ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben “Funky” Askren (17-0, 1 NC) is getting ready to make his final walk to the cage.
The undefeated American is scheduled to defend his coveted title for the last time against former ONE Lightweight World Champion Shinya Aoki (39-7, 1 NC) at ONE: IMMORTAL PURSUIT on Friday, 24 November.
The headlining tilt, which broadcasts live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium, will serve as the card’s main event, and the reigning world champion’s official retirement match.
“I had been planning this out for a while. I have been pretty open about it,” the 33-year-old admitted. “I had this expiration date set on myself, so I said to ONE Championship at the end of 2015 that I have two years left, and then I am done. I am going to walk away.”
Askren will attempt to walk away from the cage with a perfect record and the ONE Welterweight World Title around his waist. It will certainly be a challenge to maintain both his unbeaten streak and the gold. But as the former Olympian has said time and time again, he absolutely loves a good challenge.
Love At First Grapple
Askren, a native of Hartland, Wisconsin, participated in a couple of different sports during his childhood, but competing in team sports never truly appealed to him. It was tough for him to play basketball or soccer because he had to rely on others for success. He much preferred to have his fate rest solely in his own hands.
That is what initially led him to the wrestling mats.
“What really attracted me to wrestling was it was a one-on-one sport, and you make or break your destiny,” he explained. “I did not like to let other people control my destiny. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. I wanted it to be my fault if I won, or my fault if I lost, so I guess I had a hard time with other people having control over my outcomes.”
Askren may have felt conflicted about team sports, but he was a natural at wrestling. He has been training almost every single day since the age of 14, dominated in competition, and became a two-time state champion out of Arrowhead High School.
The American was awarded a full scholarship to the University of Missouri in 2002, and expected to achieve the same degree of success in his redshirt freshman year as he did in high school. At first, that did not happen.
“My freshman year of college is where I had the most struggles,” he remembered. “I lost 10 matches in six weeks in my first year of college, and so that was really a reality check. That was a point where I always say either you give up, or you love the fight and you figure out how to get better. And I love the challenge.”
Askren redefined his art. He added different scrambles into his traditional wrestling base, and earned the nickname “Funky” due to his unorthodox style. The change was revolutionary, as he ultimately captured the NCAA Division I Championship in 2006, and again in 2007.
An Olympic Dream Shattered
Ever since he was a teenager, Askren dreamed about winning an Olympic gold medal. In fact, he made it his life’s mission.
Merely a year after electrifying the collegiate wrestling scene, he took a step closer towards fulfilling that goal. In June 2008, he beat national runner-up Tyrone Lewis in back-to-back contests at the US Olympic Trials to earn a place on Team USA.
However, when he competed in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China, his childhood dream was shattered within a matter of hours.
Askren lost his first match to Cuban grappler Ivan Fundora on points, and then successfully pinned Hungarian athlete Istvan Vereb. Still, that initial defeat was enough to eliminate him from the field of competition.
“The heartbreaking thing about the Olympics is you have to wait four years [for another chance]. You do not get another chance next week or next month or next year. This is not like the cage, where you know you can bounce back and win a title a couple of months later,” he lamented.
“The Olympics is every four years, and so losing and knowing that essentially I had put a lifetime of work into that moment, I kind of knew at that point I probably would not have another shot. But even if I did, it will be four years away. That was really hard to swallow.”
A New Road To Greatness
“Funky” was understandably emotional about the whole ordeal. But days later, while at a pizzeria in Beijing with his future wife, he made the decision to continue competing, only now it would be inside the cage as a professional martial artist.
The methodical American already had a world-class grappling base. Now, all he needed to do was add striking and submissions to his arsenal.
“I think in competing, it caused me to really study everything I can study in. Maybe every style is not going to be mine, but I need to have the knowledge of everything that could possibly happen to me inside the cage, and that is an endless amount of possibility,” he said.
“You study as closely as you can so you are well-prepared, so you know everything that is coming at you.”
Askren immediately trained with American Top Team, both at the main Florida location and the affiliate in his old stomping grounds of Missouri, to learn the necessary skills that would compliment his wrestling.
In February 2009, he made his professional debut against Josh Flowers at a show called Headhunter Productions: The Patriot Act, an event “Funky” promoted with a few friends. Within two minutes, he brought Flowers to the ground with his elite wrestling and struck him until the referee stopped the match.
“I enjoyed it a lot and knew it was something I would stick with,” he recalled.
That grappling-heavy strategy, along with an impeccable top game, became the trademark strategy he would deploy on seemingly every opponent. It led him to capturing the Bellator Welterweight Championship in October 2010, and then the world’s richest prize, the ONE Welterweight World Championship, in August 2014.
Askren has also successfully defended the ONE Welterweight World Championship on quite a few occasions, too. For instance, he tapped out Malaysia’s Agilan “Alligator” Thani via arm-triangle this past May at ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES, and then followed it up by stopping Zebaztian “The Bandit” Kadestam with strikes in a dominant performance months later at ONE CHAMPIONSHIP: SHANGHAI.
“I am really effective at what I do,” Askren stated. “I never made a secret of it, and I always played to my strengths, and that is something a lot of people get away from. They do not play to their strengths, and I always play to my strengths, and I have been very focused and determined on what I do.
“So far, it has worked out well.”
The Final Challenge
No one has been able to solve the funky puzzle that is Ben Askren, but at ONE: IMMORTAL PURSUIT, Aoki — who is widely considered to be Asia’s best martial artist — will be the last man to give it a shot.
This is an intriguing clash between two of the world’s best grapplers, as Aoki presents a different type of challenge. The Japanese legend is a relentless competitor who is armed with black belts in both judo and jiu jitsu, and poses a submission threat the American has not yet experienced in his martial arts career.
“Shinya is a really good final opponent,” the welterweight kingpin said. “Obviously, he is a legend of the sport, and he is a really big challenge on the ground, which is where I like to compete, personally. I am excited for this bout.”
It may be his final battle, but Askren will undoubtedly continue sculpting lives through his martial arts pursuits.
He is teaching a new generation the art of grappling at the Askren Wrestling Academy, is mentoring other athletes, and following this match, he will be joining ONE behind the scenes in an effort to unearth new talents and help push the promotion even further.
One challenge will end on Friday, 24 November. But, as always, another challenge awaits, and Askren loves a challenge.