Fight Path: After 2008 Olympics, Ben Askren's few options included MMA
by Kyle Nagel on Feb 05, 2009 at 8:58 am ET
When Ben Askren was a kid, his family kept crude pairs of boxing gloves in the basement of their Hartland, Wis., home. Askren and friends would sometimes fight with them on the wrestling mats placed for the Askren brothers' true sport.
Like in wrestling, Askren dominated.
"I always won, but not because I was great," Askren said. "The other guys just weren't good. I was trying something new."
It could've been the last time Askren was dabbling in a different sport, until this weekend. The college national champion and Olympic wrestler will make his mixed-martial-arts debut on Saturday when he headlines "Headhunters Fight League: The Patriot Act," an event he's promoting to bring an MMA presence to mid-Missouri.
It took him three tries to nail down an opponent (Josh Flowers), and he's dealing with administrative work in the days leading up to his professional debut. But nerves haven't taken hold, not when a competitor has twice been tabbed the nation's best and has battled on the world's biggest, once-in-four-years stage.
For everyone else, there are plenty of angles for excitement. They'll again watch the energetic, charismatic, entertaining Askren in a timed, physical match, which wasn't always a certainty. They'll see one of wrestling's top performers of the past two years make a move to MMA, burgeoning interest in the event and the sport.
They could also see the beginning of a new career that would make Askren yet another top wrestler to transition into MMA.
"I'm a calm guy, so I won't get jacked up until I get in the cage," Askren said. "And I'm not even really sure what's going to happen."
One of the best
By age 14, Askren was a success in every sport in his Wisconsin town. With a father who was a high school wrestler, a younger brother who was involved and with great potential, Askren chose to focus solely on the sport of wrestling.
In winning youth state titles in seventh and eighth grades, Askren noticed his own potential.
"I like the physical nature of the sport. It's just you and the other guy," he said. "You can't point to anyone else about what happens. You have all the responsibility, and it's all up to you in how you prepare."
After placing second in the state as a freshman, Askren won three state championships before an award-filled career at the University of Missouri made him a two-time national champion at 174 pounds with 153 college wins and an 87-match winning streak as a junior and senior. He was a success outside the sport, as well, as he served as president of the university's Student Athlete Advisory Council.
An underdog to many to make the U.S. Olympic team for the Beijing games, Askren blew though the one-day qualifying tournament to become the team's 163-pound (74-kilogram) representative. The media swarmed him, as much for his floppy hair and personality as for his college success. Everyone loved the story about Askren handing his camera to a stranger at the Opening Ceremonies to snap a picture of him. The stranger was Barbara Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush.
But Askren wasn't familiar with the international brand of wrestling. He had to cut his hair for the Games because competitors from other countries would pull on it for an advantage.
Askren's Olympic experience ended in the second round with a loss to Cuban Ivan Fundora, an experienced international competitor.
"I wish I had been more prepared," Askren said. "The move the Cuban got on me, I had never seen it before. It totally caught me by surprise. I wish I would have changed my training, where I was competing, how I was doing it. But it was over."
His wrestling career stalled with few professional opportunities, Askren decided to follow a line of wrestlers before him and train for MMA.
A major move
Askren, though, almost made the decision much earlier.
"I almost skipped the Olympic thing," Askren said of potentially beginning his MMA career sooner. "MMA has been on my mind for awhile, and there are four years until the next Olympics, so now is the time to see if I can do it."
Askren began his MMA training while still in college, dabbling in jiu jitsu at American Top Team of Missouri, the Columbia, Mo. training center. After a few post-Olympic vacations, Askren joined the gym as the lead instructor of its wrestling program and became an assistant coach with the University of Missouri wrestling program.
All the while, he improved. He has become a regular twice-a-day participant in training.
"The hardest part is I'm terrible at stand-up," Askren said. "I'm learning how to defend, figure out my own moves, learn from experience. That's what I did in wrestling."
Not long ago, Askren and a few friends were sitting at American Top Team and decided Columbia could use its own event. Askren agreed to participate to help promote the show, so his decision features as much business sense as fighting savvy.
He gains confidence from watching other wrestlers make the MMA transition.
"The thing in MMA is there's such a large skill set," Askren said. "I wrestled 17 years fulltime, so I picked up a lot of skills, some I can use still. I know how to get in shape. I know some good ways to work out.
"I know everyone in the room is going to be tough, and nothing's going to be easy. There are no easy days, but it's like wrestling. You have to depend on yourself. The stronger man, the better man will win."