Askren, who’d wrestled in the 2008 Summer Olympics and less than one year later transitioned to MMA, was there to help Alan Belcher prepare for his fight with Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100. He needed some tape. No problem, Roufus replied. Happy to help.
“He goes, ‘Yeah, I was just wrestling in Russia, and my finger popped out of my skin,’” Roufus told MMA Fighting. “‘I’ve just got to tape it to keep the bone in.’ That’s how I started working with Ben Askren.”
Back then, Askren was an outsider at the world-class MMA gym, a guy trying to take his cage skills to the next level. No one doubted he was exceptional on the mats. But on his way to multiple MMA titles, he worked with a bevy of top-tier coaches and fighters who, one by one, discovered this mop-haired guy in flip-flops was more than that. He was preternaturally tough, hard to hit, and, well, funky as punches were traded.
In other words, he was a lot more than what he looked like, which is what his colleagues would like the world to know in advance of an eight-round cruiserweight boxing match with Jake Paul at Triller Fight Club.
“There’s a reason why he was such a winner in wrestling,” Roufus said. “It’s wasn’t because he was an Adonis or this stellar athlete. He was a stellar competitor with a stellar mindset. If you go on what nature gave him, he’d be nobody. But Ben wanted to be somebody special, and he manifested that.”
On Saturday, Askren will make another transition, an unexpected turn into the ring that no one doubts is driven by anything more than capitalism. And yet there’s nothing un-serious about his approach to Paul, his MMA brothers say. It’s the same one he takes for every competition.
An unorthodox challenge
Some boxing purists would roll their eyes at footage of Askren on his feet (Paul wouldn’t get a much better look, either). But they might have more appreciation for his defensive abilities.
When Askren migrated to Roufusport, his work wasn’t designed to transform him into the next Ernesto Hoost, Roufus said. Instead, he was trained to avoid hammers of his more experienced colleagues and to get into position to do what he does best: take guys down. That required emphasis on footwork and movement, body positioning and timing. And a lot of getting out of the way.
The distances are different in the squared circle, but the tactics still apply. Jake Paul might be young, fast and powerful. But can he hit Askren?
“With striking, we tend to look at the sexy stuff,” Roufus said. “That guy hits the bag hard, he hits mitts hard, he hit that other guy hard. But there’s another side, the two-way traffic, defensive side. Ben’s a hard guy to catch on the button clean.”
Most combat sports fans would cite the most obvious contradiction to that statement, a famous five-second knockout that Askren suffered when Jorge Masvidal timed a flying knee at UFC 239. It was a brutal halt to the momentum Askren had built in the octagon after a comeback facilitated by an usual trade with ONE Championship, where he’d held the welterweight belt before stepping back from the sport.
It was also not a punch, UFC middleweight Gerald Meerscheart would like to remind everyone. If you look at the rest of Askren’s body of work, he said, you won’t find any other highlight-reel losses. In fact, he said, you won’t find a lot of hits taken flush.
“That’s a dude that fought Douglas Lima and [Andrey] Koreshkov in Bellator,” Meerscheart said. “Those guys are absolute killers, and he managed to go through those fights without taking any significant damage. I think that’s something a lot of people overlook.
“Not only that, that [Masvidal knockout] was bone to face, and those are four-ounce gloves. They’re getting 10-ouncers, and I’ve sparred with Ben I don’t know how many times, even when we did standup sparring, it was a pain in the butt.”
Former UFC welterweight champ Tyron Woodley is a standout wrestler with an exceptionally powerful right hand. He’s caught many opponents with it. But he struggled to catch Askren in the gym.
“He’s very hard to hit,” Woodley said. “I’ve sparred him, and he’s like a bully. Not in a bad way. He’s a guy that will grab your f*cking big toe and pull it away from the other ones in wrestling practice and think it’s funny.”
Of course, it’s one thing to avoid punches. Askren could simply evade Paul the entire fight, shuffling in a circle as his younger foe swings away. That will accomplish two things: keep him conscious and tire out Paul, who no doubt will come into the ring looking to prove a point. What can Askren do to actually win?
First, according to Meerscheart, he can clinch up and hang on. That will take some of the sting out of the punches coming his way, and it will open up spots for counters. It’s something Askren did to he and everyone else at Roufusport.
The UFC middleweight admits his longtime teammate is nothing close to Mike Tyson in power. But with 45 fights on his professional MMA resume, he’s been hit hard by a few people – less fortunately, just once and really badly in his most recent octagon outing – and was surprised at the amount of force Askren could generate in close.
“He’s got a couple little spots where, even if I’m ready for it, he’s just got a way he moves his body and his hips. ... Now, does he knock [Paul] out cold with 10-ounce gloves? I don’t know about that, but there is going to be a moment where he lets one of those go where he sees the opening, and Paul is going to go, ‘What the f*ck was that?’”
Add a bunch of those up over an eight-round fight, and Askren might have something. Woodley said the ex-champ has made a career of outworking his opponents in unusual positions.
“That’s what Ben thrives on, being able to push you into situations you’re not used to being in,” he said. “You’re definitely not conditioned to work your way through them. Then once you get there, you’re going to be tired. Your whole game plan, your whole strategy has to change.
“When he punches you and does creepy stuff, he’s like the Dennis Rodman of the sport. You can watch it and think it’s unorthodox, but then you get out there, and you can’t stop him.”
Dennis Rodman, though?
“Ben is just a visionary,” insists Woodley, who will be cornering Askren. “Is it a tough fight because of the athleticism of this kid and Ben’s inability to wrestle? Yeah. But Ben’s never signing up to lose nothing.”
A will to win
That’s one thing that keeps popping up when Askren’s colleagues talk about him. Aside from a pain tolerance demonstrated with mangled fingers and toes, they describe a guy who competes on a higher level. Call it a product of his athletic upbringing, Olympic pedigree, or a genetic gift. He battles for everything.
“People are counting Ben out – I don’t know why,” Bellator featherweight Emmanuel Sanchez said. “Ben’s a true fighter. Boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, if it’s a spitting contest, Ben will show up and show you what’s up.”
Sanchez remembers showing up to the gym expecting to work on his sprawl training with Askren. He didn’t underestimate the veteran’s skill for one moment. And yet still Askren surprised him.
“The first time I sparred with him, he threw a spinning backfist at me,” Sanchez said. “I was like, ‘What the...’”
In the buildup to the fight, Paul has touted sparring sessions with ex-champions. But Meerscheart suspects that for all the hype surrounding authenticity, Paul might not be getting the most out of his partners.
“I would guess that even in training – and a lot of boxing places do this, and not unjustly so – they’re probably bringing in a lot of people that can give him a challenge, but he can still beat up,” he said. “I think he’s probably getting guys coming in that he can beat up on that aren’t necessarily that mentally tough, or if they are that mentally tough, their skills are so lacking that he can beat them up and keep his confidence high.”
What Paul can never recreate, Askren’s teammates say, is decades of grinding away at singular goals in the gym. That counts for a lot when you’re taking on a new sport.
“When he puts his mind to something, he’s 100 percent on it,” former UFC lightweight champ and current PFL competitor Anthony Pettis said. “I think Jake hasn’t fought somebody that’s an athlete like Ben.”
Paul has the decided advantage in speed and youth; a highlight-reel knockout of Nate Robinson is proof he’s got some power. What remains unknown, and what everyone who’s worked with Askren believes is lacking, is the young fighter’s resilience under pressure. Like Woodley says, it’s easy to come charging out of the gate. What happens to a young fighter when they have to adjust on the fly, much less find new energy reserves?
Askren’s teammates know he’ll never run out of gas.
“The guy’s mentally a juggernaut,” said Meerscheart. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him break. Unflappable, mentally. There’s only the objective and the task at hand, and I think that’s a very dangerous and unique problem that Jake Paul is going to have to deal with.”
There is one thing Meerscheart will give Paul: He’s certainly looked better than what a YouTube celebrity is supposed to look like.
“I’ll give the kid this: He doesn’t curl up when the lights are on,” he added.
Perception vs. Reality
Celebrity, of course, is the reason Paul and Askren are stepping into the ring on Saturday night. Promoters have exploited the popularity of a new breed of internet fame and marketed it savvily enough to tie it into the larger industry. Paul’s older brother, Logan, kickstarted the trend when he boxed KSI to smashing online success.
Putting famous people in the ring was nothing new. But the Paul brothers arrived at the right time, and they drew from a different and more lucrative audience than the combat sports faithful. Like his brother, Jake Paul’s career was driven by the actions that got him the most attention, good or bad.
It’s no wonder then that MMA’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, was on the top of Paul’s hit list. But in the end, he drew Askren, who got the gig with his large social media following. And the question the fight appears to ask is whether the striking of an MMA fighter – one not particularly known for such a skill set – is better than a relative neophyte with youth and limitless confidence.
Paul undoubtedly hopes to answer that with a well-placed punch on Saturday night. For all the grittiness that Askren brings to the boxing match, it’s entirely possible he could get caught. But it’s also possible Paul and the general public have been looking at the wrong things when they envision what will happen.
“He’s the guy that got merked by Jorge Masvidal,” Roufus said. “No one goes back and looks. No one remembers a month ago, three months ago. It’s so present, and once the narrative is established in the present, people believe that narrative. If I’m Jake Paul and I want to fight an MMA guy, I’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy I’m going to knock out. He not knocked out by Masvidal.’
“But Masvidal is different than Paul. That’s two completely different animals.”
After the fight was announced, Meerschaert got a bunch of calls from friends and colleagues, fretting about what Askren could do to his legacy by losing to Paul. He admits if the YouTuber’s preparation was as good as billed, and Paul’s game plan involves staying on the outside and boxing in the most conventional way possible, the fight could easily slip away from Askren.
But what he sees in his mind’s eye is a savvy veteran meticulously breaking down a neophyte before sealing the deal.
“I can see the finishing sequence pretty clearly in my head, where Jake Paul’s against the ropes, Ben realizes he’s just tanked out, and Ben’s just throwing a punch of rabbit punches to his head and body, and Jake Paul’s not necessarily getting hurt, but he’s not defending, either,” Meerschaert said.
Pettis said one thing’s for certain: It’s going to take a lot more than a single punch to finish Askren.
“The first guy that this guy fought has never been hit before,” Pettis said. “He’s going to have to hurt Ben to finish Ben, so I don’t see that happening.”