Helwani’s MMA thoughts: Askren’s complicated legacy, bright future

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Retirement, especially in combat sports, is a fickle thing.

Sometimes we believe it’s real, but more often we don’t because, well, it’s not.

As you know, MMA produces incredible highs and lows, and sometimes a retirement announcement comes from the emotion developed during those lows. It is understandable.

When I started doing my Monday show 11 years ago, I never thought anyone would want to come on to announce their retirement. In mainstream sports, athletes often retire via news conference, news release or, these days, social media post.

As a result, I consider it the highest of honors that a fighter would choose to come on the program to say goodbye. When Ben Askren called me last Monday to say he was finished fighting and he wanted to announce it the following week on my show, I was sincerely touched. Not only was Askren going to come on the show with his news, but he was also going to sit on it for a week.

Now, we’ve had this honor bestowed upon the show a few times before in the past . Names such as Brian Stann, Rashad Evans, Ian McCall and Mike Pyle told the world — via the show — that they were finished. Others such as Urijah Faber and Jason Miller said the same but then came back to fighting (still counts in my book).

It’s always a special thing whenever it happens, and they are moments I cherish.

This particular one with Askren especially meant a lot to me because, well, our relationship didn’t get off on the right foot. In 2012, Askren beat Douglas Lima via unanimous decision to retain the Bellator welterweight title. It was, dare I say, not the most exciting affair. Afterward, I said as much on the show, but in my humble defense, I said it in the nicest way possible. I didn’t rip Askren like others did. I just said the fight wasn’t all that entertaining.

Well, Askren didn’t appreciate those comments and tweeted this to me afterward:

“Hey @arielhelwani I am still waiting on your expert advice. What strategy would have helped me finish the fight?

well I invite you to go in a cage with me. When you do that I will do your show. Otherwise kiss my ass.”

This wasn’t the first time a fighter got mad at me, but it felt like the first time one challenged me to a fight. Askren claims I was critical of his performance because prior to the Lima fight he came on my show and seemed completely uninterested, doing the interview while eating lunch. But no, my take on his fight, which was shared by many, was completely independent of that frustrating interview.

Anyway, after that bizarre challenge, Askren and I took a break from each other. I think I might have temporarily banned him from the show for his rude tweet. But over time, we began to patch things up, and it was during the tail end of his run in One Championship that he started to become one of the better guests in the show’s history. Although he was always solid, his appearances never really moved the needle. He was that guy fighting lesser-known competition in Asia, and the American audience didn’t seem emotionally invested in his journey.

Then the trade to the UFC happened, and everything changed. All of a sudden, Askren took on this persona as the outsider who was going to shake up the status quo in the UFC, and guess what? It worked. Really well. It was the closest thing we’ve seen to Scott Hall and Kevin Nash crashing WCW Nitro. Askren was the perfect person to play that part; it was so much fun to witness.

From the moment he arrived at Madison Square Garden in November, as the newly acquired Ben Askren wearing his patented flip-flops, until his final fight against Demian Maia last month, back in Asia no less, Askren made headlines every step of the way. The past 365 days have been a whirlwind for him. He came, he saw, he conquered, he was vanquished, and then he was vanquished again … and then he was gone.

What a year

It has been a while since a UFC debutant had a year quite like his — with those kinds of highs and lows — and it’s honestly hard to believe it’s all over for him. But Ben Askren has always been a “go big or go home” kind of guy, so I guess this makes sense.

Unlike some other MMA retirements, this one will stick. I can all but guarantee it. Not only does he need a hip replacement, but he also owns several successful wrestling schools with his brother and admitted recently that he never really loved fighting to begin with. He’s done.

I strongly believe we have seen the last of Ben Askren, MMA fighter, and that’s OK. Other than winning the UFC title, there’s nothing left for him to accomplish.

But I hope this isn’t the end of him in MMA. Of course, he trains rising star Maycee Barber, which is great, and I suspect other prospects will come knocking at his door in the future. But he should seriously consider an analyst role as well. We need straight shooters such as Askren, and now that he isn’t an active fighter anymore, he can tell it like it is (not that he ever seemed to hold back).

If not, he could teach fighters how to cut a promo, how to market themselves, how to connect with the crowd. He’s a master at these things that are often overlooked. He’d be a great professor in that regard.

The first question that comes up whenever someone retires is what will their legacy be? For Ben Askren, it’s a complicated question to answer. For the longest time, it seemed like it would be that of the boring fighter who did whatever possible to avoid damage. And then it seemed like it was going to be the guy who took the money and ran to Asia to avoid the tough fights. (That label, by the way, never seemed fair to me because a) the UFC didn’t want to sign him and b) the whole point of this game is to make as much money as possible without getting seriously hurt, so how can we blame him for that?)

But you know what’s fascinating? For a guy who was synonymous with winning for the majority of his career, it’s the way he handled defeat that might be his defining legacy. Dare I say, outside of Conor McGregor after UFC 196, no high-level fighter has ever handled loss quite like Askren did. His appearance on the show on the Monday after the Jorge Masvidal loss will go down as one of my favorite interviews ever just because that kind of honesty and self-deprecation are so rare in combat sports. Turns out, the perpetual winner was really good at losing after all. When it’s all said and done, I think that’s how I will remember him.

I firmly believe he became more popular after the loss to Masvidal because of how he handled it. That’s an amazing feat considering how brutal that loss was. That, and he made 2019 in MMA a heckuva lot more fun.

So, thank you, Ben. Thank you for a great career. Thank you for always telling it like it is. Thanks for making 2019 fun. Thanks for always coming on the show. And, above all, thanks for not kicking my ass all those years ago.

Memory lane

This week marks the eight-year anniversary of one of the greatest nights in MMA history: Nov. 19, 2011. On that night, two of the best fights ever happened at opposite ends of the country at almost exactly the same time. In San Jose, California, at UFC 139, which is where I was, Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua were engaged in what was arguably the greatest UFC fight ever. In Los Angeles, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler were doing battle for the Bellator lightweight strap in what I believe was unequivocally the best Bellator fight ever. I remember both fights happening at around the same time and talking to some other media members in San Jose about how crazy this all was. In the end, Henderson won via unanimous decision — in what was also the first nontitle UFC fight to go five rounds — and Chandler submitted Alvarez to win the Bellator belt. In addition to that, I remember the very next morning Fedor Emelianenko fighting in Russia for the first time in four years and beating Jeff Monson via decision. I watched that one from the San Francisco airport at some ungodly hour on just a couple of hours of sleep. It was magical.

Final thoughts

You know how a fighter’s stock can rise in defeat? Well, it can also drop in a victory. I think that’s what happened to Jan Blachowicz last weekend. It seemed like he was much closer to a title shot going into that fight against Jacare Souza than he was when it was over. … Upon watching it again, I think “Shogun” Rua won the fight against Paul Craig 29-28. The judges scored it a split draw. … If Charles Oliveira doesn’t get a top-eight opponent next, there’s something wrong … UFC is on a two-week break, but that doesn’t mean the sport is on hiatus. Bellator has a solid Euro Series card this weekend in London, highlighted by the return of Michael “Venom” Page and the Fabien Edwards vs. Mike Shipman grudge match, which I am really looking forward to. In addition to that, there’s Cage Warriors, One, LFA, CFFC and a whole lot more on tap. If you’re someone who typically watches only UFC, use this weekend as a chance to sample some other stuff. Or take a break altogether and socialize with other human beings for once. Your call.

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