Confession time: I don’t watch much Bellator MMA.

To be perfectly honest, I see Bellator as the TNA to the UFC’s WWE. That is, it’s a place where people compete when a.) they don’t have enough experience to fight in the UFC, b.) they aren’t quite good enough to fight in the UFC, c.) they used to fight for the UFC but were released or d.) could not agree on business terms with the UFC. I’m not saying there aren’t talented fighters all across Bellator’s roster, but I think most would agree that the UFC is the world’s premier location for mixed martial arts by leaps and bounds.

I’m sure the omission of Bellator’s content from my MMA viewing further impugns my already questionable credibility among the sport’s most hardcore fans, but that’s okay. I just have never been all that excited for one of the promotion’s shows. The natural result, therefore, is that my relationship to Bellator’s roster is probably a lot like that of many sports fans when it comes to the UFC: I know the names of the very top or most popular guys, but that’s about it. Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Michael Chandler and Ben Askren are the three names that spring immediately to mind, but I positively couldn’t tell you who the promotion’s current light heavyweight champion is without looking it up.

All three fighters above competed on Wednesday night at Bellator 97, and all three were victorious. Such success has become commonplace for the trio, particularly for Chandler and Askren, who are Bellator MMA’s lightweight and welterweight champions, respectively. Chandler is an explosive undefeated fighter who has finished 10 of his 12 opponents inside the distance. On Wednesday, he earned the quickest win of his professional career, finishing David Rickels by knockout in just 44 seconds. Of all the fighters on the Bellator roster, Chandler is probably the one fans look forward to watching most.

Askren, however, is another story.

While no less gifted or successful than Chandler (Askren is also undefeated professionally), his fighting style has left something to be desired for many fans. Do a quick search for “Ben Askren boring” on Google and in the results you’ll see columns about the topic by just about every MMA writer in business. I can only go by the numbers, but it appears that Askren’s nearly impenetrable takedown-and-control strategy is not going over among fans or the MMA media.

It doesn’t seem to matter much to Askren, who just keeps on winning. To his credit, he has managed to finish both of his last two fights inside the distance, though both came via ground-and-pound TKO after, you guessed it, a lot of mat control. Perhaps due to his more conservative strategy or perhaps due to the lack of elite welterweight competition in Bellator MMA, Askren has developed a reputation, fairly or not, as a less-than-exciting fighter. This has been propagated to the point where, before he fought last night, I began receiving text messages anticipating the boringness. (Let me tell you, if anything will convince a guy to keep the TV tuned elsewhere, it’s out-of-the-blue text messages criticizing the fighting style of an undefeated MMA champion.)

The competition issue could be resolved sooner than later, however, as Askren’s Bellator contract reportedly expired after his fight on Wednesday. If Askren doesn’t re-up with his current employer and decides instead to make his way to the UFC, he would immediately be tested by some of that promotion’s best at 170 pounds. The welterweight division has recently become one of the UFC’s most marquee, likely due to the multitude of talent on the roster and the crowded title picture.

The rise in popularity for that division coincided with the rise to prominence of its current champion, Georges St-Pierre. After Matt Hughes more or less ran the division from 2001 through most of 2006, St-Pierre became its top draw, capturing the belt from Hughes at UFC 65. St-Pierre would lose the title in infamous fashion in just his first defense after he was knocked out by significant underdog Matt Serra, but would re-capture it in their rematch in late 2007. Since that time, GSP has held a firm grip on the welterweight championship, defending it eight times and never really finding himself in danger in the process.

As the result of his success, St-Pierre now finds himself as one of the faces of the UFC. He can regularly be relied upon to draw more significant pay-per-view buys than any other UFC fighter besides Anderson Silva and Jon Jones (his last three fights have pulled in 950,000, 700,000 and 800,000 buys, respectively, according to the Blue Book) and few could argue that he’s one of the sport’s most popular fighters. Given this level of achievement in the Octagon and the tremendous amount of attention that has come with it, then, one would think that GSP is the proverbial human wrecking machine, dispatching opponents in rapid and brutal fashion and striking fear in the hearts of men.

Not the case.

Of GSP’s eight post-Serra title defenses, seven have gone the distance. The eighth, a win over B.J. Penn in early 2009, ended via corner stoppage. I’m not saying St-Pierre didn’t earn every victory he’s won, but I am saying that the referee hasn’t had to end any of his eight title fights. GSP has largely relied on his superior wrestling to take opponents down and control them on the mat. He’s done this against elite grapplers like Josh Koscheck and Nick Diaz as easily as he did against more striking-centered opponents like Dan Hardy and Carlos Condit, and will probably try to employ the same strategy against upcoming challenger Johny Hendricks.

It would seem, then, that the major difference between opinions of GSP’s fighting style and those of Askren’s fighting style is the promotion for which the fighters ply their trade. Askren takes down opponents, keeps them there, and won a bunch of fights in a row en route to capturing the Bellator welterweight belt, but also catches a lot of garbage from fans and media. St-Pierre wins the UFC belt and then proceeds to take down and control each of his next eight opponents, but fans can’t seem to get enough of watching him fight.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a classic double standard. Both Georges St-Pierre and Ben Askren have adopted a control-first strategy in the cage, but the former is treated like a superstar while the latter is treated like an MMA pariah. Surely this has a bit to do with their differing levels of competition. Most of Askren’s 12 pro fights have been against guys with which the majority of the current MMA fan base is probably not familiar, whereas GSP has routinely fought and defeated the best 170-pound fighters in the game. Maybe if Askren’s competition was a bit stiffer, his wrestling-focused game plan would go over a better, because folks sure seem to love watching GSP do the exact same thing.

The solution for Askren—and this would likely take care of his financial well-being as well as any value he gets from fan and media feedback—would be to sign with the UFC posthaste. For starters, it would up his level of opposition tremendously. As a Bellator MMA champion, Askren would almost surely be thrown to the wolves immediately and have to face a consensus top-10 opponent. Askren might be able to keep Andrey Koreshkov under control, but it sure would be interesting to see how he fares against the Hendrickses, Condits and MacDonalds of the UFC’s welterweight division. Perhaps the jump up in competition would force Askren to begin showing what are at the very least moderate striking skills honed during his time with Roufusport and fans would begin to see a more exciting version of Askren. Then again, perhaps he simply proves to be a superior wrestler even to GSP and ends up tackling and hammering his way to the title.

Either way, if Askren hopes to shake the reputation he’s gotten and eliminate the unfair double standard applied to him, his best bet is to use his clearly elite grappling to defeat the UFC’s top fighters. Only then will his demonstrated strategy earn him wide accolades and the financial windfall that comes with them, like his brother in takedown efficiency, Georges St-Pierre.

Photo: Ben Askren (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.