After spending more than a year on the sidelines, Ben Askren will make his long-awaited return on May 26 when he looks to defend his ONE welterweight title against Agilan Thani at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes. And while a test against the undefeated 21-year-old prospect may not seem like the stiffest Askren has faced, it’s still another opportunity for Askren to reaffirm that he is one of the most talented 170-pounders in the sport.
“I don’t think he’s at my level,” Askren told MMA Fighting. “I don’t think a lot of people are at my level. He’s tough, he’s young. He works hard. He’s got a great attitude. I think someday he will be very good, but I think this is just too big of a jump up in competition level for him. I’m one of the best welterweights in the world, and I don’t think he’s ready for that.”
Though his run in ONE Championship has been fraught with bizarre happenings, many of which have led to long stretches of inactivity, Askren remains one of the most talented fighters under the ONE Championship banner. The former Olympic wrestler is a perfect 15-0 in MMA, highlighted by a dominant reign as Bellator welterweight champion that included one-sided beatings of current titleholder Douglas Lima and former titleholder Andrey Koreshkov.
By comparison, Thani is a relative newcomer to the game. The Malaysian prospect joined ONE Championship in 2015 as a 1-0 welterweight and promptly racked up six consecutive stoppage wins in the promotion, earning him his unexpected title shot against Askren.
“I can actually appreciate Agilan’s story,” Askren said, “where he came from and how he kinda came up through the ranks to rise all the way to where he’s fighting for a world title now. So, I can appreciate that. That being said, I am not going to be his storybook ending. He is going to have a very rough night on May 26th.
“Honestly, his style, he does use quite a bit of wrestling and ground-and-pound, and that’s going right in my wheelhouse. I remember the first guy I fought in ONE Championship, I think he was an Azerbaijani guy (Bakhtiyar Abbasov), he took me down right away, but it was like, okay, well that was a stupid move. I reversed him in 10 seconds and beat him up. So yeah, if he wants to take me down, that’s more than fine and we can go from there, because once it’s on the ground, that’s my world.”
Thani, for his part, has been reticent to pump himself up too much, knowing full well the jump up in competition he faces against ONE’s reigning welterweight champion.
“I’m not going to say much,” Thani said on a recent ONE: Dynasty of Heroes conference call. “You know he’s going to do the same thing and that’s what he always says. I think the first thing to do going into this fight is to have a strong mindset, because most people go in with a very low self-esteem about themselves, worrying about going to the ground with him. But I think you should not be worrying about going to the ground with, and do whatever you can, believe in your skills as much as he believes in his wrestling and his skills.”
While Askren is used to competing on a major stage, the experience ahead of ONE: Dynasty of Heroes has been a new one for Thani, and Askren believes his young opponent has acquitted himself well.
“He essentially came from the amateur level to a world title fight in, what, two years or so? So he’s never been on this stage,” Askren said. “So yeah, he probably does feel [overwhelmed] a little bit. But you know what? I honestly think he’s got a pretty good attitude.
“To me, what a lot of fighters do — it’s a sign of weakness to me, but they actually overplay their hand. They say, ‘oh, I’m going to kill him, I’m a bad mf’er.’ They play that, and to me, that shows a sign of weakness, because you’re trying to show how confident you are because you’re not actually confident, right? So, generally speaking, when fighters are a little more humble like that, I honestly think to the outsider it seems worse, but I think it might not be as bad. I always think the worse guys are the ones who are super insecure, but they try to act loud and brash to cover that up.”
That being said, Askren is well aware of the reality of the situation he finds himself in. Askren is a heavy betting favorite heading into May 26, just as he has been for all of his ONE Championship fights. Nearly everyone tuning in will do so expecting to see him win, which puts the champion in an awkward position where he has a lot to risk and very little to gain against an unheralded opponent like Thani.
But to Askren, that’s just the name of the game.
“I don’t care. I say yes every time,” Askren said, shrugging. “Initially, I think they were going to book me on the Manila show against (Luis) ‘Sapo’ (Santos). I said yes and then I waited like 10 days, and I was like, ‘hey, why haven’t I heard anything back?’ So I called (ONE matchmaker) Matt Hume, like, ‘hey, what’s up, dude?’ He’s like, ‘we’re trying to get him to say yes.’ Obviously in Bellator, you didn’t have the option. I fought whoever won the tournament. That was it, right? So I never once had the option, but I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than 30 seconds to say yes. I say yes every damn time.
“So, that never really even crossed my mind, because yeah, high-risk, low-reward, sure, of course it is. But who gives a sh*t? It’s a fight. If you ask me, I’m probably going to say yes. Maybe if you ask me to fight a heavyweight or something, that’s kinda ridiculous so I’ll probably say no. But if you’re asking me to fight at welterweight, I’m probably going to say yes every single time.”