It’s been just over two years since one of the most significant trades in sports history took place when ONE Championship sent Ben Askren to the UFC in exchange for former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
The reason why this occasion was so massive really comes down to this — it had never happened before and nothing like it has happened since.
At the time the trade was completed, Johnson was just two months removed from losing his flyweight title to Henry Cejudo in a razor-close split decision that brought his reign as UFC champion to an end after 11 consecutive defenses. Rather than book a rematch, Johnson reached out to his management team to see if it was even possible to orchestrate a deal that would send him to ONE.
Meanwhile, former ONE welterweight champion Askren had already declared his retirement from active competition and it appeared the former Olympic wrestler would ride off into the sunset without ever competing in the UFC. That’s when the promotion finally came calling with this particular opportunity to move from ONE to the UFC to continue his career.
For his part, ONE CEO Chatri Sityodtong was definitely open to the idea because in his mind Askren was done fighting so he was really investing in the promotion’s future by adding an athlete like Johnson to the roster.
“At the time Ben was retired and he was past his prime,” Sitoyodtong told MMA Fighting when asked about the historic trade. “He had a very severe hip injury that was plaguing him. Of course it would have been nice to see Ben in his prime without an injury to his hip when he entered the UFC. But he was already crippled when he went into the UFC.
“People didn’t even know. He couldn’t even have a proper training camp when he had his fights in the UFC.”
Askren’s time in the UFC only lasted three fights. After submitting former champion Robbie Lawler in his debut, he then suffered back-to-back losses to Jorge Masvidal and Demian Maia. Following the loss to Maia in 2019, Askren decided to call it a career again — this time with plans to actually undergo hip surgery that would likely prevent him from ever competing in mixed martial arts again.
As for Johnson, he’s gone on to find similar success in ONE as he did in the UFC, except now he’s actually competing at a slightly higher weight while still being considered a flyweight.
Because ONE Championship has altered the way fighters are allowed to cut weight in the promotion, Johnson’s new flyweight division features athletes competing at up to 135 pounds.
The result has been Johnson facing off against bigger competition from time to time but he’s still found success with three straight wins in the promotion while winning the first-ever ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix.
On April 7, Johnson gets his first opportunity to win ONE gold as he challenges reigning flyweight champion Adriano Moraes in the main event for the first-ever ONE on TNT card, with the main card airing at 10 p.m. ET in the United States.
While Sityodtong was proud of the time Askren spent in ONE, he couldn’t be happier with the results of the trade considering he added a fighter to his roster who he consides the greatest of all time.
“If you look at mixed martial arts, ‘DJ’ is the GOAT. There is no question,” Sityodtong said. “Look at his credentials. Look at his track record of title defenses in the UFC. He has struggled in ONE Championship but he still managed to win the Grand Prix and now he obviously has a world title shot in front of him.
“I think for me it would be DJ, it would be ‘GSP’ (Georges St-Pierre), those are the two for me that are the true GOATs as far as the achievements in their eras. DJ still again approaching his prime. He’s not even in his prime in my opinion.”
In his opinion, Sityodtong believes Johnson will face his toughest challenge to date when he meets Moraes with the flyweight title going up for grabs, but he also knows the bigger the obstacle, the better the achievement if successful.
“People are counting Adriano Moraes out but I think that’s a big, big mistake,” Sityodtong explained. “I think this is a 50/50 fight and here’s why — Adriano is 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10, giant of a flyweight. Very long, very lanky, skinny legs but a very big body, very long wingspan and he’s a black belt and he’s an incredible striker. He fights from both sides. He’s publicly gone on record saying he’s going to be the first one to finish DJ.
“Now DJ is obviously the GOAT but this is going to be no walk in the park. If DJ can win this, he’s going to cement his status as the GOAT but it’s a very, very big challenge ahead of him.”
As for Askren, Sityodtong still finds himself rooting for the former ONE champion even as he crosses over into another sport for an upcoming boxing match against Jake Paul on April 17.
“Ben has had his hip surgery and he told me, just yesterday he and I just spoke, and his hip is feeling amazing,” Sityodtong shared. “Let’s see how he does against Jake Paul. That’s an entertaining boxing fight. Obviously, boxing is not Ben’s forte. Ben’s strength is wrestling. It’s kind of a funny, entertaining situation we have here with Jake Paul running his mouth talking like a fighter when he’s just a YouTuber. It was kind of hilarious at the press conference watching some of the highlights and he was telling Ben ‘this is the fight game.’ What a joke.
“Ben Askren, despite him not being a striker, he’s a world class athlete, elite, the best of the best. A two-time Hodge [Trophy] award winner. Won championships in Bellator and ONE Championship in his prime. It’s just unfortunate when he went to the UFC, he was already retired, past his prime with a severe hip injury that he couldn’t even complete a proper training camp. Ben is not one to complain but I know that from behind the scenes being his friend.”
The deal that sent Johnson to ONE and Askren to the UFC remains the only trade orchestrated between two major promotions like this across all of combat sports.
While nothing quite like this has been discussed lately, Sityodtong says it’s something he would absolutely do again if the right opportunity came along.
“I know that Matt Hume is always in communication with the UFC or Bellator,” Sityodtong said about the ONE executive. “[Bellator president Scott] Coker and I have traded WhatsApp messages here and there and have spoken about fighters in the past.
“I don’t think—at least over here at ONE—we are not opposed to trades at all. We’re open to it.”