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For Ben Askren, every fight is a walk on the razor’s edge

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

By the time Ben Askren arrived in the UFC, he had admittedly given up attempting to campaign his way into the Octagon. He had retired over a year earlier, saying he was “definitely not physically at the peak I was, say four to five years ago” and that “I’ve passed my peak.” Later this month, he turns 35, which does not even qualify as middle aged for normal humans but is positively advanced in athlete years.

Askren returned with the sole purpose of proving himself to be the very best the sport has to offer, and in that quest, the clock is ticking. After his short and controversial debut win against Robbie Lawler, he pairs off with another cold-eyed sniper in Jorge Masvidal at UFC 239.

To hear Askren tell it, it should be a yawner.

“I think it’s pretty easy,” he said in a recent interview with MMA Fighting’s Damon Martin. “He’s simple right? He’s got good hands but his wrestling’s not great. His jiu-jitsu’s not great. His strength is not great. His cardio’s not great. So when you break it down like that, it becomes pretty simple.”

Does it though? Masvidal may have his share of losses on his record — 13 of them in 46 professional fights, for the record — but he’s never been anyone’s pushover. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He’s skilled and methodical and defends his turf like a junkyard dog. In his last five UFC losses (all of which came to ranked opponents), four of them have come via split-decision. This is a man nicknamed “Gamebred” for a reason.

Still, Askren will walk into this fight and every fight until the end of time thinking that he has a sizable advantage where it counts, through his wrestling. The four-time NCAA wrestling All-American and 2008 Olympian has paired his dogged takedown ability with an underrated submission game to great effect. This is a fighter who understands his strengths and refuses to stray from his plan, no matter the stakes, the danger, or the crowd reception. He is perhaps the most suffocating grappler MMA has ever seen.

In a way, that makes his career-long unbeaten streak all the more impressive. Every fighter who signs a contract to face him knows exactly what is coming, yet one after the next, they have been unable to stop it. Being taken down has been a date a sealed by destiny, guaranteed like nightfall.

For Masvidal, the key number in this equation is 77. That is the percent of takedown tries he has successfully defended in his UFC career. That defense is above-average for a UFC competitor, yet it’s still not enough when you’re stepping in against Askren. If he doesn’t get you in his first shot, he’ll be right back with another one. If wrestling is his greatest strength, relentlessness is 1A.

It’s like that with his mouth as well. Askren has the knack of raising his profile not by speaking loudly, but by saying what he is going to do, and then doing it. This hasn’t made him the biggest fan favorite, but it’s certainly made him more known than the average UFC fighter coming into his second promotional bout.

Because of that, every fight comes with it heightened stakes. There are those that want to watch him chase the belt, sure, but there are also those who see him as a loudmouth and are tuning in just to see him smashed and humiliated.

This is of course exactly what Askren wants. With little time to waste, Askren walked into the UFC fully aware of how to get to where he was going. Win fights, sure, but also make an impact. Become somebody. There is no way to ensure a title opportunity — for proof, see Tony Ferguson or Colby Covington — but it always helps to have a winning streak and to boast the fight world’s attention.

Askren has had the former for years now; the latter he is still working on. Each is at stake every time out, and therein lies the rub. For someone who already retired once, it’s hard to believe that if he suffered a loss, that he would shrug it off to restart the chase again. Any defeat may mark the end of the pursuit.

This razor’s edge is one that only the most mentally strong can navigate. With so much at stake every time out, it would be easy to get rattled, lose focus and choke under duress, especially as opponent level increases.

The good news for Askren is that he doesn’t have far to go from here to there. Already ranked No. 5, there is not much between him and the championship bullseye he has placed on Kamaru Usman. But as those who have gotten there know, the final steps are the most difficult. Either he’ll get there or he won’t. Either he’ll bask in glory forever or he’ll find a competitive truth he’s forever forced to grapple with.