UFC 235 marked the long, long-awaited debut of the “funky” one, Ben Askren. The 2008 Olympian and college wrestling great spent years dominating in every cage not owned by Zuffa, and for the longest time, it seemed like he’d never sign with the world MMA leader.
When he stepped in the cage with former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, we would soon learn if he belonged on this stage. While we saw plenty, closure eluded us.
Seeing Askren in the octagon was a novelty, but the novelty was soon to fade, violently. Askren was as cool as a cucumber, and Lawler looked as ready to murder a man as ever. The pieces were in place for a meaningful fifteen minutes. Askren came out in a karate stance and threw three consecutive probing wheel kicks… Okay, so he immediately shot for a takedown.
Robbie Lawler, ever the technician, hoisted Askren up in the fireman’s carry position and drilled him, afro first, into the canvas. “Funky” was all out of sorts as “Ruthless” lived up to his name, slamming leather into the Olympian’s grill. A stoppage seemed close, but Askren managed to gather himself and get back to his feet, albeit bloody and battered. Askren hadn’t taken any significant damage in a fight in years, and Robbie decided to play catch-up.
Where the big boys play
Ben lurched forward, arms outstretched like a zombie following its basic instincts. He just wanted a clinch, which he eventually got as Lawler backed up to the cage.
Questions about the quality of Askren’s opposition and his ability to overcome adversity had just been answered, regardless of what was about to happen. He weathered a storm, and a Robbie Lawler storm is unlike any other. He then managed to get the fight back where he wanted it.
Askren eventually got Lawler to the ground and looked to threaten a rear-naked choke, but Lawler snuck out the back. Being a grappler with a noted vice-like grip, “Funky” held on to what he could – Robbie Lawler’s head. Askren squeezed for dear life and Robbie was in trouble, but he seemed to be hanging in there. Then, his arm dropped, and Herb Dean, the referee, waved off the fight. Lawler popped up in protest as Askren celebrated his first UFC victory.
One of the most anticipated fights of the year, featuring one of the most anticipated debuts ever ended with a confused whimper. It’s difficult to bury the ref too deep, as it did briefly appear that Robbie might have been unconscious. The commentators proclaimed so in the moment and sat at home watching on TV it wasn’t obvious he was still awake. Nevertheless, he got right back up with zero hesitation or grogginess – he was not out.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda
Whether he was about to go out, or if he could have broken Askren’s grip is a different matter. “I wasn’t letting go”, Ben told media members at the post-fight presser. True, surely, why would he have let go? But, It’s hard to tell from the camera angle if the choke was under the chin.
As colour commentator Joe Rogan pointed out, however, you can choke a man out with a squeeze around the head if it’s tight enough. Ultimately, we’ll never know what could have happened, and the result won’t be overturned because results are never overturned because athletic commission’s gonna athletic commission.
We can’t change what happened, but what we can do is take positives from the situation. This was an “I don’t want to see either person lose” fight for a lot of people. Lawler is a perennial fan favourite with a dichotomous appeal. Within the confines of the octagon, he is a wild man with a brutal back catalogue of wars, but outside he remains a soft-spoken everyman. After the controversial call, he sprung to his feet spitting venom, but within seconds he was shaking hands with the referee; “Sh*t happens”, he said in a post-fight interview.
Askren quickly generated fans with his mouth. At first glance, he might be the least physically intimidating man who could break you in half, but verbally he will let you know. As quick-witted and verbose as the UFC has ever seen, his relentless trash talking has maintained him a sold fanbase outside of the UFC and that has only inflated now he has the biggest platform from which to spit.
The wrong fight for Robbie Lawler
The problem with this fight was the conflicting nature of those last two paragraphs. Everyone loves Robbie Lawler, including Ben Askren: “I didn’t really want to fight him the first place.
I like Robbie Lawler a lot”, he explained after the fight. Upon joining the roster last year, Askren fired shots at almost everybody in the welterweight division, except for Robbie Lawler. Strangely, that was the fight that was made.
Both UFC president Dana White and Lawler himself want to rebook the flight, and that is completely understandable. Sports are designed to decide something definitively, and we got the exact opposite of that. However, is it the smart move?
I don’t think so. Askren’s talents are surely better utilised against someone he can go back and forth with verbally. He enters the UFC at 34 years of age. He hasn’t taken a lot of damage in his career, but that still isn’t a reason to waste him.
We got his debut out of the way and he got to prove he can hang with the best in the world. He had plenty of mic time to make an impression and summon the ire of many of his peers. He also, crucially, remains undefeated, always a nice selling point for the promotion. Meanwhile, Robbie Lawler, in the eyes of many didn’t really “lose”. He also put a hellacious beating on Askren prior to the unfortunate ending, retaining his aura.
It was a good fight, but in the long run, both men are better served elsewhere. Askren wants to face the winner of Darren Till vs Jorge Masvidal. You’re telling me you don’t want to hear Darren Till and Ben Askren screaming at each during a press conference? You know you want that.
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