When Bellator granted Ben Askren his official release in mid-November, the undefeated former Olympian thought his obvious next step -- signing with the UFC -- would be a mere formality. As it turned out, things weren't so simple.
"It's been a crazy three weeks, but it ended up turning out pretty well for me. I'll be heading over to ONE FC," Askren announced on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, revealing his deal to be a lucrative two-year, six-fight contract.
"I think my first fight is probably going to be either March or April, and then I'll be joining Evolve MMA team for the end of my camps over there in Singapore."
Askren's announcement ends a turbulent, if unexpected free agency period, throughout which UFC President Dana White expressed little interest in signing the longtime Bellator champion, citing a perceived lack of competition on Askren's résumé.
Despite White's misgivings, Askren met with UFC officials in Las Vegas in late-November, in one last attempt to reach an agreement.
"The meeting went really well," Askren said. "They were all polite, everything was good, and we talked. Honestly when I left the UFC offices, I thought we were going to come to a deal at that point.
"Later that night they call back and they say that they're not interested. It was kind of a weird set of circumstances, and after going through the meeting and everything, it's very clear to me that it's not really about me. It's about Dana's quarrel with Bellator and (Bellator CEO) Bjorn (Rebney) ... because when you look at his main argument -- that I'm not I'm good enough -- it's shenanigans, plain and simple.
"They've got 84 guys on roster, and frankly, I'd beat half of those dudes with one arm tied behind my back and blindfolded," Askren continued. "Some of those guys, they really suck. They're really bad at the sport of MMA. So when it came down to it, I think it's all about the Bellator bickering and whatnot.
"Honestly, if you guys knew all the little bulls--t that on behind the scenes between both organizations, you guys would be cracking up so hard."
Askren continued to elaborate, claiming that Zuffa's ongoing feud with Bellator -- in particular, White's back and forth with Rebney and Viacom officials -- played a significant role in the UFC's decision to not pursue him, despite his obvious fighting credentials. "I can tell you without a shadow of doubt, it definitely has nothing to do with me," Askren said. "I'm not going to air any dirty laundry, but it definitely does not. And that's probably the hardest thing.
"I think (Zuffa CEO) Lorenzo (Fertitta) doesn't let his ego get involved and he's a little more mature, so he doesn't really have the quarrel with Bellator as much as Dana. I think Lorenzo was pro-me, and wanted to get me into the organization.
"When you think that Dana is so immature that he's letting a little bitter rivalry between him and Bellator/Bjorn get in the way of the main point of their business, which is to put the best people in the world in the Octagon and let them fight it out to see who the best is, it's kind of crazy. You'd think by the time someone has a billion dollars and runs one of the biggest sports organizations in the entire world, that they would have enough maturity to get over a bitter rivalry with a different company."
Due to the public, and in a way, bizarre nature of Askren's negotiations, critics have been quick to target both Bellator MMA and UFC officials for the way the situation has been handled.
Askren, though, levies the lion's share of the blame onto White, while making note to defend detractors of his former boss.
"Bjorn (Rebney) is getting yelled at for this situation, which is ridiculous," Askren remarked. "Bjorn was the first person to say to me, ‘Ben, why do you want us to let go of your matching clause? You're going to get screwed by this whole deal.' And I had to say, Bjorn, I'm a big boy and if I screw myself, I'm fine with screwing myself. I'm okay with that. So Bjorn on the one hand gets crucified for holding Eddie (Alvarez) too long, then he has the respect to let me go so I can go try to achieve my goals, and he gets crucified for that, too. So it's like he did one thing, and then he did the opposite thing, and he gets killed on both ends. It's laughable to me."
Once the UFC withdrew its name from consideration, Askren was left to decide between comparable offers from WSOF and Singapore-based ONE FC. Askren admits that the situation almost led to him to retirement, but in the end he decided that he wasn't yet done with competing professionally in mixed martial arts.
Interesting to note, though, is that White may have indirectly swayed Askren's decision with his late-November suggestion that Askren sign with WSOF to "show what he's got."
"That definitely has something to do with it," Askren laughed. "I have a really hard time with people telling me what to do. If I'm your employee and I work for Zuffa, I'm probably going to listen to you.
"But having Dana tell me to go [to WSOF] was something that was definitely, it was in the back of my mind. Like, dude I'm not going to let this guy push me around. I don't event work for this guy and he's going to push me around?"
Askren refused to elaborate on the specifics of his ONE FC contract, though he noted that based on figures he's seen, he expects to earn "more than probably 85 to 90-percent of the guys in the UFC, without a doubt." And while Askren admitted that the sparse competition in ONE FC didn't particularly excite him, he has faith in the promotion's ability to find him stimulating opponents.
Askren's free agency may not have played out like he'd first hoped, but in the end, the 29-year-old welterweight, a man who never particularly enjoyed the trappings of fame to begin with, expressed his satisfaction with the result. His new home is ONE FC, his new part-time gym is Evolve MMA. And if the UFC comes calling in two years, once Askren's deal is done? "I don't know, I would have a hard time," he admitted.
"Dana has just been so disrespectful in the media. It's just shenanigans, like we've talked about. The fact that I'm not good enough. That's laughable and no one really believes that, except the most uneducated fan. He's just been so disrespectful about that, and I really wished he would've said something to my face in the meeting about what his direct issues were, because Dana barely said anything in the meeting. It was more of me and Lorenzo talking than anything.
"Even if they were willing to pay me a lot of money, I think I would have a tough time coming back and fighting for the UFC at this point," Askren finished. "Not saying I wouldn't do it for sure. I would just have to think long and hard about doing it."