When he was in middle school, Ben Askren would pick up youth wrestling magazines to find out where elite wrestlers were fighting and beg his dad to drive him halfway across the country so he could challenge them.
That attitude is part of what has led the now 34-year-old undefeated fighter to finally take his shot in the UFC.
The polarizing former Bellator MMA and ONE Championship titleholder will make his UFC debut against former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler at UFC 235 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.
“I love competition,” Askren said. “I have since I was a kid. In wrestling, it’s simple. You think you’re the best in America, you show up at the U.S. Open. Everybody is there. If you win, you go to the world championships. and if you think you’re the best, you wrestle everyone there. Everyone knows that every year, we’re all going to show up. It’s very simple. The competitive architecture in MMA makes that a little tougher to figure out.”
Askren knows all about that structure. Within 20 months of making his professional MMA debut less than a year removed from a disappointing finish in the 2008 Olympics in freestyle wrestling, Askren was the Bellator welterweight champion despite being raw in the sport.
“I didn’t have (MMA) skills,” said Askren, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Missouri. “My skills were I could get in there and compete hard and take people down. But I didn’t know how to punch or elbow. I didn’t really know how to choke that well.”
Askren made rapid progress until he became a free agent as champion in 2013 and it was assumed he was headed to the UFC. But he never was offered a UFC contract and signed with Singapore-based ONE Championship.
He dominated in the organization until deciding late last year that he had accomplished all he could and announced his retirement.
That’s when he learned he would be involved in a trade from ONE to the UFC for former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
“When I retired, I meant it,” Askren said. “But I also said if I get the chance to prove I’m the best, I’m going to do it. That opportunity came, and I’m taking it.”
It always seemed that the biggest obstacle to Askren fighting in the UFC was his publicly contentious relationship with Dana White, the organization’s president. White said the tension between them was overblown by the media, but the outspoken Askren said he thinks it had a lot to do with keeping him out of the UFC.
“It was a handful of things,” Askren said of why he didn’t get a UFC contract in 2013. “He thought I could win a title, and he didn’t want a Bellator champ coming in and being UFC champ. I think he realized I wasn’t going to be a subservient minion, and I don’t think he liked that. I don’t think he liked the comments I made on Twitter, I think he believed I was a boring fighter.”
Some of those same reasons made Askren a favorite target of fans on the internet, but he thinks those same fans are now invested in his journey.
“People want a story, and, for me, the story where I’m 18-0 without ever fighting the best of the best, that’s a (expletive) ending,” said Askren, who last fought in November 2017. “Nobody wants that to be the end of the story. They want to turn the page and for there to be another chapter.”
Main card bouts Saturday at T-Mobile Arena:
— Jon Jones (23-1, 1 No Contest) vs. Anthony Smith (31-13), for Jones’ light heavyweight title
— Tyron Woodley (19-3-1) vs. Kamaru Usman (14-1), for Woodley’s welterweight title
— Robbie Lawler (28-12) vs. Ben Askren (18-0, 1 No Contest), welterweights
— Tecia Torres (10-3) vs. Weili Zhang (18-1), women’s strawweights
— Cody Garbrandt (11-2) vs. Pedro Munhoz (17-3, 1 No Contest), bantamweights