clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ben Askren on Paul vs. Silva, MMA’s fear of embarrassment, and the aftermath of a viral loss

Triller Fight Club: Jake Paul v Ben Askren Photo by Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for Triller

Ben Askren still hears it often. Every day, really. However much you’d expect the infamy of the two worst nights of his pro career to have chased him in the public consciousness, the reality is likely tenfold, especially on a week like this — when Askren’s social media becomes an omnipresent deluge of Jake Paul gifs and reminders of the night a professional troll knocked him out in less than two minutes. Somehow, the internet isn’t even the worst offender.

“Middle-school kids, they’re the most annoying,” Askren says with a laugh. “Because they’re all insecure and they want to say some s***. Most of the time I let it go, but then sometimes I really punt them back and I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re not even good at middle-school wrestling, why are you talking to me in that fashion? Just be quiet and go over there.’”

You hearing that, Anderson Silva? That’s what you’re up against. The next generation lives for this stuff, and they don’t forget.

Askren just shrugs. It comes with the territory. He is, after all, the man who helped kick-start this whole carnival sideshow.

“Funky” was more than a year removed from his second MMA retirement — and only a few months removed from the hip replacement surgery that necessitated that retirement — when he accepted his fight with Paul on a lark back in early 2021. At the time, he had no idea what he was getting into. The former Bellator and ONE champion couldn’t have told you the difference between Jake Paul and Pauly Shore. He just figured a boxing match against some YouTuber sounded like a fun diversion, an amusing way to get back into shape after major surgery. What followed was a hell of a regrettable way to earn one final fight game paycheck — although, at the very least, that paycheck of “close to a million dollars” nearly matching Askren’s total UFC earnings and far exceeding his combined intake from his nine-bout Bellator run helped a bit to soften the blow.

Now the Paul name chases Askren everywhere he goes, one-half of the two-part farewell that kicked Askren in the nuts on his way out from an otherwise sterling fight career, the other being his five-second ditty with Jorge Masvidal that forever enshrined “super necessary” into the MMA lexicon and turned “Gamebred” into a household name. In terms of gruesome twosomes, they’re right up there. Askren spent his final chapter trafficking in embarrassment, and now he exists in the residue of that viral infamy.

“Unfortunately, the Masvidal thing is perfect for me for as a [wrestling] coach,” Askren says. “Because listen, there’s so many middle-school and high-school kids, so many — like, it’s pretty rare when the kids don’t deal with this at some level, but [it’s] the fear of being embarrassed, right? It’s pretty much all high school and middle school, like 100 percent.

“So when a kid’s really struggling with it — and it happens relatively frequently — it’s like, ‘Dude, listen, it ain’t that bad. Go out there, freaking battle that dude. [If] you get your ass whooped, you get your ass whooped.’ And then when they really start [struggling], it’s like, ‘Listen, man. Listen, I don’t want to bring this up, but I’ve been embarrassed more than freaking anyone, and it plays all over Twitter. Like, it ain’t ever going to be that bad for you. Just freaking get out there and battle.’’’

Again, Anderson: This is what’s on the line on Saturday. Just ask Tyron Woodley.

But here’s the thing: Askren, in many ways, is the anti-Ronda Rousey. If the women’s MMA icon is the all-time standard-bearer for how to handle bad losses in the worst imaginable ways, Askren has somehow set up base camp on the opposite side of the mountain. He’s the first one in the room to make himself the butt of the joke. It’s all water off a duck’s back, and rarely is that laid more bare than in his new autobiography, Funky: My Defiant Path Through The Wild World Of Combat Sports, which published Oct. 25.

Askren swears his release date coinciding with Paul vs. Silva fight week was a total coincidence, but it’s an appropriate one. Because while Funky delivers exactly what you’d expect — a peek behind the curtain of one of the more unique combat sports careers of the era — it also reads just as much as a mediation on compartmentalization, fight game philosophy, and how to handle soul-crushing defeat in the healthiest possible ways.

Take, for instance, Askren’s reflections on the night he lost to Masvidal.

Talk about a depressing afterparty. … Everyone wanted to come up and give their condolences, to tell me it was OK, but I didn’t really need it. Just like when I came up short at the Olympics, I understood life can move only in one direction. Losing happens, but dwelling on it is what defines a loser. I didn’t want people feeling bad for me. I knew the score. ...

Plus, the rational side of my brain never stops working. How bad could it be? I had already retired once, contentedly, so wasn’t all of this a kind of bonus episode to my competitive life? Did I lose what I had been chasing for a long time? I did. But the thing is, I just made $200,000 to fight for five seconds. Is it really that bad? Is my life really that bad? Do I still have my family? Do have my wrestling academies? My health? I was fine. I really was.

It’s here that Askren’s proclivities shine most, because for as decorated as his trophy case may be, one of the more impressive parts of his legacy is being one of the least bothered viral losers in pro sports — a relic, he suspects, of a childhood spent as a terrible wrestler for a long time before he turned into a good (and eventually prodigiously great) one. It’s just who Askren is. In a landscape dominated by ultra-machismo, he’s self-aware enough to understand he’ll likely always be most recognized for the two nights he’d most like to forget.

A reality like that could be life-ruining for some, especially for an athlete who achieved as much as Askren — a two-time NCAA champion, Olympian, Bellator and ONE FC champion who retired with an undefeated 18-0 MMA record in 2017 before The Trade™ gave him an unexpected final hurrah. But Askren carries his worst moments with a shrug and a smirk. Spend any amount of time with him and you realize it’s is not an act.

Instead it’s one hell of a feat — and a lesson worth emulating not only for young athletes (and future entrants into the Paul orbit), but also anyone in life afraid to take a leap.

“Some of these fighters, it’s kind of sad to say, but the only thing they think they’re good at, and the only thing they think brings them value in life, is fighting,” Askren says. “And that’s it, right? And they need to find something else, whether it’s family, whether it’s a job, whether it’s hobbies, something else to take their time and find value in themselves.

“Now is it annoying when all these dips*** middle-school kids go, ‘Jake Paul!?’ Sure, it’s annoying. But am I really going to let that affect what I actually want to do in life? When you think about it on a deeper level, there’s a lot of people who live their life with that fear of, ‘What are other people going to think when I do this? What are other people going to say when I do this?’ And it’s like, dude, you’ve just got to live your life.

“I probably didn’t realize this until I got older,” he continues, “but when you do not let things bother you, you can be so much more efficient in life. When I don’t have to worry about the fear of embarrassment, or what this person is going to say, or what this person is going to do, my life becomes just about, like, how do I achieve this objective?”

That philosophy gets tested most on a week like this, when you can’t stumble around the internet for more than three minutes without seeing Paul’s sneering face.

Because the pressure from the MMA world has only grown more and more strained as the Paul tour presses on and its victims list balloons and the knockout club gets a little less lonely. Take it from Askren: He heard it all before his go-round. The legacy talk. How a bad night would hurt him forever, irrevocably diminishing decades of résumé building. He watched his good friend and teammate Woodley endure the same experience — twice. The hand wringing from the broader fight community beforehand, then the ignominy of what losing to an influencer in a battle of fisticuffs does to your comments section afterward.

Now it’s Silva’s turn, and the UFC legend has been forced to reckon with many of the same conversations and debates, only heightened because of what “The Spider” means to the sport due to his Hall of Fame run as an untouchable champion. Anderson Silva is a religion to many in MMA. That’s not something to take lightly.

But, as Askren argues in Funky, who really cares?

Was it a dumb idea to come back for that last little ladle of humiliation [against Paul]? Hell no. It was kind of like the wrestling days during my senior year; you think he can beat me, let’s do it. I wasn’t scared to jump into an unknown situation to see how it might play out. I didn’t have my ego tied to the outcome. ... As for diminishing my legacy, I honestly think that a lot of people are tapping into their own emotions and feelings about how embarrassed they would be in that situation and trying to put those on me. ...

Some fighters have a bubble built around their aura, and nobody is willing (or courageous enough) to tell them that it’s bull****. So, these fighters buy into it all. They run with it until they fall, and then they’re stuck. ... [But] dealing well with adversity can be learned. We only have to be willing to admit as much as parents, as students, as coaches, as athletes. I like to think of myself as proof, as the living example of what I mean.

Is Silva the next man to join Paul’s growing MMA lonely hearts club? It’s possible. For all of his greatness, Silva is ultimately still a 47-year-old man clinging to the final threads of a miraculous revival. If things go south on Saturday, especially if they go south hard and Silva stumbles into Askren and Woodley at the next meeting of the KO crew, he’ll at least have a few fellow champs to commiserate with. But that fear of embarrassment, the same one Askren rallies against? It isn’t in Silva’s DNA either. He’s content. He’ll be OK regardless.

Whether the same can be said about the MMA community if Oct. 29 goes horribly wrong is a different story. But as long as the Jake Paul carnival continues to troll the MMA world and challenge its biggest names, Askren’s lessons may not be the worst to keep in mind.

“If I had told you [in 2021], ‘Shaun, hey, I’m going to box — me, Ben Askren — I’m going to box Anderson Silva and I’m going to win,’ you would’ve been like, ‘That’s preposterous. Stop.’ It sounds ridiculous,” Askren says with another laugh. “So obviously this guy is way better than I thought, and I was unfortunately the guy who probably was negatively affected the most by it. But no, I think that legacy thing is, again, it’s worrying about what other people think. And you need to live your life in a manner that you want to live your life.

“Just let it roll off your back and I’m going to keep showing up and I’m going to keep doing my best, and that’s all you could do, right? You just keep showing up and trying your best.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting