LAS VEGAS — Since Dana White partnered with brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta in 2001 to purchase the UFC, just about every mixed martial arts fighter of significance has fought for the promotion at some point.
Not all of them spent the bulk of their primes in the UFC, but the overwhelming majority of big-name MMA fighters since 2001 have competed in the Octagon.
The most notable not to do so, of course, is legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.
The other is Ben Askren, a guy who has done nothing but win in whatever athletic pursuit he’s undertaken. A two-time NCAA wrestling champion, Askren won professional titles at welterweight in Bellator and ONE Championship, but White didn’t care for his grappling-heavy style nor for his outspokenness in the media.
He’s roasted White and dozens of UFC fighters (and staffers) since joining the company following a unique trade in October in which the UFC sent Demetrious Johnson to ONE and acquired Askren’s contract.
Shockingly, perhaps, to those who have followed his long-running feud with White over the last seven years, Askren has generated as much fan and media attention than anyone competing Saturday at UFC 235 at T-Mobile Arena, one of the deepest top-to-bottom cards in a long time.
There are two title fights and scores of fascinating bouts on the card, and it’s kind of funny that the guy who is carrying the promotion is the same one whom White once tweeted that he’d rather watch flies have sex than see him fight.
Ben Askren is a UFC fighter now and they should charge admission just to follow him on Twitter.
He’ll fight former champion Robbie Lawler on the main card Saturday and has been so visible, so witty and so engaging in the build-up that Lawler, long one of the sport’s most popular fighters, has almost been rendered an afterthought.
For those who have never seen him, he won’t remind you of Justin Gaethje or Diego Sanchez or any of the fighters whom the UFC crowd has fallen in love with because of their willingness to take two to give one.
His game isn’t particularly well-rounded, as no one would dare to call him a great striker. He admits his striking is merely defensive, to enable him to avoid being cold-cocked while he attempts to get his hands on his opponent.
And take it from his good friend, former college teammate and frequent training partner, UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, once Askren latches onto you, there’s pretty much no escape.
Askren’s grip is legendary in wrestling. He’s not the physical beast like Woodley, who is rippling with muscles, but Askren has what his friend calls “static strength” that is hard to understand until you’ve been grabbed by him.
“His grip is like a zip tie,” Woodley said. “He’ll pull it back, but the zip tie never goes in the opposite direction.”
He can hold the grip, Woodley said, at the same strength for five minutes without getting fatigued. And Woodley, who has fought most of the best welterweights of this era, including Rory MacDonald, Kelvin Gastelum, Lawler, Carlos Condit, Josh Koscheck, Stephen Thompson, Jake Shields and Demian Maia, said anyone who doubts Askren will be shocked.
Woodley and Askren train frequently together and Woodley, more than almost anyone, understands what Lawler is in for.
“For me, competing against some of the best welterweights of all time and then training with him, it’s night and day [difference],” Woodley said.
Askren has been dominant in and out of the cage for years. At a news conference to kick off ticket sales for UFC 235, Askren was like a stand-up comic. He got into it with Kamaru Usman, who will challenge Woodley for the welterweight title in the night’s co-main event.
He mocked White repeatedly and then suggested a match in November with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at 165 pounds. He even added a suggestion on how to promote it.
“America [versus] Russia is always a great storyline,” Askren said as he pitched his idea. “It always is. It’s been like that since the Cold War. Think about that. Think about America and Russia. Think about what sells. By that point we’re going to have 20-0 Ben Askren versus 27-0 Khabib. Someone’s 0 has got to go. America versus Russia. I will get on his back and I will chant, ‘U-S-A!’”
But for all the funny tweets and humorous one-liners and call-outs of other fighters, there is one truth in all of this.
Askren didn’t sign with the UFC for money or to see his face plastered on billboards or for any reason except this:
“It’s all about being the best in the world and proving that,” Askren said. “Nothing else but that.”
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