There was a time not that long ago that Ben Askren was considered one of the best mixed martial artists on the planet, largely based around his incredible wrestling game after he was a two-time NCAA champion and a member of the U.S. Olympic team.
When he retired in 2019, Askren was headed for hip surgery that would make competing in MMA nearly impossible but he didn’t close the door on possibly returning to action for the right opportunity. Of course, no one expected that Askren’s first fight in two years would come in a boxing match against YouTube celebrity Jake Paul but that’s exactly what will happen on Saturday night, April 17.
Askren never hid his intentions to drag opponents to the mat and maul them but he also was never considered a prolific striker during his career. That’s why when the opportunity came along to clash with Paul in a boxing match, Askren put all of his focus on learning the sweet science and that included a week spent with one of the top coaches in the history of the sport.
“First let me share with you how this came about. I received a call from my friend Dana White,” Freddie Roach told MMA Fighting when asked about the work he did with Askren. “He asked if I would work with Ben to prepare for his fight against Jake Paul. I had hoped it would be a full camp, but Ben was only able to spend one week with me at Wild Card, in mid-March.
“Now to answer your question, it was great working with Ben. He is a true professional and a class act. He came to Wild Card in great shape and sparred the first day and did 12 rounds of mitts with me, straight through, on the second day in addition to the usual roadwork and boxing drills. He is quick study and has a great work ethic. He puts his punches together very well and with a lot of power.”
Askren doesn’t come from a boxing background and while he worked on striking throughout his fight career, his punches were always used with the intention of setting up the takedown.
While Roach acknowledged that Askren’s initial sessions were messy, it didn’t take long for coach and fighter to eventually find a rhythm together.
”It was a little difficult at first but Ben adapted easily and we focused our time on technique and strategy,” Roach said. “He knows how to beat Jake Paul and if he sticks to the plan we worked on I believe Ben will win this fight on Saturday. My advice to Ben when we last spoke was: ‘Do what you know and you will win the fight.’
“Ben is so driven. He has a great work ethic. He had no problem with trying anything I recommended and gave me everything I asked of him in the gym. He has a lot of power. He’s a helluva guy.”
Roach was more than happy to lend a helping hand to Askren and it certainly didn’t hurt that he was facing off with Paul, who has spent a lot of time touting his boxing prowess despite just two wins against opponents without any previous fight experience.
“I refer to Jake Paul as the ‘YouTube boob,’” Roach said. “I’ve seen video of him fighting and his press conference with Ben. It’s really hard for me to watch him too long.
“As far as his boxing skills, I think he’s a product of good matchmaking. To me, he acts like a celebrity trying to be a boxer. I told Ben that beating Jake Paul would be more than a victory, it would be a public service.”
In general, Roach doesn’t mind that celebrity boxers like Paul are bringing attention to the sport, although he’s certainly hoping that Askren puts an end to his hype on Saturday night.
“So far, they seem popular,” Roach said. “If the fighters are making good money, I have no difficulties with these type of events. And if they expose boxing to a younger audience and that audience continues to follow the sport, then boxing has a chance to widen its audience. What’s wrong with that?
“I know one thing, when Ben knocks Jake Paul on his ass on Saturday night, YouTube will have itself a new most-viewed video highlight.”
When it comes to the actual matchup, Roach knows that Askren is giving up a decent amount of size and around a four-inch reach advantage to Paul. That said, Roach knows the former MMA champion has the skills to negate that distance and hurt Paul on the inside, not to mention his past fight experience against some of the best in the world will definitely help him in the trenches against a novice like the 24-year-old from Ohio.
In the end, Roach expects Askren to show the superior skill set, which will allow him to punish Paul round after round until he either wins a decision or gets the knockout finish.
“Since Ben is the shorter fighter, he will have to close the distance between him and Jake,” Roach said. “Crowd him. If Ben can do that, then his power will be maximized and it will be easy for Ben to begin breaking Jake down from a variety of angles. Ben throws better combinations than Jake. Ben know he will have to be on the attack for as long as the fight goes.
“Jake has a height and reach advantage and a little bit of power. He seems to be working hard in the gym and is in decent shape. You should always respect your opponent inside the ring and Ben knows that. We’ll see what Jake is made of when that bell rings. Jake may find out that it’s safer to exchange insults with Ben than punches.”