Back in the day, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta flew to Russia and tried to convince heavyweight monastic Fedor Emelianenko to sign with the UFC. They were rebuffed, in part because Fedor was shackled to M-1 Global at a time the UFC wasn’t in the business of co-promotion. And in part because Fedor was a principled fighter unmoved by ordinary earthly treasures, who was selectively color blind to both the UFC’s version of green and Dana’s particular shade of red.
Ben Askren isn’t Fedor Emelianenko. The UFC can’t sign Askren and immediately stick him in a fight that would do record pay-per-view numbers, like it could have with Fedor and Brock Lesnar. The résumés are not entirely the same; Agilan Thani will never be considered the kind of conquest that Antonio “Big Nog” Nogueira was, nor will a prime Bakhtiyar Abbasov soon be confused with a prime Mirko Cro Cop. Both Emelianenko and Askren came of age in Asia, but Fedor’s achievements in Japan carry a nostalgic cult vibe, back to a more innocent time of badassery, whereas Askren’s more modern triumphs in far-off Kallang went mostly unnoticed.
But what Askren has is a mop of curly hair, a radical sense of self, and a wrestling ability that could turn half the UFC welterweights to malt. He has a mouth when he wants to use it, too, and a chip on his shoulder to prove himself against the kinds of fighters the world might see as the “deadlier set.” He’s got a fat enough wallet not to concern himself over pay, and a cocksure smugness towards the UFC’s power structure that most — in the ivory WME world — would find admirable. He thinks he could destroy UFC great Georges St-Pierre, and there’s a good many within the MMA bubble who think he might be onto something.
The MMA bubble is of course the furnace that provides heat to an entire planet of casuals. Casuals warm their hands to hardcore awe.
Ben Askren isn’t the biggest name, but you know what he is? A foil for GSP in his footloose twilight. They ran parallel as champions for a long time — GSP in the UFC, Askren in Rebney-era Bellator. Just as GSP vacated his welterweight belt after narrowly escaping Johny Hendricks in 2013, Askren vacated his Bellator title for ONE FC. Askren didn’t escape Andrey Koreshkov, so much as feast on him. He out-struck Koreshkov 248-3, a great many of the strikes landing while he was in turtle pose or fetal positions. GSP went away in 2013, Askren went to Pasay.
Since then it’s been postcards and a big blue Pacific.
So I ask you, what’s not to love about a GSP-Askren fight? St-Pierre dictates a fight like a stubborn wrestler; Askren is a proverbial mule of unapologetic stubbornness. GSP just pissed off Dana White by winning — then vacating — the middleweight title at UFC 217, and wants to go back to his familiar home of welterweight. Askren pisses White off in general, yet even as he’s “retired” he’s open to the idea of a GSP fight at welterweight. GSP hasn’t lost since 2007, Askren hasn’t lost at all. Both are champions. GSP has taken out a who’s who in MMA for a long time, Askren has strong enough hands to rip up his Wikipedia page.
Neither of them much likes Dana White, and Dana doesn’t much like either of them. Mutual punishment for insubordination is a hell of a back-story for a fight. People love GSP, or love to hate him. People hate Askren, or hate themselves for loving him. They are a yin and yang of complex emotions.
St-Pierre said on The MMA Hour recently that he wasn’t particularly interested in “money fights” with Conor McGregor or any Diaz brother, but “legacy-wise” there were fights that appealed to him. He said he would prefer Askren come to the UFC, get some wins under his belt and gain some notoriety — because right now nobody knows who he is — and then they can set something up.
Hooey. That’s just more of that good GSP pistol-dance.
St-Pierre isn’t going to stick around long enough for Askren to make his way through gauntlet. Askren is ready when GSP is ready. Askren can wait as long as it takes for GSP to come back from his colitis and the fight loses nothing, because right now Askren is just an abstract idea enjoying “retirement” out in Milwaukee. He doesn’t have the credentials to fight GSP? Credentials belong to the Fertitta era of operation. In the new WME world where fighters are used as trinkets, you take your intrigues where you can find them. If a partition can come down for an Askren-GSP fight, you sell the hell out of that partition coming down. If there was no imagination for the fight, create it. If people moan that Askren has made a career fighting nobody’s — which they inevitably will — use it.
Because GSP is somebody. He’s that somebody.
Not just that somebody, but the Greatest Measuring Stick on roster, who right now doesn’t have an obvious fight to make. GSP is comeuppance for the righteous, and a smasher of the political astray. He provides Askren the name that he wants Askren to have.
And GSP is also an ally — he’s the man to prove the UFC right about Askren. Or is he? Maybe Askren is as skilled as GSP, as principled as Fedor, and as stubborn as Dana White, the latter of whom has let a personal vendetta keep everyone from finding out. If Dana is willing to give CM Punk (0-1) a second chance in the Octagon, why would he not give Askren (18-0-1) a first? That kind of skewed logic and bullheadedness is tired.
It comes down to this: Either the UFC has been right about Askren all along, or it’s been wrong. For a company that at one time balanced its checkbooks on the premise of the “ultimate proving ground,” there’s really only one way to find out.