After nine undefeated years, the mixed martial arts career of Ben Askren will reach an end on Nov. 24 when Askren looks to defend his ONE welterweight title in his retirement fight against Shinya Aoki at ONE Championship: Immortal Pursuit.
While the announcement came as a surprise to many, Askren says the decision to walk away from fighting is one he has long considered, and ultimately, the 33-year-old Olympian — who last week badly outclassed Zebaztian Kadestam to retain his 170-pound title at ONE Championship: Shanghai — believes that two major points factored into his thinking.
“The first reason is because nobody retires in time,” Askren said Tuesday on The MMA Hour. “I mean, you think about who retires during their prime, the number of athletes who do that in any sport is very small. And obviously a sport like golf, where you see Tiger Woods fall off — well, there’s not really too much damage he could take from that, right? Although when you watch him and he sucks, and you’re like, ‘God, he used to be so good, but you suck now,’ it’s kind of disconcerting as a fan, right? But then you look at someone like Muhammad Ali, who was literally my favorite athlete of all-time. The punishment he took from sticking around too long past his prime, man, I would have to say — we can’t prove it, but I’d have to say we could guess it led to a lot of the problems that he had later in his life.
“So we’re in a combat sport, it’s dangerous, and I am definitely not physically at the peak I was, say, four to five years ago. And you know, it’s a slippery slope, because can I still compete with the best in the world? Yeah, of course I can. But you start getting a little worse and a little worse, a little worse. When is that cutoff?
“Then the No. 2 reason will be, if you’re competing right, if you’re doing it right, competition should be a very selfish pursuit,” Askren continued. “When I was younger, [I would read] athletes’ biographies, I always said I would be done by the time I was 30, because I wanted to be able to give back. I thought I would be coaching, and I am, and I thought I would be a parent, and I am. And there’s a lot of things that I have to do. For example, I didn’t coach anyone for about the last six weeks before my fight at AWA, because this is my time, I need to get ready. And there’s things I miss out in my kids’ life, because this is my time, I have to get ready. So, I guess those are the two main reasons that I kind of set an expiration date for myself.”
Askren has long been thought to be one of the best welterweights in the world. He spent the early chapters of his career reigning over the Bellator welterweight division with his trademark wrestling attack before signing with ONE Championship in 2014 and continuing his dominance under the ONE umbrella, compiling a flawless 17-0 record (with one no contest) in the process. Many of those contests were so one-sided that Askren barely got hit at all, a fact which helped “Funky” extend his self-imposed expiration date a few years passed what he originally planned.
“The plan when I was younger was (to retire at) 30. I always said 30,” Askren said. “That was the number that I picked, that’s a good number. Honestly, MMA people have kind of gotten confused about how long people should last because of how many people are using PEDs, and obviously that extends male athletes’ peaks. A male athlete’s peak, I believe, should be somewhere between 26 and 30. If we use those PEDs, we can extend it significantly, and that was what MMA fans got used to.
“But being a guy who does not use any of that stuff, like I said, I’m not the same guy I was at 28 physically. Now, technically I’ve gotten better, because I haven’t been doing this MMA thing that long. But physically, I have definitely gotten worse. I’ve passed my peak. And so, when I re-signed my contract with ONE Championship two years ago, I told them straight up, ‘I’m done. At the end of 2017, I’m done.’ Initially, like I said, I thought it was going to be 30. (But) 33, that’s it.”
In addition, while many MMA athletes compete well into their mid- to late-thirties, Askren admitted that he simply doesn’t have the same internal fire he once did.
“Young guys kind of have this chip on their shoulder of, ‘I want to prove something,’ right? ‘I’ve got to prove how tough I am. I’ve got to prove how good I am.’ And man, now as I’m getting older, I think it’s almost sad when guys my age and older still have that chip on their shoulder,” Askren said. “It’s like almost embarrassing. It’s like, hey, I’ve done what I could do, I’ve accomplished a lot, and now this, especially with wrestling — if this next generation wants to pass me up, great job. Good for them.
“Like, we just had the 2017 U.S. freestyle world team win the world championship for our country, and seeing all those guys have success, kind of passing what I did, man, I was so proud of them. And so I don’t feel like I have that chip on my shoulder anymore, and I haven’t had it for awhile, that chip on my shoulder, ‘I’ve got to prove myself, I’ve got to show people how tough I am,’ where I might’ve had that when I was a younger guy. I almost see that as a detriment, if I still have that at 33, to my life.”
For better or worse, despite his many accolades, Askren’s MMA career will ultimately go down as one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ of this era. At the peak of his powers, Askren had a case for being the single best welterweight fighter in the world, however he never got a chance to prove it because of his rocky relationship with the UFC, and in particular, UFC president Dana White — a relationship which led to the UFC to outright refuse to sign Askren when he was a free agent in 2014.
As a result, Askren spent the last four years fighting against competition of a lower tier than he deserved, and “Funky” admitted that the long-elusive chance to challenge for the world’s true No. 1 ranking would be the only reason he could see himself coming out of retirement for one more go-round.
“There would be one, and only one, way I would ever come back for another fight: if it was for the No. 1 spot in the world,” Askren said. “Not two, not three, not four, not five. None of those spots. Against the No. 1 guy in the world. And then obviously the second part of that would be (if) his name is not Tyron Woodley, because I have no interest in fighting Tyron. He’s a very good friend of mine So, if for some reason the No. 1 person’s name was not Tyron Woodley, and I got offered a fight against No. 1, I would come back to prove I was No. 1. But other than that, I’m retired. I don’t need to prove come back and prove I’m two or three or four, anywhere in there. I’ll be done.”
Woodley, the current UFC welterweight champion, is a longtime teammate and friend of Askren’s from their time together at Milwaukee’s Roufusport academy, where Askren serves as a head wrestling coach.
But regardless, before his final song can be sung, Askren first has to get by Aoki on Nov. 24. The Japanese veteran is a former ONE lightweight titleholder and feared grappler who has racked up submission victories against everyone from Eddie Alvarez to Tatsuya Kawajiri over the course a 15-year fighting career. It’s a stiff test, but if Askren is able to be successful against Aoki, he will ride into the sunset with his health and perfect record intact, content to move onto the next chapter of his post-fighting life.
“I don’t think I’ll ever come back,” Askren said. “I’ve been pretty disciplined. When I say something, I generally stick to it, no matter what it is in life. I would (still) like to compete in some form, just because I enjoy competing, number one, but number two, to stay in shape. Maybe a couple of grappling competitions a year. Maybe a couple of wrestling matches here and there. Something like that, because I know I’ll miss competing, but something where I [don’t] necessarily feel like I have to be the best in the world at it, right? Something where I don’t have to be totally selfish.”