Ben Askren hasn’t even made his UFC debut and he’s already lost an opponent. Don’t worry, Robbie Lawler is still facing “Funky” this Saturday in Las Vegas, but when it comes to a matchup with Georges St-Pierre, that ship has apparently sailed after GSP announced his retirement on February 21.
“It’s unlikely,” Askren said of a fight with the Montreal icon. “But I think he’s still out there. He didn’t fully close the door and say, ‘Never, ever, ever,’ today. (Laughs) Obviously he’s getting older. He’s 37 now, so he’s well past his prime and part of me thinks this may be a negotiating tactic for the Khabib (Nurmagomedov) thing, so I guess we will just wait and see.”
It’s not like Askren doesn’t have pressing matters to tend to with another former champion in Lawler, and there is certainly plenty of fire in the Wisconsin product’s belly to get in a fight for the first time since November 2017.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I love to compete. I already am excited and I know I’m gonna get more excited.”
A lot of that excitement stems from the fact that the 2008 U.S. Olympian wasn’t sure if he was ever going to compete in mixed martial arts again following his 57-second stoppage of Japanese star Shinya Aoki. The victory was Askren’s 18th without a loss, and after dominating as a champion in the Bellator and One FC promotions, he announced his retirement.
“I said I’m retired unless I get an opportunity to prove I’m the best,” said Askren. “There was always a caveat there because I didn’t want to be that guy that says something and then goes back on his word. So I figured I’d leave myself an out or two in there.”
That “out” was clear. If he got a call from the UFC, he would put his gloves on and mouthpiece in again. But that call didn’t come immediately. So was Askren able to accept that his fighting career might have been over?
“Yeah, I did move on,” he said. “I’ve lived my life, I was running my wrestling academies, I was doing everything I wanted to do.”
Months went on, and then suddenly last fall, word started floating around that a unique “trade” was going to happen, with former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson going to One FC and Askren coming to the UFC. The 34-year-old Askren was all in.
“When the trade idea started happening, I was really excited because I was going to get an opportunity I had not been afforded to this point in my career,” he said. “I fought for nine years before my retirement and besides very, very early on in my career, I never got to fight somebody who was ranked above me. So that was one of the things that kept me from moving into the upper echelon of the rankings and then the opportunity was presented and obviously I was very excited about it.”
Now he gets to face the best of the best in the Octagon night in and night out, starting with Lawler. That’s intriguing in its own right, but equally interesting in the lead-up to Saturday’s fight is how rapidly and eagerly the UFC fan base has embraced “Funky.”
“It’s mind-blowing,” Askren said. “I’m almost put off by it because I was such the anti-hero for so long and then as soon as I got signed, all of a sudden everyone likes me. I don’t understand where it came from at all. I don’t get it, I can’t comprehend it. I didn’t really do it for fan adulation, but it’s been nice. But obviously I still have a handful of haters on social media.”
Askren doesn’t care, though, and with his particular brand of wit, he’s having fun with it all.
“Fight trash talk, if you will, is almost played out because everyone says the same thing: ‘I’m big, I’m strong, I’m tough, I’m mean, I’m gonna beat you up.’ And to be able to add something else, I do think people appreciate that quite a bit from me.”
That’s outside the Octagon. In it, he’s also adding something new to the welterweight division, and it’s almost time for him to show it. He can’t wait, because remember, this day almost didn’t come. But now that it’s here, he’s ready for “Ruthless” and whatever else the UFC has to offer.
“You’ve got to find challenges everywhere in your life, and so when I did retire, I was finding challenges in growing my business,” Askren said. “That was a lot of fun for me, and then when this opportunity became available, of course I got excited about it. That’s what I love to do, I love to have challenges.”