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The Great Divide: Who is the winner of the Demetrious Johnson for Ben Askren trade — ONE Championship or UFC?

Ben Askren and Demetrious Johnson could be trading homes soon.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a new reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which writers debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments section below.

In past editions Chuck Mindenhall and Shaun Al-Shatti debated UFC 230’s main event, Tyron Woodley’s UFC 228 dilemma, and Daniel Cormier’s potential retirement fight. This week, the two take a look at the stunning news of the UFC and ONE Championship potentially “trading” two of their best fighters and wonder: If the Demetrious Johnson vs. Ben Askren swap goes down as reported, which side is the biggest winner of the trade?

JOHNSON TO ONE CHAMPIONSHIP

Mindenhall: Ben Askren was never going to fight for ONE Championship again, which is a pretty declarative stance. So the idea of the Singapore-based promotion flipping an idling commodity to the UFC for one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of all-time — the UFC’s record-breaking ex-champion Demetrious Johnson — seems to me like a win. The memory of Askren’s curls was all Kallang had left; now “Mighty Mouse” will be crossing the Pacific on a regular basis with the idea of doing all the little dudes on ONE’s roster bodily harm.

That’s a freaking victory, Shaun Al-Shatti. That is a freaking V-I-C-T-O-R-Y.

Not that I don’t dig the idea of Askren joining the already teeming ranks of the UFC’s welterweights, which I find massively appealing. In fact, I did a whole piece on it when Askren “retired” in 2017, trying to nudge UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby into booking a GSP-Askren fight on the unassailable premise of, “like, why not?” Askren is undefeated. He can fight any of 15 different names in the UFC and it will be appealing for no other reason than the partition is finally down. People will tune in to see a theory debunked; in this case, if Askren belongs in the class of the UFC’s elite. The vocal majority will want to see him fail, just to say “I told you so.”

In other words, the premise is more fun than his style!

This is all compelling and good, but in return ONE Championship gets one of the most dynamic, ridiculous, air-bending, piston-quick contortion artists that ever stepped foot in the Octagon. If there’s a knock on Johnson it’s simply that — even as he rewrote the record books — he couldn’t persuade the American audience into caring. He could have floated the cage shooting sparks out of his palms and a certain population of the fanbase would say, “yeah, but it’s flyweight.” I don’t have to tell you that aloofness isn’t one of the coveted tenets of prizefighting, especially one that operates so frequently on a pay-per-view model. Johnson didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the UFC, and he didn’t mind grousing about it in the media. In fact, he began to sell his own aloofness towards it after awhile, making a paradox out of his greatness and his purse demands versus his glaring lack of drawing power.

Here’s the great thing about this fresh slate over in Asia — the people will appreciate Demetrious Johnson for who he is. His longtime coach Matt Hume, who doubles as the vice president of operations and competition at ONE FC, is not only in a spot to provide Johnson with the paydays he’s been asking for, but put Johnson into an arena where he is The Man. The feeling is that “Mighty Mouse” will bring with him the kind of mythological reverence that Western audience shorted him on. He is an unapologetic main event overseas, not the support cast for a weakish card. There are full crops of smaller bodied fighters for him to showcase on. And he will. Just like with his victory over Ray Borg, he’ll do impossible, highly skilled crazy shit that will drop jaws from Jakarta to Pasay City.

No, what ONE FC is acquiring is a cult figure who left a cosmic echo in the UFC, who has achieved the kind of status — in a division that never flourished — that Askren never could. That is, he’s dominant and exciting. ONE FC lost a fighter that was tied to them through paper. But it gains an underappreciated, generational star, who is tailor-made to make a splash in Asia. It’s a win-win for ONE FC and Johnson, same as it’s a win-win for the UFC and ONE FC. Everybody wins here.

But especially ONE FC, because unlike the conditionally “retired” Askren, Johnson is active and ready to fight.

ASKREN TO UFC

Al-Shatti: Damnit, Mindenhall. You aren’t supposed to be so convincing. I won’t lie to our MMA Fighting family, you may have won me over with your first two paragraphs; nevertheless, I am determined to press onward.

To start, I echo your sentiments that this feels like a win-win for all parties involved. The UFC had eight years to figure out how to market Johnson to the masses, seven of which were spent with him serving as the promotion’s record-shattering champion. A video game loving all-time great who throws fools above his head then armbars them in midair? That sort of fanciful tale writes itself, yet somehow the promotion never found a way to make the public care. Then at some point, it felt like the UFC itself simply stopped caring.

Remember back to last year when, in the midst of negotiations for his next title defense, the UFC threatened to pull the plug on 125 pounds altogether if Johnson didn’t acquiesce? Do you think something like that happens at welterweight or heavyweight? Even Johnson seemed as if he was over the whole song and dance during UFC 227 fight week. He carried the air of a man who was ready to move on, and it’s no coincidence that rumblings of the flyweight division’s dissolution have steadily grown in intensity since he lost to Henry Cejudo that fateful Saturday in Los Angeles. Asia, meanwhile, has long been a bastion for combat sports’ lightest weight classes. ONE Championship even has a men’s strawweight division — that pretty much says it all. Its audience is perfectly suited to appreciate Johnson’s Lilliputian brilliance, at least more so than the North American fan base, which has shown an exasperating unwillingness to get behind DJ’s historic feats.

(Also the idea of Demetrious Johnson fighting in a promotion where the kneeing of a grounded opponent is not only allowed, but encouraged, is instant #wouldwatch material.)

All of that preface, though, is simply meant to explain why when I chalk this up as a bigger win for the UFC, I’m doing so only from the promotion’s own world view. Because this, to me, feels like the UFC choosing to wager on potential over a known quantity the promotion feels has capped in value. In other words, this is the UFC shedding an asset they’ve long considered shedding, while at least getting something potentially valuable back in return.

The promotion’s failure to market Johnson is not altogether surprising. The truth is the UFC has always been limited when it comes to the brand of athlete it has been able to manicure into a featured attraction. The formula is predefined, if not somewhat archaic, and no matter how hard the UFC tried, it never would have been able to fit the square peg of 125-Pound Video Game Loving Man into the round hole the UFC understands. We’re talking about an entity that still uses nu-metal as its calling card in 2018. Evolution is hard.

Ben Askren, however, is exactly the type of circular peg who can fit into that circular hole. He talks trash. He cuts promos. He calls out opponents — he already started last night! He tells the audience how damn good he is then he goes out and executes his promises to perfection. His style may not be the most ascetically pleasing for casuals to watch, but neither was Chael Sonnen’s and neither is Khabib Nurmagomedov’s. The out-of-cage package matters just as much as the in-cage product in WME-IMG’s Money Fight Era, and Askren can hold court with the best of them.

He also exists as a sort of question mark incarnate — a curious living, breathing debate. Arguments over where Askren fits into the greater welterweight scheme and whether his prodigious wrestling talents could translate to the UFC have raged since the heyday of Bjorn Rebney. These questions have long needed answers, and the UFC is gambling on those answers being as compelling of a story — if not more so — than Johnson’s climb back up the mountain against a cadre of flyweights he’s already bested. Askren’s entry may not draw the same level of prestige as Johnson’s omnipresence, but with even a little bit of sweat equity, the Funky one could potentially draw close to the same metrics as “Mighty Mouse” at half the cost, and with a higher ceiling to grow.

To use NFL terms, this is Bill Belichick trading Richard Seymour (or Ty Law, or Deion Branch, or whichever other expensive Patriot Pro Bowler you want to use) a year too early in order to gamble on a more cost-friendly draft pick that could either totally blow up in his face or potentially fill a hole in a way the departing party never could. Everyone in the sport knows Demetrious Johnson should be in the UFC. He’s a legitimate generational talent and an all-time great. Hopefully he’s getting paid well with ONE Championship and hopefully this move doesn’t signal a death knell for the flyweight division. But the UFC did all it understood how to do with Johnson and things weren’t going to improve any time soon.

At least now we have the prospect of Ben Askren at long last bringing his special brand of funk to the Octagon and finally seeing his name in the marquee against titans like St-Pierre, Nurmagomedov, Covington, Usman, and the list goes on. That’s a get I can stand behind.

Poll

Who is the winner of the deal?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    UFC for getting Askren
    (1014 votes)
  • 40%
    ONE Championship for getting DJ
    (2349 votes)
  • 42%
    It’s a win-win all around
    (2464 votes)
5827 votes total Vote Now

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