When Ben Askren signed with ONE Championship in late 2013, he was widely considered to be one of the most talented welterweight fighters in the world. He quickly did what many observers expected him to do, too, blitzing through back-to-back opponents to capture the ONE welterweight title with ease by mid-2014. But these days, nearly three years after he became ONE’s welterweight king, Askren still has yet to defend his belt in any official capacity, and not for a lack of trying.
A series of bizarre and unforeseen circumstances have left Askren to fight just once a year since he became ONE champion, and even both of those bouts were unusual in some way — Asken’s 2015 fight against Luis Santos infamously ended in a first-round no contest due to an eye poke, then his scheduled 2016 title defense against Nikolay Aleksakhin shifted to a non-title affair once Aleksakhin missed weight.
Between those two outings were a handful of other planned fights that ultimately fell apart for Askren for one reason or another. And ahead of ONE: Dynasty of Heroes, the man they call “Funky” is simply happy to finally have something on the books for May 26 against undefeated prospect Agilan Thani.
“I was actually really happy after [a recent ONE media call for the card], because things like that make it feel real, or feel more normal,” Askren told MMA Fighting. “So, I’m super excited. It was hard. The time off, for me, was hard. I was healthy. I was willing and excited to fight. It just didn’t work out for numerous reasons for me to fight.
“I finally have an opponent, and I really need to be more active this year. Obviously I’m 32 years old now, I am getting a little older, and I have been fairly inactive over the last couple of years. So, I need to have a lot of fights this year, and I hope ONE is going to provide that for me.”
For Askren, the road to May 26 has been a frustrating and complicated one.
Askren spent the majority of late 2015 and early 2016 stuck in a holding pattern while ONE officials tried to figure out what to do with Santos, who memorably missed weight for the Askren-Santos rematch then refused to accept the fight with a 190-pound limit, prompting the normally mild-mannered ONE CEO Victor Cui to refer to the situation as “one of the most unprofessional things I have ever seen.”
After shifting away from the Santos idea, ONE officials decided to book Askren against Aleksakhin — a decision which led to its own weigh-in drama — then tentatively scheduled Askren to face ONE middleweight titleholder Vitaly Bigdash in a champion vs. champion duel in Thailand for Dec. 2016. But those plans also went awry when the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, passed away in Oct. 2016, prompting a mourning period within the country and forcing ONE to cancel the event.
Then, to top things off, Bigdash reversed course and turned down a rescheduled iteration of the champion vs. champion fight, leaving Askren once again without a dance partner and stuck on the sidelines.
“The thing I tell them is, yeah, I get that it sucks for you guys as a promotion that he said no, and then ‘Sapo’ said no after he said he wanted to beat me. That sucks for you guys, right? But you need to give yourself more options,” Askren said. “Because as a fighter, it’s not my fault. If I’m saying yes to everything — I’ll say yes to damn near anything, right? — if I’m saying yes and they’re saying no, that’s not my fault. And if you’ve got a bunch of idiots who keep saying no, then you probably need to sign more welterweights who would say yes.
“At the end of the day, I would like to see ONE sign more welterweights, so then there are more options, because I do plan on being very busy this year, and you can’t count on ‘Sapo,’ I’ll tell you that much. That guy is as flaky as it gets, and Bigdash said no too. So it’s like, after I beat up this guy (Thani)… well, who’s next for me?”
Altogether, Askren’s exasperation is understandable, given his circumstances.
And Cui is quick to acknowledge that the past few years have not gone like he nor Askren hoped.
“We like to see our champions as active as possible, and believe me, I wanted to see Ben in action and we really tried everything,” Cui said. “Matt Hume is our Vice President in terms of matchmaking and he’s also a very good friend of Ben’s, and we were busting our butts to make it happen, and it was just like one thing after another.
“He mentioned the event in Thailand, and you guys maybe in the States don’t really understand it, or might not know it, but the king in Thailand is basically like a god. When you go, for example, to watch a movie in Thailand, at the start of every movie, the King’s official song comes up and everybody in the theater stands up for that time to pay homage to the king. This is every day, even before he died. That’s just the normal practice in Thailand, how much he is revered. So when he passed away, all events, every entertainment, every sporting event was canceled for three months. So, we of course abide by local guidance and local government, and so we had to change that event.
“And with Vitali, he was definitely in for a match against Askren. I thought that was going to be a great match-up, and I don’t know why he changed his mind, but he changed his mind. It just seems like we had a round of bad luck and poor timing in trying to make an Askren fight. We hope to see him more active this year, and I think we’re on track for that with our full schedule already announced for the whole year and there’s a bunch of slots we’ll be able to put him in. I think having this match-up with Agilan is just the first step for the year.”
While bad luck has certainly played a part in Askren’s inactivity, it’s also worth wondering if Askren has become somewhat of a victim of his own successes.
Askren is one of the best welterweights in the world and has been for a long time. In his Bellator days, he dispatched current champion Douglas Lima with such ease that it took years for Lima to rebuild his standing as one of the division’s best. So, considering that, it’s not as if ONE can just throw any random 170-pounder in there against Askren and have fight fans view the pairing as a legitimate match.
“When you have someone who’s 15-0, it’s like — with Angela Lee, she’s what, 5-0 or 6-0, right? So you can book her against someone who’s 4-0 or 5-0 and that’s acceptable. But even Agilan Thani, who’s 7-0, you put him against me and a lot of people are saying, ‘Well, is that really fair?’ Right?” Askren said. “So it’s not like you can book me against anybody, because most people will say, ‘well, that’s a stupid fight. Ben’s been fighting forever and he’s 15-0.’
“So that’s the other part of the issue, some of these other champions who don’t have as big of a record as me, or aren’t ranked as highly, you can book them against a wider variety of people, whereas you just can’t do that same thing with me. … So it does create a weird circumstance, and then you’ve got to find people who have a lot of experience, and then you’ve got to pay them a lot of money. So yeah, I am a victim of my own success. But that being said, I still need people to fight.”
And that need is ultimately what led Askren to his dance date against Thani — who is a promising 21-year-old up-and-comer, but one who will likely be outclassed once fight night rolls around.
But, like Askren says, fighters still need to fight and champions still need to defend their titles, so Askren is taking Cui at his word when he says ONE’s 2017 second-half schedule is going to feature plenty of the “Funky” one.
“I did this in Bellator, I was happy when I was fighting once a month,” Askren said. “Man, I competed 40 times in three months when I was wrestling, my whole life. So I was so happy fighting once a month, because I was just in this rhythm: fight, train, fight, train, fight, train. Obviously, that’s completely unrealistic. That’s not going to happen, I realize that. But if I got to fight three or four times (in 2017), I’d be happy.”
There’s a palpable sense of urgency around Askren when he speaks on the topic, as well. Askren will turn 33 years old in July, and in his younger days, he always vowed that he wanted to retire by the age of 30. That obviously didn’t happen, but Askren still sees the end as near.
He admitted that he’s “close” to being done with MMA, and that “it’s possible” 2017 is his final year as a professional mixed martial artist. Between his lengthy layoffs, he’s been able to commit much of his time and effort the past few years into building the business he runs with his brother, Askren Wrestling Academy. He and his brother just opened their third location in March, and Askren has also dipped his toes into other investment ventures as well.
So when Askren says he wants to dial up his activity for the rest of 2017, it’s exceedingly possible he could be bracing for the final run of his cagefighting career.
“There’s more to life than fighting,” Askren said. “I love running my business and I love wrestling, I love helping kids. And every athlete hangs on too long. They want the limelight, they want the glory, they want the money. But if you’re smart with your money, and you don’t really care about the glory or the limelight, it ain’t so bad to leave.”
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