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Coach: Ben Askren would have been UFC champion if he’d joined earlier

Ben Askren has his hand raised at UFC 235 on March 2, 2019, in Las Vegas
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There will always be questions about just how good Ben Askren was in his prime, with some feeling he was a top-five welterweight for years and others wondering how his credentials stacked up to the UFC’s elite.

It wasn’t until this past year that Askren had the opportunity to step into the Octagon after winning world titles in Bellator and ONE Championship and going undefeated in his first 19 pro bouts. While all three of his UFC appearances were memorable, the results did little to impress skeptics or those who were seeing Askren compete for the first time.

Askren went 1-2 in 2019, with his one win being a controversial submission win over Robbie Lawler and one of his losses being a five-second knockout at the hands of Jorge Masvidal. Following a second straight loss to Demian Maia, Askren announced that he would be retiring from MMA competition at the age of 35.

We’ll never know how Askren would have fared against the likes of Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald, two elite welterweights who he’d expressed a desire to compete against on several occasions, but his coach Duke Roufus believes that if Askren had come to the UFC a few years earlier, the sky would have been the limit.

“He would be champion,” Roufus told MMA Fighting. “He’d be the triple champ. ONE, Bellator, and UFC. I believe that. Unfortunately, circumstances and timing don’t work out. I’ve seen him do some special stuff in the cage and in practice ever since I met Ben, it’s just sometimes timing doesn’t line up in this industry.”

One major factor in Askren’s retirement was his doctors telling him he required hip replacement surgery. According to Roufus, the injury had been evident for sometime and it affected the fighter’s training camps. Though Askren himself has insisted he is not blaming the hip issues for his losses, Roufus saw a difference between Askren’s recent performances compared to years past.

“It’s been bad for a while,” Roufus said. “Honestly, training camps this year were hindered due to his hip. He’s just such a tough kid, just fighting through things. Not to make excuses, but it’s definitely affected him a lot.”

Askren was a two-time NCAA wrestling champion and viewed as an intriguing prospect when he made his MMA debut back in February 2009. He won a Bellator title in his seventh pro bout and successfully defended it four times, defeating future champions Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov in dominating fashion. As his profile grew, Askren became recognized as one of the best welterweights competing outside of the UFC.

The end of Askren’s tenure with Bellator in 2013 was a messy one, as Roufus felt that Askren was being used as “a pawn” in a political struggle between then-Bellator-president Bjorn Rebney and UFC president Dana White. When the dust settled, Askren did not end up with either Bellator or UFC, instead signing with Singapore’s ONE Championship promotion (then called ONE FC). Askren defeated Nobutatsu Suzuki by first-round TKO to earn the ONE welterweight title.

In Roufus’s eyes, Askren could have risen to the very top of the UFC.

“The toughest thing is timing. I wish that Ben would have been given the opportunity when he should have, to enter the UFC when he was coming out of Bellator,” Roufus said. “Everything worked out the way it did, I blame Bjorn Rebney, the way he treated that situation that caused Ben to not matter to the UFC.

“That being said, I wish Ben would have come into the UFC at that time. I think we would have seen the real Ben. Guys like myself and Tyron Woodley have talked about the special Ben, at that time he was untouchable.”

Roufus expects Askren to stay involved with coaching in both wrestling and MMA. “Funky” is heavily involved in working with fast-rising flyweight contender Maycee Barber and he’ll likely play a major role in Woodley’s next training camp, whenever the former UFC champion returns to action.

Regardless of how Askren’s UFC run ended, Roufus has the utmost respect for what the fighter accomplished in his 10-year career.

“His stats are wonderful,” Roufus said. “Two-time world champion. Impressive record. What I like about Ben is the person he is as a combat sports athlete. He grew to be a big, popular fighter, and still has his own voice and personality at the same time.

“He never backed down from anyone and that’s a really powerful statement. Ben doesn’t budge from what he believes in and what he feels and I respect that about him so much.”

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