his opponents has lessened the danger he faces, so it's tactically a wise technique. But his wrestling has hidden his development as a striker, he said.
"Obviously no one ever sees it, but I think my standup is pretty good, actually," Askren said. "A lot of the guys in our gym who are considered good strikers, they would attest to that if you asked them that same question. Obviously, my comfort level on my feet now is through the roof. I know it is very unlikely that anyone is going to stop me from taking them down, but if in fact that does happen, I'm comfortable on my feet. I train with literally some of the best strikers in MMA on a daily basis in the gym, so it's had a huge impact."
When he turned pro, he said, his gym didn't even have a striking coach. He'd learned some jiu-jitsu, and had his wrestling, but he knew nothing about striking.
He was successful largely because of his wrestling, and just 20 months after he turned pro, he defeated Lyman Good to win the Bellator welterweight crown.
"I went to a very high level very quickly and that left me with a lot of tools I didn't have in my arsenal to do what I needed to do," he said. "I was fighting for a Bellator title within two years of starting my pro career and I had a real striking coach for four months."
He'll get his chance to show his improving striking – perhaps – in May when he takes on the Larsen-Suzuki winner.
He said though the knees will give him another valuable weapon, those who are looking for him to get a comeuppance will be disappointed. He is 12-0 and plans to keep that winning streak alive.
"I'm the best damn welterweight in the world, and that's a fact the fans are going to have to deal with," he said. "I'm going to keep winning every fight that is put in front of me, and as a fighter, that's all you can do. You can't go make up match-ups. I can't go, 'Hey GSP, let's go fight in the parking lot of the Hard Rock.' Well, I could, but we'd go to jail and we'd make no money. As a fighter, I can only win the fights that are in front of me.
"I've only had one that was even remotely close. That was the only fight I've lost a round in. I think I've won every other round in my entire career. Not only that, I've trained with a lot of the guys who are in the Top 10 and I know where my skill level is. I'm very comfortable with that."
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