Ben Askren isn't changing a thing after getting violently knocked out

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Ben Askren fields questions from the media during a UFC Singapore press conference at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Sept. 3, 2019 in Singapore. (Yong Teck Lim/Zuffa LLC)
Ben Askren fields questions from the media during a UFC Singapore press conference at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Sept. 3, 2019 in Singapore. (Yong Teck Lim/Zuffa LLC)

Prior to the start of every UFC card, a montage of violent finishes is played on the video boards in the arena where the event is being held. There have been enough highlight-reel KOs in the UFC’s first 26 years to take more than an hour to run through them all.

None, though, have ever been any more vicious, or as stunning, or as thorough, or as quick, as Jorge Masvidal’s flying knee on Ben Askren at UFC 239 in July.

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It was five seconds of brutal violence. Masvidal raced across the cage, leaped in the air and caught Askren on the chin, knocking him cold. As Askren lay motionless on the canvas, Masvidal connected with several massive punches before the referee could push him off.

Askren went into the record books, though not the way he might have hoped.

Rarely, if ever, has anyone handled the aftermath of such a devastating defeat as well as Askren. Two days later, he appeared on Ariel Helwani’s show on ESPN to explain the defeat. A few days after that, he left his home to go coach a youth wrestling team in a national tournament.

He was upfront and honest and open and professional, and is only shocked that folks are amazed by his reaction.

“It’s not like I committed a crime or anything,” he said. “I got knocked out. You know how many guys have been knocked out before me and how many will be knocked out after me?”

Then, he kind of chuckled and said, “It was a hell of a finish.”

Askren, who meets Demian Maia on Saturday in Singapore (8 a.m. ET, ESPN+), has set a standard for the way to recover from a loss. He hasn’t hidden, as so many fighters are wont to do. The former heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson wore a disguise after a first-round loss to Sonny Liston in 1962.

His life hasn’t changed an iota except that he’s got an L for the first time in 21 professional fights.

He said it did no good to sulk, though he said the wrestling tournament helped keep his mind off of what had happened.

“I had to go coach at a kids’ national wrestling tournament and when I was with them, I couldn’t be talking or complaining or worried about my problems,” Askren said. “It was no different if I had won. I’d have gone to the tournament and coached them and acted the same way, because that time was about them, not about me. But I think being out there at that tournament, I was focused on helping them and maybe it helped me to get over it and bounce back fast.

“When you get into sports, you know that there are going to be times you win and times you lose. You just hope the number and the significance of the wins is greater than the number and the significance of the losses. But I lost a fight. The Earth didn’t stop. Life goes on.”

(L-R) Demian Maia and Ben Askren face off at the Mandarin Oriental on Oct. 24, 2019 in Singapore. (Getty Images)
(L-R) Demian Maia and Ben Askren face off at the Mandarin Oriental on Oct. 24, 2019 in Singapore. (Getty Images)

The question that has yet to be answered is whether the knockout will make Askren gun shy. Askren largely hasn’t been hit in his career and he’s managed to dole out 98 percent of the punishment delivered in his bouts.

Some fighters are never the same after being knocked out, but again, Askren shrugs it off, this time with a joke.

“Who hasn’t been hit one time?” Askren said. “I’ll be fine. I got hit with one shot, and it was a great one, and that great shot landed in absolutely the perfect spot. But everyone has gotten hit. There have only been a couple of guys who have gone a really lengthy period of time without a loss and a lot of great fighters have multiple losses. Many of them were KO’d and they came back just fine.

“I’ll say this, too: It’s much worse if you take a long ass whooping over a sustained period of time. You take a lot of abuse and then get knocked out. Me, the first started, he hit me with that knee, the fight was over and we moved on. I didn’t take that kind of a beating.”

Win or lose, he probably won’t take a beating against Maia in a bout that will match two of the greatest grapplers in the sport. Askren dropped to 11th in the UFC’s rankings and has a long way to go to rebuild himself to get back in position to challenge for a championship, but he’s ready to do that.

And he’s not going to change anything, not even his trash-talking style that so raised the ire of Masvidal. Like Muhammad Ali decades before him, Askren talks to call attention to and sell the fight.

He said he’s always stunned when so many guys take it so personally.

“You have these big, macho tough guys, quite literally the toughest people on the planet, and they have such thin skin and get so upset by words,” Askren said. “It’s kind of funny. I don’t really understand that.”

Michael Bisping is, in a way, a good model for Askren to follow. He was one of the sport’s great trash talkers and he, too, got knocked out violently in a high-profile bout. But Bisping recovered from that knockout to Dan Henderson at UFC 100 to become middleweight champion, hold the UFC record for career wins and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame.

It remains to be seen if Askren can come back so well. But the way he’s handled himself in defeat shows he’s got everything it takes to follow Bisping’s lead.

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