After his loss Saturday to Demian Maia at UFC Singapore, his second straight after reeling off 19 straight wins to start his career, Ben Askren these past few days, started talking openly of retirement.
Askren had mentioned retirement a few years ago, feeling he had done everything he could other than win a UFC championship. And when he was available previously, UFC had expressed no interest in him.
In many ways, that decision by Dana White in 2013, which led to Askren moving to ONE from 2014 to 2017, was unfortunate in hindsight.
White had criticized Askren’s style, as heavily dependent on wrestling as almost anyone in the sport, as boring, with comparisons to the sleep aid Ambien. But Askren left Bellator with a 12-0 record, which included one tournament win, one welterweight title win and four successful title defenses.
The sport has long since evolved past the point where a great wrestler, even one as legendary as Askren, could dominate with that as a singular skill set. Askren went to the Olympics in wrestling, is a two-time Hodge Trophy winner who won his last 87 matches in college, with two Division-I titles and two second place finishes. Some will use his 1-2 record in UFC as proof that he built up a record against lesser competition in Bellator, and later ONE. After Bellator, Askren won ONE’s welterweight title in his debut with the group and held it until leaving as champion in the famous trade that netted ONE Demetrious Johnson.
Askren turned out to be a strong addition to UFC. Between regular media and social media, Askren worked hard and was one of the most effective fighters on the roster in building interest in has fights. He understands how to promote himself . He can be antagonistic while at the same time not being contrived or fake. And there are top fighters in the division, most notably the two fighting for the title on Dec. 14, champion Kamaru Usman and challenger Colby Covington, that he’s already had a lot to say about.
And his three fights were anything but boring.
His debut against Robbie Lawler, which he won, showed strong guts in coming back from nearly being finished instantly. It ended up becoming controversial because the fight seemed like it was stopped early on a choke attempt that Lawler didn’t seem yet on the verge of tapping from. His second fight, a five-second knockout loss to Jorge Masvidal, basically created this coming Saturday’s Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz fight. On Saturday, he had an exciting ground battle with Maia. The two were both among the best ground specialists in the company. As expected, Askren was able to get his takedowns, and Maia stayed right with him in getting sweeps. The fight was competitive until Maia put him out with a choke.
Askren blamed it on a crucial mistake. The two key factors seem to be that when Askren retired the first time, he came back to attempt to win the one major welterweight championship he had never had a shot at. With two losses in a row, while he can come back from it, it would be difficult. Welterweight is loaded with contenders and there is still the unanswered question of Askren being able to use a mostly wrestling-heavy game to beat the elite in the division. Still, based on his strengths, Maia was among the worst style match-ups for him, because while he was able to get the fight to the ground several times, Maia is the opponent that offered the most danger to Askren when he got it there.
White has made it clear there’s a place for Askren in UFC. But if Askren stayed, his back would be against the wall with two straight losses.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of Saturday’s show.
DEMIAN MAIA - Maia (28-9), at 41, looked in his best shape in years. The win puts him in second place in UFC history with 22 career Octagon wins, one behind Donald Cerrone. His durability is unquestioned, as in his lengthy career he has only been finished once, and that was more than a decade ago.
With a high profile win against Askren, Maia isn’t far from the top of the heap in the division, but he is hurt by the fact that he has losses to the current champion (Usman), the next challenger (Covington) and the previous champion (Tyron Woodley).
He asked for Diego Sanchez (29-12) next. Sanchez has a name, and is one of the most exciting fighters on the roster. Sanchez isn’t considered near his level at the current time. If Maia’s goal is to do one fight with Sanchez, given that both have been around for so long and never faced each other, it is understandable.
If his goal is to reach the top of the mountain, which would make an unbelievable story at his age, Sanchez doesn’t get him there. If he’s looking for a step up, Leon Edwards (18-3) is the pick. If he’s looking for an intriguing fight, Michael Chiesa (16-4), who has shown great groundwork, is a good next fight.
BEN ASKREN - There is a ready-made fight for Askren (19-2) should he continue which would be Covington (15-1), if he were to lose the title fight to Usman. It may have the upside in a win that Askren will see value in returning. If Covington wins the title, Usman would be a possibility as well. If those two are seen as two highly ranked for a guy with two straight losses, then it’s best to go for the exciting grappling, a category Gunnar Nelson (17-5-1) fits into.
CYRIL GANE - Gane (5-0) is one of the most intriguing heavyweight prospects since Francis Ngannou. He showed wicked skill, particularly in his body kicks, the likes you don’t usually see in heavyweights, and he got a win by submission with a heel hook on the mat when Don’Tale Mayes (7-3) somehow was able to withstand all the brutality that his body was taking.
The key is not to see this potential and then rush in with more experienced fighters. If anything, Gane is the perfect opponent for Greg Hardy (5-1). It would be a showcase fight because of Hardy’s name and controversial nature. Hardy would still have to survive Alexander Volkov on Nov. 9 in Moscow. Even if Hardy loses, which is likely, that doesn’t preclude the value of him facing Gane.
SERGEI PAVLOVICH - Pavlovich, another heavyweight, moved to 14-1 on Saturday with a first round stoppage win over Maurice Greene (8-3). A good next opponent would be Sergey Spivak (10-1) or Augusto Sakai (14-1-1).