Former Olympic wrestler and undefeated MMA fighter Ben Askren had been sure for some time that he was the best welterweight in the world. He'd dominated the Bellator ranks and looked to be getting better each fight out.
The only thing was, without fighting in the world's best and most popular MMA organization, the UFC, Askren was sure to not get recognition he felt he rightfully deserved.
His success appeared to be an obstacle to getting a timely shot at the UFC, however, since it seemed unlikely that Bellator would let their best fighter go. And then, they did.
With that, Askren and his management began conversations with the UFC and it was pretty much taken for granted that "Funky" Ben would be offered a contract by the UFC and get his chance to prove himself against the likes of Georges St. Pierre and Johny Hendricks at the top of the promotion's welterweight division.
But then, inexplicably, the UFC passed on Askren and let one of the best fighters in the world walk away. The UFC's passing on Askren seemed almost as inexplicable as Bellator's, and the fighter was left without a fighting home.
Askren is still a bit shocked that he and the UFC did not come to terms. "Yeah, it was crazy that it didn’t work out," he admits to Cagewriter.
The outspoken Askren also concedes that his past, and quite public, criticism of Dana White and the UFC while he was signed with Bellator, probably didn't help his chances with the promotion.
"Man, some of the things I said probably didn't help," he says.
"They do like to have company people. I've never been a guy to pull punches or not speak my mind. It probably wasn't the biggest factor [to the UFC] but probably also not something they totally dismissed. Luckily, ONE FC came along and everything worked out great."
Askren signed with the Singapore-based MMA promotion and seemed ecstatic about their treatment of him and the pay, thus far. What remained to be seen was who, exactly, Askren would first fight and how fighting for the top Asian MMA promotion would help him fulfill his career goals.
As for the first question, Askren will face Azerbaijani prospect Bakhtiyar Abbasov in the main event of ONE FC's May 30 card in Singapore. The answer to the second one would appear to be more complicated.
For years, Askren called out UFC welterweight kingpin Georges St. Pierre. The four-time All-American wrestler seemed to want to be in the UFC for the sole purpose of proving to the rest of the world that he was the best fighter on the planet by fighting the top welterweights out there.
ONE FC may provide Askren with exciting new opportunities in the ring because of their rule-set, and they may treat him well, but has the Duke Roufus team member had to give up on his MMA goals to sign with the fledgling organization?
"I have the same goals in MMA for myself that I had since day one," Askren explains.
"I just want to win every fight that I have. I want to win every fight I'm in. I want to clear out every opponent I face. That's always been my goal and it still is. I want to continue dominating. Obviously, I had a string of decisions and I wasn't a good finisher for awhile. But in my last few fights I think I've proven that I'm a much more well-rounded fighter."
Askren will count on that well-rounded strength of his to face a host of unknowns in his new fighting home. First off, his just-announced opponent is a mystery to Askren.
Askren knows that his opponent's home-country produces great wrestlers and that his rival has fought at middleweight. That's pretty much it.
"No, I don’t know anything about him," Askren admits.
"I'm not really worried about the weight factor. Usually with guys who have never made a lower weight, it's more of an issue for them than an advantage."
Now that he does have an opponent for his ONE FC debut, Askren will study him, but only to a point.
"I will study to a certain extent, but I think people over-do that," he says.
"I like to study an opponent just to see one or two things that they do really well and to make a game plan for myself, but that's it."
Everything from Askren's last weeks of training camp, to fight week and even fight night will now change with his fighting in Asia at ONE FC. Askren will continue to train with his teammates and coaches at Rufous Sport in Milwaukee up until the final few weeks of camp, at which point he will fly over to Singapore early to get acclimated to the time change and close out his camp at Evolve MMA.
However, Askren will not have any of his home-coaches with him during that time or even on fight night. The life-long competitor isn't worried, though.
"My coaches are going to be busy coaching some other guys so I'm not taking any coaches with me," he says.
"I will take my good friend [and UFC fighter] Alan Belcher out with me. He has a ton of experience. And, the coaches at Evolve are good so I will rely on them a little bit."
Askren has trained at the Evolve MMA gym before and has high praise for their staff. They will not, of course, know him as eel as the coaches he's worked with for years.
The fighter knows that, ultimately, his success or failure rests on his shoulders alone. By fight night, his coaches will have given him all they could, and the rest will be up to him.
"I've been in so many competitions that I'm ready compete. I know what to do," he explains.
"It's even something I preach to my little kids that I coach. They are as young as 4th grade to 8th grade. I tell them, 'If, for some reason, I'm not at your tournament or I'm not in your corner, you know how to wrestle. You don’t need me to wrestle." It's about building self-reliance. In wrestling you’ll never know what youre going to encounter so you've just got to be ready for anything."