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Monday, November 8, 2010

Bellator Fighting Champ Ben Askren

Throughout its history, mixed martial arts’ welterweight division largely has been controlled at the top by fighters whose prime goal was to get their opponents on their back and damage them from there.




Matt Hughes used his powerhouse style of wrestling to become the division’s star from 2001 though 2006. His heir apparent, Georges St. Pierre, has used a takedown and ground-and-pound style while dominating the past four years. Jon Fitch has used a grinding-out, wrestling-based style to compile the second-best win-loss record in the UFC’s history. Josh Koscheck, St. Pierre’s next opponent, was a former NCAA wrestling champion. And the next championship contender, Jake Shields, has won 15 fights in a row along with championships in two organizations through a style based on takedowns, control on the ground and submissions.




That’s what makes the introduction of newly crowned Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren to MMA so intriguing.



With the exception of Cael Sanderson, Askren was arguably the best college wrestler of any weight class in the United States over the past decade. And in less than two years in MMA, he become a welterweight champ.



“It was OK,” said Askren (7-0) about his Oct. 21 title win over Lyman Good (10-1) in Philadelphia. “I’ve got a lot of room for improvement. He was pretty tough. He didn’t quit.”



Unlike the aforementioned fighters who mix in a stand-up game to set up their takedowns, Askren spent five rounds playing a game where he would move in, take punches if he had to, lock up his opponent, then take Good down. What made it so impressive is that Good, who came into the fight unbeaten, is a physical specimen known for having freaky strength. Good also got in some perfectly timed sprawls, particularly late in the fight, that at first seemed to thwart the takedown. But Askren would keep driving and moving, and even with his opponent showing strong takedown defense, Good eventually ended up on his back for most of every round.



“He’s maybe the most confident fighter I’ve ever encountered in the past 20 years,” said Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney of Askren. “This is a guy who had never thrown a punch in his life 18 months ago. When his stand-up gets to 30-40 percent of his ground game, he’ll be unstoppable.”



“What makes St. Pierre’s wrestling work is that people have to fear his stand-up,” Askren noted. “Right now, nobody fears my stand-up.”



And while Askren didn’t finish Good, his game is not the oft-criticized wrestlers “lay-n-pray” game. Like in his heyday as one of college wrestling’s biggest stars, Askren’s constant movement, his completely unorthodox “funk” style of wrestling – based on creating and coming out on top in scrambles – resulted in constantly getting the dominant position. And his top-control game had him mounting Good for long periods of time. Despite fighting at a fast pace for 25 minutes, he did not tire. Not that the fight wasn’t without rough moments: Askren took a lot of shots that left his face lumped up, but he still won an obvious decision.



Askren’s wrestling style, which goes against the fundamentals of what would be taught in that sport, was more beneficial than a standard wrestling style in his transition to Jiu Jitsu and the ground aspect of MMA.


UFC: Ultimate Fighting Championship Tapout 2UFC: Ultimate Fighting Championship Tapout 2
Noting that he immediately fell in love with Jiu Jitsu after college, his moves on the ground are more like those of a grappler than folkstyle wrestler, which was his background. And these new grappling skills are enhancing in his strengths as a takedown machine.



Askren earned his title shot during Bellator’s second season when he won an eight-man tournament where opponents, including the far more experienced and favored Dan Hornbuckle, also could not stop what everyone knew was coming.



“Hornbuckle was a world-class fighter, and he never had more than 10 seconds of advantage time the entire fight,” Rebney said.UFC MMA



Coming into the sport, Askren’s mentality was similar to Brock Lesnar’s, probably because they came from a similar level of college wrestling success. Askren went 153-8 between 2004 and 2007 at the University of Missouri, notching 91 pins – the third-highest total in the history of Div. I wrestling. He was second in the nation as a freshman and a sophomore at 174 pounds. As a junior and a senior, he went 87-0, winning two national titles. He was the 12th wrestler in history to reach the NCAA finals all four years.



He also won the Hodge Trophy as both a junior and a senior, meaning he was not only the best wrestler in his weight division, but also was considered the best wrestler in any weight division. He and Sanderson remain the only wrestlers in history to have won the trophy more than once.



“That was always my goal at the beginning of the season – to be the best wrestler in the country and win the Hodge Trophy. More than winning the national title,” Askren said. “Because you couldn’t win the Hodge Trophy unless you won the national title.”



While still involved in wrestling as an assistant coach at Arizona State, MMA is now his primary sport, and he’s not considering going for the 2012 Olympics. Askren had a disappointing 2008 Games. He dropped to 163 pounds and earned a spot on the U.S. team, but lost in the second round and placed seventh overall. He did attempt a comeback after starting in MMA, but decided that competing in two completely different sports at the same time wasn’t going to work.



“Maybe if you’re 213 pounds or a heavyweight, where it’s not as technical, you can do both,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it’s very difficult.”



He joined Bellator in April, having only three fights under his belt and all on smaller shows. Rebney noted he proposed a schedule to Askren that would get him several fights against opponents of his same experience level, giving him time to learn the sport before putting him in a tournament.



“The 170-pound tournament was stacked for us,” said Rebney, who indicated Askren will likely have a non-title superfight in the spring, then defend his championship later in the year against the winner of an eight-man tournament. “We wanted to build him up, but he wanted to fight the best guys right away. He said he thought he could beat anyone.”

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