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Controversial ending is fitting for Ben Askren’s debut

Ben Askren Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Pre-competition visualizations are a staple of preparation for many professional athletes. Close your eyes, imagine the possibilities, picture victory. Believe it, then achieve it. It’s simple stuff. Most conjurings are realistic, based upon history and likelihoods. Routine. They rarely foresee the abnormal.

Ben Askren couldn’t have seen this coming. Sure, he expected to win at UFC 235, to beat former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and make a splash. But he couldn’t have expected this.

Askren won on Saturday, remaining unbeaten. That is the takeaway. That is the result that matters. That is the thing. But the way it happened? It was sudden. It was controversial. It was so very Askren.

A bulldog choke is a rare submission move at the highest levels of MMA. You may see it on the regional circuit; maybe even on the prelims of some larger events. But at the highest level, it’s not something you witness more than once or twice a year.

In the history of the UFC, which covers over 5,000 fights, there has been less than 10 bulldog choke finishes. Modern jiu-jitsu prizes position over submission, and because the bulldog choke doesn’t include body control, many fighters won’t even attempt it, afraid that the defending fighter will escape and take their back.

That’s the choke Askren found against Robbie Lawler, moments after being hoisted in the air, slammed down, and smashed on for a few moments. Moments after survival. Askren wrapped his arm around Lawler’s neck and squeezed for all he was worth, until referee Herb Dean thought he saw Lawler go limp. In the moment, it appeared he was right. Lawler’s right arm seemed to lose life for a split second, but within a tick of Askren releasing the hold, Lawler was lucid and protesting the call. And just like that, Dean seemed wrong and Askren (in the eyes of some) went from good to lucky.

Still, it was a perfectly fine ending. Askren has traded in controversy for years, and the ambiguous ending will work just fine for future promotion. For years, mixed martial arts fans have wondered whether he excelled because he was facing talent one rung below the UFC, or if he could adapt his attack to the Octagon. We still don’t have the definitive answer, but both sides left with some ammunition for the continuing debate.

On one hand, we saw Lawler slam him and rock him. Askren was in big trouble, perhaps only a strike or two away from being finished. He was thisclose to following Eddie Alvarez, Mirko Cro Cop and Brock Lesnar as another UFC rookie who disappointed in his debut.

On the other hand, Askren survived! Who survives a Lawler barrage like that? The former UFC welterweight champion bounced Askren’s head on the mat enough times to dribble the length of a basketball court, yet Askren was able to withstand it. He had to survive just to make it to the controversy. That is a point that should not be missed in the moment. Askren survived a Lawler mauling and lived to tell!

“I think I showcased some toughness,” Askren said in the post-fight press conference. “I faced some adversity. I haven’t really faced a lot of that in my career. I’ve been so much better than most people that I haven’t needed to show that quality. I prefer it to be that way but if I have to show toughness once in a while that’s probably a good thing.”

Sure, it wasn’t the clean win that he wanted, but it serves the same purpose. The UFC will look at him as a winner, and with his teammate Tyron Woodley losing the welterweight title on the same night — meaning he’s no longer standing in Askren’s way — he’s begun to uniquely position himself as a contender.

Askren has spent plenty of time calling out the new champ Kamaru Usman, and Usman has responded in kind. They are not just open to fighting each other; they are hoping to. With Askren sneaking up on his 35th birthday, it’s a welcome development. He has previously said he does not want to keep competing too long, and now there is a path to proving he is the best in the world.

He still has work to do. The fight lasted just 200 seconds, but in that time, we saw that Askren couldn’t do much against Lawler in the standup department. That doesn’t make him unique — many great fighters don’t want to duel against Lawler — but you have to be able to at least threaten from the position, and there was none of that. The inability to put strikes together or even to feign with them limits quality takedown tries, the key to Askren’s game.

Things will not get easier for him as he goes along. The top of the division now consists of Usman and Colby Covington, two high-level wrestlers who may not have Lawler’s offensive firepower, but who have the talent to stall out Askren’s tenacious takedown shots. But the thing is, that doesn’t matter. By winning, even controversially, he’s put his name in that mix. And by speaking, he’ll stay there.

The path Askren has walked has been a long and strange one, with nary a straight line. Last night was just another strange turn, and yet somehow, his hunt remains on track.