In July, I sat inside a van parked outside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas chatting with UFC contender Ben Askren and his coach, Duke Roufus, about Askren’s MMA career and his life after fighting.
I was struck by how little Askren seemed to care for many of the perks of fighting in the UFC: Money, fame, attention. He landed in the UFC after nearly a decade of dominance in Bellator and ONE, rival promotions in which he won world titles while winning each of his first 18 fights.
The paychecks, generally, are bigger in the UFC, as is the notoriety. It was a nice perk, but it wasn’t what motivated Askren, who at the time was days away from a fight with Jorge Masvidal that he was absolutely convinced he’d win.
Had he won it, he would have been 20-0 and probably in position to fight for the UFC title.
Not only didn’t he win it, he was knocked out in a record five seconds by a flying Masvidal knee that Masvidal manager Abe Kawa is appealing to the Nevada Athletic Commission to cut to three seconds.
On this day, though, Askren had no way of knowing how the fight at UFC 239 would end. All he had known prior was winning, and so he expected to win. And he expected to keep winning despite hip injuries that had plagued him for as long as the last five years until he got that title shot, because winning is what he was all about in his athletic career.
In addition to 18 wins outside the UFC, he’d won his first UFC fight when he stopped Robbie Lawler in a controversial ending in March. He was a two-time NCAA champion wrestler, a two-time Hodge Trophy winner, a 2008 U.S. Olympian and a four-time academic All-American.
He was the elite of the elite, yet by the time of his second UFC fight, more than a decade into his MMA career, he was still battling for recognition, still trying to make his point.
All he wanted, he said over and over that sweltering summer afternoon, was the opportunity to prove he was the best welterweight in the world. He landed in the UFC in late 2018 after an unusual trade with ONE, in which the legendary flyweight Demetrious Johnson’s contract was swapped in exchange for his.
After years of trading barbs with UFC fans and UFC president Dana White on social media, Askren came to the promotion to prove his success in other promotions was no fluke. He believed he was No. 1 and he wanted to fight the best to make it obvious to all.
It turned out that, at least in 2019, he wasn’t anywhere near the best. He went 1-2 in the UFC and on Monday, announced in an appearance on “The Ariel Helwani Show” that he was retiring and in need of hip replacement surgery.
In the UFC, he got the win over Lawler in which referee Herb Dean stopped the fight while Lawler insisted he was OK. He then lost in record fashion to Masvidal and was submitted last month by Demian Maia.
“I’m retiring from the sport of MMA,” Askren told Helwani on Monday. “Frankly, I’m retiring from everything.”
His brief time in the UFC was not a failure, though; far from it. He left a standard for his peers to follow and that’s a legacy that will endure longer than even a stunning, record-setting knockout loss would ever do.
He wasn’t the extraordinary athlete that former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre once was nor the physical powerhouse that his ex-college teammate, good buddy and former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley was.
Askren had as non-intimidating an appearance as you’ll find in an elite professional fighter. And while his wrestling chops were beyond reproach, his striking was never a strong suit. But Askren made the most of what he had. More than that, he relentlessly pursued the best fights until the end of his days as an active participant.
He promoted the shows vigorously and while his trash-talking style wasn’t to everyone’s liking, least of all Masvidal’s, he made fans take notice.
In July, he laughed at the notion and said, “I might be the biggest star the UFC has right now. Put that in the headline.” And while he probably wasn’t its biggest star, let’s be honest: There weren’t many bigger.
He demanded and got attention from the public. As a result, he got great opportunities as well as bigger purses and the ability to use his MMA notoriety to his advantage in developing private business interests.
He wasn’t fighting for money he said over and over a few days before the infamous flying knee heard ‘round the world.
“Financially, I’m doing pretty well for myself,” he told Yahoo Sports in July. “That being said, I’ve made one or two stupid financial moves. I bought a Tesla, but besides that, I’m really basic. I don’t live a flashy lifestyle. I like my jeans and T-shirt and my sandals. I’ve been able to put a lot of money away that I’ve fought for. I’ve been able to start a handful of businesses, all of which are doing really well.
“So I am literally fighting, I’ve come out of retirement, solely to prove I’m the best in the world. If I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, I would be gone right now. I don’t need or want fame. I don’t need to do this for the money. I can make it other ways.”
Athletes have limited spans in which to make their money, and in the case of fighters, they’re often finished before their 35th birthday, or generally halfway or less to retirement age.
Askren is set, and will be able to provide for himself and his family the way he wants without concern. He’s built several businesses which are growing and he’s developed relationships that will serve him well when his fight career is just a distant memory.
He’s not on top as he leaves the sport, at least not according to the rankings.
But he is very much leaving on top if you ask me. He made his fight career work for him, and set himself up for a bright and comfortable future.
If that’s not winning, I don’t want to know what is.