In another sport or another time, Ben Askren would be widely celebrated for what he has accomplished. He's an undefeated champion. He's successfully defended his title twice. He's among the best pure wrestlers the sport has ever drawn. But Askren is not loved. In fact, he's largely loathed by MMA's fans, who have never quite taken to his grinding fight style. Askren hasn't finished an opponent since his Bellator debut back in April 2010. Since then, he's competed in six fights -- 24 rounds altogether -- without a stoppage.
If that was his only misstep, perhaps it would be excused. After all, UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson has been to a decision six straight times, and he doesn't face a fraction of the venom that is directed Askren's way. But Askren is an anomaly in today's pro sports. He doesn't just accept the negativity that comes his way; he embraces it. When he was booed by fans after his most recent win, he smiled and invited them to instead watch boxing.
"I just like taunting people," the Bellator welterweight told MMA Fighting. "I was taunting the fans, teasing them and making them angry, because there's really nothing they could do about it."
This reaction varies greatly from the standard response from a fighter who hears jeers. In most of those instances, the athlete apologizes for a sub-par performance -- even in victory -- and promises to be more exciting next time out.
This is because an antagonistic relationship with the fans is generally not a welcome scenario for most pro athletes, many of whom are notoriously image-conscious. As a rule, it's better to be loved than hated. Yet Askren is likely emboldened in his stance by the belief that he didn't necessarily bring this reaction upon himself. He isn't hated for saying outrageous things or getting in trouble with the law. He isn't a prima donna and he doesn't have a reputation for flouting the rules. People simply don't like how he fights.
That leaves the two sides at a stalemate. Askren is fighting within the rules of engagement, and the fans are within their rights to express their opinion. Neither side is likely to give in.
"They're just fickle fans," he said. "If my team and family are happy for me, I'm not going to let what some fans think affect me in any way. I think a lot of fans don't know MMA that well. They don't understand the subtleties. They just want blood and guts and knockouts."
Askren has a case in that when you watch him fight, he doesn't avoid contact. In fact, he mostly walks forward and invites confrontation. When he takes an opponent down, he'll often pass guard and advance his position. He just hasn't been able to close.
And that's where the difference in outlook veers in opposite directions. While fans see his ground game as conservative and sense an unwillingness to move out of his comfort zone, Askren wonders why he's being asked to take unnecessary risks while winning.
That's not to say he isn't trying to add new elements into his game. He hadn't had a single day of striking training when he came to MMA, and has only put true emphasis on it in the last year, after moving to Milwaukee to train full time with noted coach Duke Roufus. But for now, that's mostly back-pocket stuff, a "break-glass-in-case-of-emergency" option that is likely to be a secondary option for the foreseeable future. For example, ask him about his upcoming title defense against Karl Amoussou, and it's clear the welterweight champion's approach hasn't wavered.
"I’ll be taking him down, putting him on his back and working him over," he said.
The irony of Askren's position is that when you ask him who his favorite fighters are, who he'd pay his own money to watch, his first two replies -- B.J. Penn and Nick Diaz -- are athletes who began as grapplers but are now more known as blood-and-guts fighters who are will to strike with anyone. Penn's motto, after all, is "Just scrap," while Diaz is notorious for instigating exchanges. They are about as different from Askren as it gets.
"Yeah, I guess that is ironic," he said. "I'm not saying I'm never going to be a destroyer, too. But the striking didn't come naturally for me venturing from the wrestling. The jiu-jitsu came natural, so that's what I picked up first."
Some of those around Askren say he is a testament to overachievement. In a sport built on dynamic speed and power, he has neither in abundance but finds his own route to victory.
Michael Chandler, the Bellator lightweight champion, was a college wrestling teammate of Askren's. He, too, picked up MMA in a short time, but he's become considered a more well-rounded fighter than Askren.
"I can tell you from training alongside Ben, no one trains harder than him," Chandler said. "The criticism comes that he's not an exciting fighter and yeah, he’s not glamorous, he does grind out decisions, and there's not a lot of finishes and this and that, but what the fans need to realize is we’re not all gifted with the ability to run fast, jump high, hit hard and be extremely athletic. Ben isn’t one of those guys. He’s a slow-twitch kind of guy, but he can't be stopped."
In that context, Askren's success is to be admired. But when it comes to fans, few are the vocal supporters in his corner.
One of the other fighters Askren admits a liking for is Chael Sonnen, the notorious UFC star who also comes from a decorated wrestling pedigree. Like Askren, Sonnen has been heavily reliant on wrestling throughout his career, and has been a inconsistent finisher, closing out only 11 of his 27 career wins. But Sonnen has managed to get fans to look past that fact with his brilliant self-promotion and headline-generating soundbytes.
It seems like a career path that Askren could follow, although Sonnen makes it look and sound easier than it is. Even Askren, who has had his moments on the mic, admits that.
"I'd have to get in some practice," he said. "He's just so good at it."
One of three things will eventually happen. Either he will follow the same path, he will begin to finish fights with some regularity or fan perceptions will change. Until then, Askren remains stuck in limbo, a champion who rarely hears adulation. Style points hardly matter in similarly physical sports like football, where the term "Just win baby" was coined, and a 9-6 win is a victory for a gritty defense, or in ice hockey, where a 1-0 shutout is simply a testament to a sharp goaltender. In MMA, you have to win with flourish or risk the worst possible reaction: winning while booed.
"Well," Askren said, "if you can't play the good guy, sometimes you've got to play the villain."