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After years of chatter and speculation, it’s time to deliver for Ben Askren

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Winning wasn’t enough to get Ben Askren into the UFC. Perfection wasn’t enough. His award-winning background and Olympic pedigree — they weren’t enough either. He had to will it into existence through persistence and force of personality. He had to plow the narrative forward. He had to antagonize his way there.

Finally, he has arrived, ready to stake an indisputable claim as one of the best welterweights in the world. Somehow, that still lies in question, even as he stands unbeaten, even with the outsized expectations surrounding him. After years of verbally sparring with UFC president Dana White, of openly theorizing on his prospects within the division and against its fighters, it had to be this way. Askren is a marked man. There isn’t quite a bounty on his head, but everyone wants to be the one to cross out the zero on his won-loss record.

At Saturday night’s UFC 235, Robbie Lawler will be the first to try. A former UFC champion and one of the most rugged and savage fighters in mixed martial arts history, Lawler is a hellacious first-time matchup.

Armed with devastating power, competent takedown defense and an indomitable will, Lawler will attempt to thwart Askren’s relentless wrestling attack and force him out of his comfort zone. This is no setup for Askren’s success.

Yet to observe Askren is to see a man with seemingly no cares in the world. In his Monday media day interview with teammate and current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, Askren was loose and relaxed. According to Woodley, that’s the norm for Askren, who can sometimes be seen wrestling teammates for fun in the moments just before his fights. A moment fraught with nerves for most is playtime for him.

“I don’t feel the pressure, slash, I like the pressure,” Askren said on Monday. “This is what I came for. This is what I enjoy.”

Askren has been consistent in reflecting the same come-one, come-all stance since he finally broke through UFC president Dana White’s defenses to join the organization.

Earlier this month, welterweight contender Kamaru Usman confronted Askren backstage at a press conference regarding some previous comments Askren had made, which included accusations of hypocrisy as well as a challenge to fight. Askren seemed unfazed.

“I think he’s confused on what we do,” he said then. “We’re not playing basketball or wrestling. We get in the cage and fight each other, so threatening me backstage? That was what I volunteered for.” Then, with emphasis he repeated, “I volunteered for that.”

Askren is perhaps the most high-profile, high-caliber UFC newcomer since Eddie Alvarez debuted in September 2014. Alvarez lost that night, a result that has befallen many hyped UFC rookies, such as Mirko Cro Cop, Brock Lesnar, Hector Lombard and more. It is not easy to win when you are supposed to, but that’s what Askren will have to do to avoid hearing criticism that all of this time, he has been overrated.

Despite his perfect record — he is 18-0 with 1 no contest due to an erroneous eye poke — Askren’s critics have pointed to his strength of schedule as a weakness in his resume. After tearing through the Bellator roster in a three-year run that ended with him as the champion, Askren moved to the Asia-based ONE roster where he reeled off six more wins, captured their welterweight belt, and notably showed an increased propensity for finishing fights. The key names on his conquest list include former Bellator welterweight champion Douglas Lima, Jay Hieron, Andrey Koreshkov, Lyman Good and Shinya Aoki. It may not be a Hall of Fame-level murderer’s row, but it is a strong group. Together, those fighters have a combined record of 136-30.

Still, to detractors, it’s not the same as the UFC. It’s not the same pressure. It’s not the same stakes.

Now it all comes to a head.

All Askren has ever wanted is a chance to prove them wrong, and to do so with much at stake. Jackpot. While he has a divisional roadblock in front of him in the form of his friend Woodley — the two have stated multiple times they will not fight each other — if Woodley loses on Saturday to Usman, there is a ready-made rivalry in play. With a win over Lawler, Askren would vault into the top five and position himself as an insta-contender to Usman and the championship.

Even if Woodley wins, Askren can begin to position himself as a top contender-in-waiting, the way Daniel Cormier was for a time at heavyweight when his teammate Cain Velasquez reigned atop that division.

But everything hinges on one thing: he has to win. At age 34, Askren is not old, but he admitted in 2017, shortly after he announced he would retire, that he is not at the physical peak of his late 20s.

“And you know, it’s a slippery slope,” he said then, “because can I still compete with the best in the world? Yeah, of course I can. But you start getting a little worse and a little worse, a little worse. When is that cutoff?”

No one quite knows, and that is the intrigue of it all. We all have questions about Askren. He probably even has questions about himself. Finally on Saturday, he gets his big opportunity, and we all get some answers.