Over the past decade or so, the UFC’s Octagon has cemented its status as the true stomping grounds for the best fighters in the world. Between the Pride, Strikeforce and WEC acquisitions, the UFC’s ability to find and grow its own talent and the raw appeal that draws in potential free agents, the promotion has found a way to ensure that its already loaded roster continues to improve year after year. At this point, it’s reasonable to say the UFC has about 95 percent of the top talent in the sport under contract right now, and knowing how quickly the UFC likes to jump on available talent, most of that additional five percent would be under the Zuffa banner if the UFC was given the chance. I say most, because for some reason the promotion refused to sign Ben Askren last year, and after a few public spats between the fighter and the UFC, it’s starting to look more and more like Askren could be the next “one that got away” for fight fans.
Despite the UFC’s insistence that it’s always looking to sign the best talent in the world, the company has been equally insistent that Askren doesn’t meet that criteria, something that both annoys and confounds most fight fans. Based on resume alone, Askren should be considered one of the top 10 to 15 fighters in the welterweight division. He’s 14-0, held a championship for the second most prestigious promotion in the world and has finished the majority of his opponents. When that’s compared to some of the guys that have been debuting on UFC shows as of late, Askren may as well be a resurrected Bruce Lee.
To be fair, a resume isn’t everything. A fighter has to pass the eye test before he gets thrown into the Octagon. As of right now, fight fans have to wonder what exactly it was the UFC was waiting to see when it could have signed Askren six months ago. After witnessing Askren utterly dominate pretty much every opponent put in front of him over the past five years, it’s clear he could not only make some waves in the Octagon, but also have a chance to be a very real threat to the belt. With arguably the best MMA wrestling in the sport and a top game that completely overwhelms his opponents, Askren hasn’t shown any real reason why he can’t hang with the best in the world. Yet, he was denied that chance when Zuffa decided to let him walk away and take an offer with ONE FC in Asia.
So, with Askren’s talent and resume not in question, where else do we look for reasons why the UFC decided to ignore arguably one of the best welterweights in the world? We’ve seen talented guys get shunned from main-event spots and title opportunities because they were “unmarketable,” but while that was the argument against Askren for a while, he has done enough both in and out of the cage to change that perception over the past few years. Once considered bland, Askren has upped his personality as his star has grown, and his antics inside the Bellator cage during his last few fights earned him headlines as well. When the criticism shifted to Askren’s inability to finish his opponents, he quickly flipped that argument on its head and stopped his next two opponents, then finished two more in the first round since the UFC passed on him last year.
It doesn’t make sense that the UFC didn’t want Askren a year ago, and it will make even less if the promotion continues to ignore the fact that he’s a bonafide top-10 welterweight and lets him slip away when he next becomes available. Askren has four fights and roughly 15 months left on his ONE FC contract, and since it would be an upset of epic proportions if anyone on the ONE FC roster found a way to beat him in that time, Askren’s record will likely be 18-0 with another couple of stoppage wins under his belt when his contract is up. The UFC should be looking to jump all over that, and while Askren’s recent anti-UFC comments may make it seem like he’d rather be fighting elsewhere, chances are slim to none that he turns down any sort of quality deal from Zuffa. If that deal never comes to fruition, then Askren’s going to be stuck fighting subpar competition for the rest of his career.
A lot of fans want to see multiple promotions fighting for the top spot in MMA, bringing back something akin to the early to mid-2000s when the UFC and Pride both had rosters with over a dozen stars and UFC President Dana White and the rest of the Zuffa empire had legitimate competition. These fans love guys like Askren in ONE FC or Marlon Moraes in the World Series of Fighting because it brings potential to spread out the talent and try to spark some competitive nature out of the UFC. I don’t share that opinion.
Lately, I’ve found myself turning into an MMA realist. Although a lot of the MMA community may not like it, the letters U-F-C resonate with people far more than M-M-A and that’s not going to change any time soon. Just like the NFL, NBA or MLB, the UFC has become the premier destination for its sport, and trying to convince new fans to watch an RFA or ONE FC event is basically the equivalent of showing a new football fan an Arena League football game instead of the NFL. For a hardcore fan, it’s still the sport they love, but compared to the best out there it just doesn’t do the sport justice.
That’s what’s so unfortunate about a fighter as talented as Askren being stuck in ONE FC, especially after he left the next best thing to the UFC in order to try to compete at the highest level. Would the average NFL fan watch AFL games if suddenly Johnny Manziel took over as quarterback for the Tampa Bay Rattlers? Probably for a game or two, but the competition level wouldn’t be what they’re used to, and even if “Johnny Football” threw 20 touchdowns a game, he’d eventually be called overrated and endure criticism suggesting he couldn’t hang in the big leagues, whether he’d actually taken a snap at that level or not.
Sooner or later, Askren’s dominant wins over lackluster competition will start to lose their shine. When that happens, a lot of the fans that consider him a top-flight welterweight will watch him slip further and further down the rankings. He won’t even have to lose a fight, and if/when he eventually does lose, his slide out of the top 10 over the years will have been justified. That’s not fair to Askren, and it’s not fair to the UFC fans that expect to see the best fighters in the world.
Whether Askren gets into the Octagon and becomes the next Georges St-Pierre or walks into the cage and gets smashed in two minutes the first time his wrestling doesn’t work, the MMA community deserves to see Askren fight the best in the world. If the UFC doesn’t think he’s as good as he’s hyped up to be, fine, sign him and let him prove it. If the UFC throws Askren an offer that he doesn’t love, fine, sign it anyways and get a raise after you beat a few contenders. Regardless, there’s no reason a deal shouldn’t be made as soon as possible. If Askren retires without fighting inside the Octagon, both sides made a major mistake.