Like many fighters, Paul Daley insists that fighting isn't personal at all. It's just competition between two men, nothing more, nothing less. But that doesn't explain why over the last week, while he was in Orlando with several other Bellator fighters for promotional shoots, he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge welterweight champion Ben Askren, or why Askren likewise ignored him.
"I've seen him, and he's seen me, but I guess we're not paying each other any attention," Daley told MMA Fighting.
No verbal communication took place, yet something undeniable was conveyed in those moments. Two alpha-males were in the vicinity of each other, and both refused to blink.
That's probably how it will be for the foreseeable future. While Daley preps for his entry into Bellator's 2013 welterweight tournament, Askren is readying for a title defense against Karl Amoussou. That means that the two are likely to continue eyeing each other from afar with no resolution.
"It’s kind of interesting," Daley said of the dynamic between them. "I don't know if it's something I wanted to create or something I like, but there is a kind of tension and you can see that we’re both in each other's targets. I guess it's a fight that we both expect to happen. And for him to expect to fight me is a good sign. That shows he respects my ability and that I'm going to be successful in the tournament, so it's cool."
But Daley's interest in fighting Askren is complicated by his friendship with Askren's next challenger.
Daley and Amoussou have known each other since their days on the European circuit together, and while Daley avoided the division's top welterweight, he sat down to lunch with its No. 1 contender, even discussing training for Askren.
"He's a cool guy, he's a genuine guy, and he's a fighter," Daley said.
Those feelings no doubt diverge from his thoughts on Askren, who would be a difficult matchup for Daley. The Brit has had well-documented struggles with wrestlers over the years. Everyone remembers his frustrated sucker punch of Josh Koscheck after the final bell at UFC 113, but that's only one of few issues he's had with wrestlers. There was a submission loss to Jake Shields, a decision defeat to Nick Thompson and more recently, another defeat at the hands of Tyron Woodley.
But Daley insists that his dislike for Askren's style has nothing to do with him wrestling prowess. To him, wrestling is a legitimate tactic of MMA. Instead, it's what he perceives to be Askren's inability or disinterest in closing out a fight that leaves him bothered.
"As champion, you should want to prove you are the champion and try to destroy your opponent," he said. "I don't think think he has that ability or intention. I don't think he has it in him to finish. For the past two years we've heard about him working on his striking, but we've seen zero to none of it. I don't know if he's lacking in confidence or he's not a real fighter or what.
"Some people just ain't fighters," he continued. "I think he's a great wrestler. No doubt he is. But I don't think he's a great fighter. If push comes to shove and he's put in a fight, he won't win. He's fortunate his wrestling carried him this far. Put him in a real fight and we'll see. Maybe he can have his shot stuffed, be elbowed and bleeding and grit out a win, and then I'll give him his props. But from what I see so far, I think he's bluffing."
The inference, of course, is that he's the man to put Askren into that kind of fight.
On the other hand, he says that he will be rooting for Amoussou to beat Askren, even if that means that may eventually put him in the position to fight his friend.
For now, that possibility remains far enough in the distance that neither man puts much worry into it. Amoussou recently went so far as inviting Daley to France to train with him.
"I haven’t really considered [a fight with Amoussou]," Daley said. "I'm sure it'd be entertaining because we go out there to fight. I'm just focused on winning the Grand Prix and that’s it. And Askren is the champion now so he's in my focus. Should Karl beat him, then regrettably, Karl will become my focus because I want to be champion, and I don't think he'll hold that against me."
To Daley, the prospect of going through multiple opponents in the gauntlet of a tournament is one of the things that attracted him to Bellator. From the early days of MMA, he was riveted by the tournament format of organizations like PRIDE, and these days, this is the closest format in existence.
To do so, he'll also have to navigate his way through different styles, including, yes, wrestlers. In bolstering his wrestling skills, Daley is continuing his work with Kenny Johnson, who coaches several of the Blackhouse fighters, including UFC champs Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo, as well as Lyoto Machida. He'll also spend some time in his next camp working with the UFC's Johny Hendricks, a two-time NCAA national champion.
While his Nov. 2 opponent remains undetermined -- "people want to fight me, and then they change their mind, for whatever reason," he says -- Daley says he's focused on staying in fighting shape. He knows he has to make weight to stay in the tournament, and even though he won't face the tournament start until 2013, reaching an improved fitness level now will pay off when it matters most. Whether it's Amoussou or Askren, whether it's friend or foe, Daley aims to do what he does best.
"I'm going to keep training, keep grinding, keep busy," he said. "I think if I do that, all shall be well. And anyone in my way will get KO'd."
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