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Fightweets: Who should be Ben Askren’s first UFC foe?

One Championship: Dynasty of Heroes Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

It seemed for a little while there that we were going to have an actual slow week for once in mixed martial arts, didn’t it? But then the MMA Gods reacted to the noticeable lack of insanity early on in the week, decided it was time to bust out the MMA News Headline Randomizer, and the randomizer spit out “UFC is considering trading Demetrious Johnson to ONE Championship in exchange for Ben Askren.”

Then Askren started trolling pretty much the entire UFC roster, and we were off to the races from there. So without further ado, time for another edition of Fightweets.

Who should Funky Ben fight?

@Metoproziva: You’re probably getting a lot of Ben Askren questions. Mine is who do you think has the best chance to beat him?

Good question. Ben Askren is really, really good, but because of the career path he’s taken, we don’t know exactly how good.

That’s not entirely Askren’s fault. When his contract came up with Bellator four years back and he walked away as undefeated welterweight champ, UFC president Dana White ludicrously claimed Askren wasn’t UFC caliber (visions of CM Punk vs. Mike Jackson flashed through my mind as I typed that phrase). Askren wanted in on the UFC. Neither the UFC nor Bellator wanted to pay Askren what he felt he was worth. ONE met Askren’s asking price. Good for Ben. Financial security should be of paramount importance for any professional fighter.

But I’m not going to play pretend that ONE’s level of competition is the same as UFC or Bellator, even though the company is making obvious strides. The majority of Askren’s opposition in ONE don’t have Wikipedia pages. That said, his one-sided wins over Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov in Bellator certainly hold up well. He’s undeniably outstanding at what he does, almost doing Georges St-Pierre’s thing better than GSP himself.

So given that we know Askren is so obviously skilled but that he hasn’t had any real competition in several years, who should Askren fight, should this UFC/ONE swap come together?

It seems like the entire UFC lightweight and welterweight division wants a piece of Funky Ben after Askren took swipes at everyone from Conor McGregor to both Diaz brothers to GSP to Khabib Nurmagomedov to Darren Till to Jorge Masvidal to Alan Jouban.

Someone in that mix is going to take the bait. It’s just a question of who’s the right opponent at this point in time.

And here’s where the MMA bubble and the real world collide, as they so often do.

Ben Askren is undeniably a rock star on MMA Twitter. He’s entertaining, funny, confident, and obviously doesn’t back down from anyone. But sometimes we have a habit of confusing MMA bubble popularity and mainstream popularity.

And guess what? Askren just isn’t a name that’s going to be big enough at this stage of the game to be the sort of paycheck which will get GSP off the sidelines. Nor is Nurmagomedov going to fight Askren at 165 pounds, as Askren suggested, not when Khabib has bigger paychecks to cash.

That’s not to say Askren can’t become a big star here in North America. He absolutely can. He’s got the charisma. He’s got the trash talk game that’s become so big a part of the business. He just needs to opportunity to get the sort of platform only the UFC can provide around these parts in order to prove it.

So if deal comes through, let’s give Askren a good mid-level name on a big card in front of a big audience and let him do his thing. Masvidal sounds like one hell of a good fight, exactly the type of bout that would show a world full of casual fans where Askren stands. Put that on ESPN next year, or a pay-per-view, and let Askren just do what comes to him naturally both in the cage and out.

If it works according to plan, sure, Askren could very well become the star some hardcore fans imagine him to be, and maybe from there the real big money bout awaits. But he’s not quite there yet.

Bye-bye, flys?

@SebastionHman: How quickly does dana abolish 125 if DJ gets traded?

Pretty much as soon as the ink dries on the paperwork. First, for a second, let’s take a second and pause to note that what we’re seeing proposed here isn’t technically a “trade,” per se, as we know it in sports terms. This would basically amount to a contract swap involving someone who, at least on the UFC side, is technically an independent contractor and not an employee. That an “independent contractor” can have his contract assigned to another company doesn’t sound very independent, but then, that’s what happens when you don’t have a strong union or fighter’s association working to keep these things from happening.

Then there’s the next level of this: If either fighter didn’t want to be a part of this proposed swap, it probably wouldn’t happen. Do you think either party wants someone who doesn’t want to be part of their organization, and made a stink about out publicly (one who isn’t an A-level PPV draw, at least)? Askren clearly wants into the UFC, and Johnson, for his part, talked about wanting to go around the world collecting all the flyweight belts in his runup to his fight with Henry Cejudo at UFC 227. If either fighter had instead come out and said “I’ll retire before I’ll go fight in the other company,” that would have been the end of it.

And that brings us back to the future of the division. If they do indeed shutter the 125-pound weight class, which they’ve hinted in the past, then it’s an abject failure on the UFC’s part.

Okay, fine, I’ll grant you that Johnson never got over as a superstar to the degree of other fighters of his skill set. It’s also worth pointing out that Johnson, himself, has never seemed interested in becoming a megastar. He’d be the first to tell you he just wants to do his job, be appreciated for it, and then go home and be with his family and play video games.

But now is the point you pull the plug on the weight class? Now, when Johnson finally met his match in the division? Now, when Johnson lost the title by a razor-thin margin to Cejudo at UFC 227 on one of the most compelling fights we’ll ever see? Now, when you have an Olympic gold medalist carrying your championship? You can’t make “Possible greatest fighter of all-time looks to get his belt back after having his record reign ended by an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler” work? Really?

There was a time Anderson Silva couldn’t draw, either, and was usually the part of double-feature main events. Imagine if they pulled the plug on Silva right before his popularity took off, then said “middleweights don’t draw?”

Sure. I’ll grant you that Mighty Mouse vs. Ali Bagautinov wasn’t exactly Conor vs. Jose Aldo as a draw. But if you can’t figure out a way to market a rematch featuring perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound fighter you’ve ever had finally losing, against the Olympic gold medal winner defeated him, and instead choose to ship the former champ halfway around the world, well, that’s a pretty major dent on the claim you’re an all-time great promoter.

165 time?

@jgo1233: If Ben Askren signs with the UFC, do you think they introduce the 165lb division? We know he will never fight Woodley, so the 170lb division is out until Woodley retires or loses.

I mean, there are plenty of reasons to get rid of MMA’s 155/170/185 setup and go with weight classes in 10-pound increments from 125 all the way up to 185. Welterweight champ Woodley has made it clear that at age 38 he’d have no problem with making 170 into 175 and have less of a weight cut. But sure, why not add this one on to the pile? You wouldn’t specifically make a new weight class just so two teammates can avoid fighting one another, but if you’re adding another high quality fighter to the mix in those classes, it only bolsters the case for expanding the classes. You know, 165, the one change that everyone wants, which of course means the UFC is resisting the idea. But I digress ...

More MMA trades

@pinheiroandre: If trades become a thing, which trade you would like to see the most?

Oh man. I really, really wanted to see a trilogy fight between Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler. While I’m happy Eddie’s getting paid at ONE, I’d be fine with a deal that put the two in the same company, one way or another. I don’t even much care who else is involved with the deal as long as they both end up in the same promotion. Oh, and I’d also like to undo the previous worst roster mistake the UFC made in the WME era prior this apparent shuttling of Mighty Mouse, which was allowing Gegard Mousasi to walk away. So I’d propose shipping the Diaz brothers to Bellator in exchange for Mousasi and a fighter to be named later so that we can get the Diazes fighting for a promoter they actually like, and come out of it with a Mousasi-Robert Whittaker fight, to boot.

And hey, I’m going to stop myself there, because our guys Alexander Lee and Jed Meshew were way ahead of the curve on this subject, so go check out their MMA trades piece here.

UFC Fight Night

@RuckerYeah: Any good reason to watch UFC Moncton you can tell me about?

Wait, do you mean to tell me there’s something else on TV this weekend aside from my Boston Red Sox marching toward their fourth World Series title in 14 years and Boston’s 11th sports title in 16?

Well yes, in fact there is. I’m not going to tell you to watch the entirety of UFC Moncton’s 13-fight card, which mostly feels like the people of New Brunswick are inexplicably being punished for unknown transgressions. But Gian Villante’s on the main card and he’s usually good for a fun brawl, and hey, you can say the same for Patrick Cummins, too.

And the main event of Anthony Smith vs. Volkan Oezdemir is meaningful and consequential. Smith’s rise at 205 since jumping up from 185 has been remarkable. He’s got the marquee finishes of Rashad Evans and Shogun Rua. A win over someone in his prime, like Oezdemir, marks Smith as a real contender in a division which is on a low-key but real rebound. That enough should make UFC Moncton worth a look.

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