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Ben Askren goes out with a bang (but open to being coaxed into a return)

ONE Championship

Shinya Aoki doesn’t give a damn about conventional wisdom, and he showed that early in Singapore by pulling guard against no less a top-heavy pestle than Ben Askren. Less than a minute later — after getting slammed for his efforts — Aoki was covering his head like a man fending off flashbacks to some old trauma. And that was it. Askren prevailed at ONE Championship: Immortal Pursuit, making quick work of one last enterprising spirit. The fight didn’t last a minute. Askren walks away as the welterweight champion, having never lost a professional mixed martial arts competition through 19 fights.

Now the question becomes: Was that really it for Ben Askren?

On the one hand, you’d like to believe that he really was retiring from fighting at 33 years old, because even this is just very, very “Funky”. Since he left Bellator to sign a six-fight deal in Asia, Askren has never really been about other people’s pressure or expectations, nor felt an immense need to cater to Dana White’s ways of operating. In fact, Askren never caved to anything beyond his own business sense, and he is secure for life because of it. That stubbornness — and conviction — came to define him over time in fighting. His wrestling was an extension of that attitude (or vice-versa).

On the other hand, when he was presented a microphone moments after laying his gloves down in Kallang, Askren didn’t sound like a man who was definitively saying goodbye. He left the door open for a return, but only to showcase what he has suspected all along — that he’s “number one.” He even dropped Tyron Woodley’s name, though strictly to remind everyone that he wouldn’t be interested in fighting a friend. The real inference was that if the company that signs Woodley’s paychecks — the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or U.F.C. — wanted to offer him such a chance, he’d be willing to talk. If ever there was a moment when the UFC could bring Askren into the fold, the time would be now.

(Or right after the holidays, as Askren did mention he wanted to fatten up over some Christmas trimmings).

It’s a weird thing, a full circle return to where we were.

Four years ago, when Askren utterly dominated Andrey Koreshkov in his final fight with Bellator, the UFC’s welterweight champion was Johny Hendricks, with whom Askren had a rivalry that stretched back to the collegiate mats. There was a blood feud to sort out if the UFC could swing a deal to bring him over. It never got too far, though. White didn’t seem overly stoked to obtain a wrestler like Askren, and Askren ended up signing with ONE Championship. The move was great for frequent flier miles, as it’s a long way from Milwaukee to Singapore, the Philippines, Shanghai and Dubai (the places Askren fought), but it was a buzzkill for fans who wanted to see him test himself against the brand names in the industry.

These days the UFC’s welterweight division is about as stacked as it’s ever been, with legends (like Robbie Lawler), old glories (like Carlos Condit and Donald Cerrone), new bloods (like Darren Till and Mike Perry), Vikings (Emil Meek) and obnoxious xenophobes (like Colby Covington). Then there’s Stephen Thompson, and Rafael dos Anjos and Jorge Masvidal, Kamaru Usman, Santiago Ponzinibbio, on and on. If you squint, there’s even a Nate Diaz.

Imagine Ben Askren being a part of that pool. Askren, who has spent his time tempting fans to use that imagination, is now in a place to convert daydreams into something actual.

Of course, what Askren was talking about was the chance to fight for a UFC title, if/when Woodley were to cough it up. That’s a lot different than entering a pool of beastly types. It’s not likely the UFC would bring in a horizontal fighter like Askren and leapfrog him past that aforementioned lot for a chance at a title. If his victories over Koreshkov and Douglas Lima didn’t impress UFC brass, it’s unlikely juggernauts such as Bakhityar Abbasov, Nikolay Aleksakhin, Agilan Thani and the mighty Zebaztian Kadestam will raise an eyebrow either. Askren would likely have to fight contenders to become one, and that may not be tempt him back from lazy afternoons on Wisconsin’s finest disc golf courses.

The truth is, there’s a very good chance that Friday was the last we’ll see of Askren in a cage. He has suggested that he can meet his need for competition through grappling matches and the like, and that he has earned enough money throughout his career. He teaches wrestling in Milwaukee, and enters his retirement with a sense of career contentment. Askren danced to his own tune the whole way, and the beat didn’t exactly jibe with everyone. The UFC certainly didn’t dig his brand of funk back in the day.

And four years later, you can almost make out the lyrics at the end of Askren’s swan song — it sort of sounds like, “last chance to find out/take it or leave it” — but honestly it’s hard to tell for sure.

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