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At 34, Askren finally makes UFC debut under Vegas lights

March 1, 2019
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FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2018, file photo, UFC fighter Ben Askren waits for the start of a middleweight mixed martial arts bout between David Branch and Jared Cannonier at UFC 230, in New York. Askren is finally making his UFC debut after a decade in mixed martial arts and a lifetime of wrestling. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Ben Askren retired nearly 18 months ago. He was content to end his mixed martial arts career as one of the best fighters never to compete in the UFC.

Although the unbeaten former collegiate wrestling star had dominated competition around the world for nearly a decade, his tactical fighting style and his personal beefs with UFC President Dana White had kept him off the sport’s biggest stage — and Askren insists he was at peace with it all.

“I can only control things I can control,” Askren said. “There was a guy who didn’t like me, and I can’t control that, and that was the reason I didn’t fight the better guys.”

And then the UFC finally called last year. The 34-year-old Askren decided to answer.

After winning belts in the Bellator and One Championship promotions, Askren (18-0) finally makes his UFC debut Saturday night against former champion Robbie Lawler. Instead of enjoying retirement, Askren will be locked in the T-Mobile Arena cage at UFC 235 for a perilous matchup with an inveterate brawler.

Askren is at peace with this development, too.

“I was retired,” he said. “I was happy. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do in life. But I said, ‘This opportunity is too good to pass up. I’m going to take it.’ I’m here to compete, and that’s it.”

Askren traveled a long way from suburban Milwaukee to the Vegas lights. He hasn’t fought in the U.S. in nearly six years during an MMA career that began shortly after he competed in freestyle wrestling in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The two-time NCAA wrestling champion at Missouri won the Bellator welterweight title in just his seventh pro bout in 2010, but he wasn’t offered a UFC contract when he became a free agent in 2013. He moved to the Singapore-based One Championship and won another title, defending that belt four times while fighting in China, the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates. Askren never betrayed much dissatisfaction with his situation, praising the promotions that employed him while the UFC ignored him.

Tyron Woodley, the UFC welterweight champion, was Askren’s wrestling teammate at Missouri. The close friends have trained together for UFC 235, which features Woodley’s latest title defense against Kamaru Usman in the co-main event.

“I just felt like Ben wanted to compete against the best guys, be treated fairly, be paid well and keep dominating, so I didn’t know if he had to be in the UFC to actually facilitate those wants and needs,” Woodley said.

Askren claims he really thought he was done with the sport when he retired in September 2017, convinced he would never have the right opportunity to join the UFC — and not even sure if he wanted it, given his online history with the company. He has sparred repeatedly on social media with White, who derided Askren as “the most boring fighter in MMA history” and an “absolute moron” before blocking Askren on Twitter.

Everything changed last year when White and One Championship boss Chatri Sityodtong put together an unprecedented MMA trade. The UFC shipped former flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson to One in exchange for Askren, and both fighters eagerly jumped at the opportunity.

“When this thing happened, I think it hit everybody by surprise, because who the hell would have thought a trade would have ever happened?” Woodley said. “I think it’s dope for the sport.”

White hasn’t said much publicly about the reasoning behind the UFC’s decision to sign Askren after so many years. Askren still hasn’t talked to White at any length since the move.

“I don’t think he wants to talk to me,” Askren said. “Maybe he doesn’t feel like he needs to, and that’s fine. Whatever.”

Askren has changed during his decade in the game. He barely knew how to punch when he started, instead dominating with his superb wrestling, but his striking and jiu-jitsu have steadily improved.

But his plan against Lawler (28-12) is simple and obvious, according to Askren: “Close the distance and wrestle him. Can you see a scenario where he beats me on the ground? I can’t see it.”

Askren’s fans and teammates can’t believe the wait is finally over. They’re confident Askren will seize this surprising opportunity — and they can’t wait to hear what he’ll have to say about White and the UFC after it’s over.

“He’s been talking like this since college, and I’ve just been trying to calm him down, because I recognize it’s an art behind it,” Woodley said. “It’s not ever taking away from his performance.”

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