MMA: Ben Askren eager to prove he is 'the best' in his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut

Ben Askren (above) will make his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight debut against Robbie Lawler on March 3, 2019.
Ben Askren (above) will make his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight debut against Robbie Lawler on March 3, 2019.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Two championships are on the line at the UFC 235 event in Las Vegas, Nevada on Sunday (March 3).

But the fight most mixed martial arts (MMA) fans want to see is not the light heavyweight title bout between Jon Jones and heavy underdog Anthony Smith, or welterweight champion Tyron Woodley defending his strap against Kamaru Usman.

Instead, the card's most intriguing fight will see Ben Askren make his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight debut against Robbie Lawler.

Askren, 34, is a recognisable name to MMA fans in the region, having been signed to Singapore-based One Championship from 2013-2017.

The curly-haired fighter had called time on his MMA career in Nov 2017 after defeating Shinya Aoki at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in One's Immortal Pursuit event.

He was done with the sport, he said then, unless he had the chance to prove he was the best in the world, and if that did not require him facing his good friend Woodley.

Unexpectedly, things fell into place last November when the UFC agreed to a trade with One, with the American organisation's former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson going the opposite direction.

Now, Askren - who alongside Russian heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko was regarded by MMA fans as the best never to have fought in the UFC - has his shot to prove how good he really is.

And he is relishing the opportunity.

Asked why he came out of retirement, Askren told The Sunday Times: "I'm here to compete, to show that I'm the best.

"I love competition, I want to fight the best people in the world, and that's all I'm here to do. That's my one and only focus."

Despite representing the United States in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Olympics and then fighting in American promotion Bellator from 2010 to 2013, Askren was still not a household name to American fans.

But even before setting foot in the Octagon, he has gained a strong following from UFC's fan base.

His humorous jabs at fellow fighters and even UFC president Dana White on social media have only increased the buzz ahead of his debut.

Since November, the number of Askren's followers on Twitter has more than doubled.

When ST suggested to him he is the most likeable troll in the UFC, he responded: "Well I appreciate that! That's a compliment.

"I never plan too much at all, you've got to be quick-witted. I see something, I respond to it, and that's kind of what people enjoy about it."

Throughout fight week, Askren has also stood out for his unorthodox style - he turned up to the press conference dressed formally except for a pair of flip flops - and calm demeanour at the prospect of facing former champion Lawler, who is nicknamed "Ruthless" and is famed for his striking.

Askren said he is banking on his grappling skill to help him neutralise Lawler's offence, and gain even more fans with an impressive win.

"He's a brawler, he has a good strong striking style," Askren told ST.

"But it's all good. I'm feeling good and it's going to be me trying to take him down (to the ground in the fight).

"My style is different, it's unique. There's not a lot of people who do it like I do, so I think that's why people enjoy it."