With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, a number of the biggest names in amateur wrestling, including gold medalists Rulon Gardner (2000) and Cael Sanderson (2004), are considering making one final run at glory.
Bellator featherweight title holder Joe Warren, a world wrestling champion in 2006, is in training to make the U.S. team. And even though few take him seriously, 1996 gold medalist Kurt Angle also talks about it.
But Bellator’s welterweight champion, Ben Askren, one of the best collegiate wrestlers of this generation, is not interested in throwing his hat back into that ring. Unlike the others, who will range in age from 33 for Sanderson, 35 for Warren, and 41 and 43 for Gardner and Angle when the Olympics roll around, Askren is still in his prime.
He’s 27 and has never taken a break from competition, walking right from the 2008 Olympics, where he didn’t place, into mixed martial arts, where he’s gone 8-0.
"I still have an attachment to wrestling, but I have no interest in coming back," he said. "I want to be a mixed martial artist and that’s what I’m going to do. Mixed martial arts is how I make my living now. It’s too hard to compete at a high level in both things. You can be mediocre at both things, and I want to be the best at one thing."
Although Warren is talking about walking back in and winning a gold medal, Askren doesn’t see it as a possibility.
"I don’t think Joe’s being 100 percent realistic," he said. "It’s way different. They are two totally different worlds. Wrestling is a big part of mixed martial arts, but they are worlds away. There aren’t enough hours in the day to train for both. If you’re a wrestler and want to be on the Olympic team, you have to spend three or four hours a day just wrestling. You wouldn’t have any time to train jiu-jitsu or striking. If I did that, I’d be a mediocre fighter and I’d never get better."
Askren has relied primarily on his wrestling for offense and jiu-jitsu for submission awareness to become Bellator’s champion. He takes a step up in competition Oct. 29 at Kansas City’s Memorial Hall when he makes his first title defense against Jay Hieron (22-4), himself a former Division I wrestler at Hofstra.
Askren has said this fight will be unique in that Hieron will be the first person he’s fought that he really doesn’t like. Hieron drew first blood in the verbal wars after earning a title shot by winning a three-month long tournament that ended May 7, and immediately, in reference to Askren, said, "If I wanted someone to lay on me, I’d call up my girlfriend."
Said Askren: "I’d say it’s a step up [in competition], but not a huge one. I don’t like Jay Hieron. It’s the first person I’ve fought that I don’t like and that gives me extra incentive. It’s his attitude. The last few fights that he won by decision he showed a strong sense of entitlement and I didn’t really like that.
"Wrestling is one of his strengths, but it’ll be null and void against me. He has no chance against my wrestling. He actually thinks he does, which is good for me for him to have those delusions in his head. He’s got decent boxing, but I don’t see him proving a lot of difficulties for me."
Hieron has won four of his last five fights via decision, winning a split decision over former U.S. Olympic judo team member Rick Hawn on May 7 to earn the title shot. Askren himself has won four of his five Bellator fights via decision, and the one stoppage was when the ref stopped the match on a guillotine that wasn’t fully sunk in.
Askren, who trains at Dick Roufus’ Roufussport camp in Milwaukee, is a throwback to the early days of the sport where someone would be world class in their specific aspect of the sport, but also have beginner-level ability in other key aspects. In his case, he came in a beginner at the striking game. There is no secret to what Askren is going to do in a match, but his wrestling style is unorthodox, so even opponents who have trained extensively in wrestling don’t have experience in what Askren calls his "funky" style.
"The jiu-jitsu came a lot easier," he said. "It was a natural transition from my wrestling style. Striking has been a little more difficult."
But he’s getting a kick out of it. He regularly spars with Anthony Pettis, the former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion, and he finds his noticeable improvement fun.
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"It’s kind of fun doing new things," he said. "When I spar with Anthony Pettis and try and be a smooth boxer, I can’t do it and I have to fall back on my wrestling and get physical. Every now and then, you land some punches and kicks, or you block some punches and kicks. That’s a great feeling, and it’s a feeling that I didn’t get in my last few years in wrestling once I reached a high level."
"The thing that differentiates him from other wrestlers is that he doesn’t have good wrestling, he has the best wrestling of anyone [in MMA] in his division," noted Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. "Jay wrestled at Hofstra but Ben’s at a level that doesn’t exist in the sport at 170. There are other aspects he will work on and get refined, but one aspect is better than anyone in the world. The question is, does Jay have enough wrestling to keep Ben away to where he can use what you’d assume his advantage is standing?"
Outside the cage, Askren in recent months has been pushing Bellator to do something for tornado victims in Joplin, Mo. Askren did a wrestling clinic just outside Joplin right after the tornado hit and was moved by the devastation.
"I was there in June, the week after the tornado hit and it was crazy," he said. "I texted Bjorn that day and said, 'Is there something we can do for these people?' I saw people have their lives and homes taken away. My first initial idea was to do a camp or clinic for kids, to give their parents a break for a few days, but we couldn’t put it together. Bjorn thought it would be good to give a lot of tickets away so people who have fun at a Bellator event."
"Literally right when the tornado hit, Ben called me and said he was going out there and the first thing out of his mouth was, 'What can I do to help?’ He didn’t ask what we could do. Our season had ended that week so I didn’t have a TV vehicle that week to ask people for help."
Last weekend, Bellator had an event scheduled at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Okla., 17 miles from Joplin. Rebney noted that he talked to the mayor and the casino helped by contacting the media.
Even though the event was almost sold out, the casino gave 200 tickets to the CBS affiliate to give away at the local high school homecoming football game. The day before the event, Rebney and announcer Sean Wheelock met with Red Cross workers in the area and gave out 100 tickets to workers and National Guard volunteers, and went on television asking people if they could donate to RebuildJoplin.org.
"Ben had told me this, that it looks as bad today as it did when it first happened," said Rebney. "There are areas in Joplin that look like the tornado hit a week ago. If you live in Chicago, Los Angeles or New York, it’s one of those things you heard about months ago, but you forget about it because it’s not on CNN. But you go there and see it and it’s just awful."
"It was really beyond description," said Askren. "You see it on television, or see pictures on the Internet, but until you’re standing there and you see a neighborhood destroyed, you can’t fully get it. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen."
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