When Bellator MMA released its undefeated welterweight champion, polarizing former Olympian Ben Askren, in mid-November, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that one of mixed martial arts' premier wrestlers would quickly find a new home in the UFC.
That, however, turned out not to be the case. For one reason or another, UFC officials expressed little desire in snapping up Bellator's latest marquee free agent, resulting in widespread reports that Askren is now on the verge of inking a new deal with Asia's largest organization, Singapore-based ONE FC.
"It's not the end of the line for Ben. It's just a new chapter, an intermediate chapter," GLORY commentator and Askren's head coach at Roufusport, Duke Roufus, told MMAFighting.com on Thursday.
"[UFC officials] are entitled to their opinion, so the next stage of Ben's career, we're going to change their opinion. When it's time for us to come into the UFC, he'll kick the gates down and be successful."
The puzzling nature of Askren's free agency comes on the heels of two prior battles for former Bellator stars. In 2012, the UFC inked longtime Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard to a lavish contract, only to see him lose two of his first three fights in uninspired fashion then drop weight classes. Soon after, a similar situation over lightweight standout Eddie Alvarez resulted in a bitter and extended court battle, which ultimately led to Alvarez re-signing with Bellator rather than sitting out another year of his athletic prime.
The Alvarez disagreement, in particular, drew an immense public backlash on Bellator officials, so when Askren's time came, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney first offered to waive all matching rights if Askren received an automatic title shot upon signing with the UFC. UFC President Dana White scoffed at the idea, leading Rebney to eventually release Askren stipulation-free, yet the spectacle left Askren without two of the world's largest MMA organizations as suitors.
"It's just been an interesting back and forth affair," Roufus said. "Bjorn made the offer that if Ben fought for a title, that he'd release him, none of the stipulations -- which is a nice gesture, but we all know that can't happen.
"I think we're going to see Ben in the UFC. It's not if, it's just when. Any other organization that picks him up, especially after this whole situation, I think Ben Askren has grown as a celebrity in our sport even bigger through this struggle. Even people that necessary haven't been fans of him are following this story, and without even trying he's pulling on people's heartstrings."
The entire process has been bizarre, to be sure, particularly with White attempting to paint the UFC's disinterest in Askren due to a perceived lack of a résumé or competition. The constant back-and-forth has led both Askren and Roufus to characterize the fighter as simply a "pawn" in the two organizations' game, yet now that things appear to be reaching a conclusion, Roufus is trying to stay positive.
"You've got to always look for the best things out of every experience," he said.
"Somebody is going to pay Ben a nice amount of money to fight and further his career. What's wrong with that? In my opinion, that's what it's all about. Hell, if he can go out there, get generous offers, and continue to rise -- the UFC, when they want somebody, they go get him.
"Like I said, it's not if. It's just when."
While Askren's contract limbo has been an unavoidable distraction for much of the past few months within Roufusport's walls, other members of the acclaimed Milwaukee gym have dealt with their own hardships, most notably UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
After fighting just five times over his three years in the UFC, the oft-injured Pettis will once again be sidelined for the next six to eight months due a torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his left knee.
"It's a tough patch right now," Roufus admitted. "He fought in the WEC five times in 13 months. It's just how it goes down some times.
"If you want to control your destiny, become better. If we wallow in the fact that Anthony is injured, that's all we're growing in our minds. We're already focused on eight months ahead."
Pettis missed the majority of 2012 due to a string of untimely injuries, only to be forced out again from a scheduled August 2013 title bout against Jose Aldo after suffering another setback. He bounced back to defeat Benson Henderson in UFC 164's title-winning performance, but injured his knee midway through the one-round fight, which ultimately forced him to withdraw from a UFC on FOX 9 title defense against Josh Thomson.
Pettis will now undergo surgery to repair the damage, while contenders atop the lightweight division await his return.
"People are critical," Roufus admitted. "Anthony was so pumped to fight in December. He'd fight constantly (if he could), especially with his new deal the UFC has gotten him. He'd love to fight often.
"So we're positively moving forward. Time flies in this business. It's crazy, it's December already. I remember January, when he fought (Donald) Cerrone with the boys down in Chicago like it was yesterday.
"He'll be 27 next year, and the crazy thing about Anthony Pettis, I give him a B in his performance against Ben Henderson," Roufus continued. "That wasn't even the best Anthony Pettis. He fought the fight with a separated shoulder on a month's notice. That's the kind of kid he is. We haven't even seen the best of Anthony Pettis yet. That's scary."
In the meantime, Pettis' younger brother, 20-year-old Sergio Pettis, did his part to keep the family name afloat.
The undefeated young prospect, pegged as one of the rising prospects in MMA, fought through the pressure of expectations to defeat a game Will Campuzano in his UFC and bantamweight debut at UFC 167. While much of the flash from Pettis' game was missing, and Roufus only rated the performance a C-plus, considering the circumstances, he couldn't have been more proud.
"I'm supposed to be this guy who has all this experience. I don't pull punches," Roufus said. "I admitted to him right after the fight, ‘Kid, I've got to tell you, if I was 20 years old and I was in your shoes, I would've folded like a cheap lawn chair.'
"Sergio is his own man. He's really good at what he does well. His striking percentage was insanely high for his debut as well. He's almost the opposite of Anthony at striking. He's so meticulous, he's good at picking people apart. But you saw a little glimpse of (the flashiness)," Roufus continued.
"The sky is the limit for a kid like Sergio."
With Askren's contract in flux, one Pettis brother sidelined and the other having just fought, the year has come to an early end for Roufusport's main players. Though starting in 2014, two of the team's UFC veterans hope to rebound from a shaky 2013 campaign by making a drastic change.
Both Erik Koch and Alan Belcher, fighters with a combined 0-3 record this past year, plan to move up in weight for their respective next bouts -- Koch to lightweight, and Belcher to light heavyweight. Both men have been forced to cut significant weight in recent contests, and in Roufus' eyes, the trade-offs for coming into the cage heavier simply aren't worth it.
"The scale, that's a harder battle sometimes than the fight," Roufus said. "Two weeks before the fight [Koch] can barely perform in the gym, to the point where he's dizzy and not even strong, not there mentally.
"It gets to the point where you're hurting yourself by trying to lose so much weight. That's a cliché in MMA. ‘You know what, I can't win a title at this weight, I'm going to go down in weight.' What other combat sport does anyone go down in weight and do better?"
Cutting mass amounts of weight has long been a polarizing topic in mixed martial arts. Fighters have been known to drop upwards of 40 pounds during the course of their camps, all in chase of the elusive size advantage on fight night. Yet the horror stories of weight cuts gone awry are plentiful, and in many ways, Roufus believes the cons far outweigh the pros.
"Sergio, when he made 125, he lost his hearing. Seriously, after IVs and everything, it took him a while to get back to normal just to fight," Roufus said. "Is it making weight, or is it being skilled?
"Me, I feel like I want a king. This is a jungle. I'm training guys to rule the jungle. But you know what, you don't starve your lion to take down the elephant, the tigers, giraffes, rhinos. What do you do? You get your lion strong. It's a war, man. You want your athletes at full capacity. You want these guys ready to do damage. Anthony Pettis, his last four fights since the Jeremy Stephens fight, has not gone to the sauna the day of weigh-ins.
"I'm just a firm believer in being strong," Roufus finished. "You're fighting for your life. If you weight cut so hard that you can't fight, it's not good for you. It's how you're going to get brain damage."