We were so close to caring about Ben Askren

Bellator

Ben Askren is headed to ONE FC. He might as well be on a rocket ship to the moon. Even with corresponding hunches (and concrete reasons) as to why he might be doing this, there’s still one looming question: Why?

It’s not directed at him. It’s just the kind of general existential question that people mumble when they realize there’s no hot water in the shower.

One of the old adages that has been passed like a baton through the fight game generations -- from the savviest of the day to the winking present -- is the idea that it’s not about being loved or hated, it’s about people caring. Polarization has long been a fight game staple.

Muhammad Ali teemed on both sides with haters and faithful, and yet all sides were equally enthralled when he stepped through the ropes. Josh Koscheck became a pet peeve of the entire population, and there was a time we paid for the privilege of watching him get smashed by Georges St-Pierre. Brock Lesnar, same thing times ten. Jon Jones is well on his way to being today’s most divisive fighter, which is of course perfect for the UFC. Et al, et al.

So long as people give a damn.

And Askren, the most peculiar free agent MMA has had come along in a little while, is sort of like that too. There’s potential for real caring with Askren because some hate him to the point of morbid curiosity, and others -- the outspoken dirty dozens -- appreciate him for his audacity. Or, they at least appreciate that he backs up that audacity. (Or that he doesn’t stand down to authority). ((Or whatever)).

Most despise him.

After all, doesn’t he crush the spectator soul with his wrestling? By association, people hate his nest of golden curls, and his awkward post-fight interviews, and that he came from Bellator, which, by the way, might as well be Rikers Island. They don’t like his smugness, nor his nickname, which is "Funky." He is so single-dimensional -- so sublimely and ungodly single-dimensional -- that we wait for the day he fights one of the UFC’s beastliest well-rounded figures, somebody like Johny Hendricks or Georges St-Pierre, somebody who would send him packing into that nugatory space of the "exposed."

And yet, then again…maybe he could beat GSP, you know? Maybe he beats Hendricks. There are plenty who believe he could. This is the "thing" that makes the fight game go, isn’t it? Fighting centers on the very concept of possibility. Just maybe he is that good. Maybe that’s why the UFC shunned him when he got rid of Bellator (or Bellator got rid of him), for fear of that eventuality. If the UFC didn’t want Jon Fitch mucking up the welterweight division, there’s no way they want Askren anywhere near its orbit.

In cases like Askren’s, it’s Preferred Martial Arts (PMA). Serial wrestlers carry an onus just shy of three-strike eye-gougers, and incorrigible fish-hookers, and lepers.

But, even still, it doesn’t stop curious minds from wondering.

I used to do a chat on ESPN.com and was asked no less than a million times how Ben Askren would hold up in the UFC. The partition between promotions always creates the wildest theories and speculations. My answer: We’ll find out soon enough. Turns out I was lying (sorry). He’s not even headed to the domestic WSOF, who offered him a contract. He is headed to ONE FC in Asia, where he’ll fight people that we have never considered nor in all likelihood even knew existed (and Phil Baroni). If it feels a bit like orphan banishment, it is -- even if as a prizefighter that was the best choice for Askren to collect the biggest prizes.

So why did the prizefighting promoters, Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney and the UFC’s Dana White, treat him like Hazmat?

Most likely it’s because Askren is too good to fit neatly into any grand scheme of things. He’s too good at bringing to life dread. He’s too insubordinate. He wins too damn much in the ugliest damn ways. He was the crasher of all tomorrow’s parties in Bellator, and -- in spite of his prepackaged hype -- looked like a meat-grinding contender killer to the UFC. White says it’s because he’s a greenhorn, and that he doesn’t have enough experience (which is laughable). Some fans nod along because even if that’s not true he doesn’t move the pay-per-view needle. There’s also the ongoing UFC/Bellator gamesmanship in play. White is not a pawnbroker, and nor will he take dictation, which is what Askren’s release and inevitable UFC signing would feel like. Askren, when told by White to go to WSOF, became stubborn. Rebney, by treating him as expendable goods, turned White off.

This is what it's like when egos collide.

In any case, the better Askren does what he does, it seems the bigger liability he becomes. He’s the wrong guy at the wrong time in the wrong situation (which is music to ONE FC’s ears). It’s all as plain as day.

And even still it doesn’t stop curious minds from wondering. Fight fans care less about the politics and reasons as they do about upholding the spirit of "The Ultimate Proving Ground." There’s genuine curiosity as to how Askren would hold up against, GSP, or Carlos Condit, or Rory MacDonald. All the guys he couldn’t face before.

In that way, Askren should have been given that chance. He is/was the 170-pound champion of Bellator, and he’s undefeated. He obliterated the Russians (Andrey Koreshkov), he walked through the French (Karl Amoussou), he ran roughshod through the Brazilians (Douglas Lima), and he blew up the heart of Spanish Harlem (Lyman Good). The fact that he "barely beat" Jay Hieron was the only misdemeanor on his record. And that was years ago. Of late he’s been not only obliterating guys from the opening bell, but finishing them. 

It’s not that he doesn’t have the credentials; it’s more like…why introduce a weed into a nice flowerbed?

But the truth is, Askren does has a certain kind of "it" factor that gets people talking. He’s loud, he’s obnoxious, he’s a Twitter madcap (look at his recent exchange with Phil Baroni). He knows how to handle a microphone. And he wins. With the right marketing, this kind of package could move the PPV needle. People could care. Undoubtedly many would pay to watch him get served his comeuppance. Others, the diabolical few, would tune in to watch him operate as a monkey wrench in the system works.

Everything seems as likely as the other.

But it’s not to be. And even if we know the answers as to why this is, you can’t help but ask why just the same.

(Editor's note: Check out Ben Askren's recent appearance on The MMA Hour below.)

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