For the third time in less than three years, one of Bellator MMA’s biggest stars has set his sights on a move to the Octagon. Much like Hector Lombard and Eddie Alvarez before him, Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren didn’t waste much time after he was sent into free agency before he declared he was eyeing a trip to the UFC. The difference is, unlike the scenarios with Lombard and Alvarez, Bellator seems completely content on letting Askren go.

When Lombard first hit the free agent market in early 2012, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney made it clear that he didn’t want to see the promotion’s inaugural middleweight champion head elsewhere unless coming to terms on a new deal was impossible. Bellator and its parent company, Viacom, spent time trying to sign Lombard during their exclusive matching period in order to try to lock “Lightning” down before the UFC could make its offer. However, Lombard decided to wait it out and eventually signed a deal with UFC President Dana White and company. Rebney and Bellator declined their matching option, stating that they couldn’t reasonably match what the UFC was going to offer Lombard, but it was clear that they would have rather held on to their middleweight titleholder.

Less than a year later, former Bellator lightweight champ Alvarez made his way into the free agency scene when his contract officially ran out in December of 2012. Unlike with Lombard, where Bellator made sure to use every second of its exclusive negotiation period to its advantage, the promotion decided to waive nearly the entire negotiation period, instead opting to allow Alvarez to get an offer from the UFC. It didn’t take long for the Philadelphian to reach a deal with the UFC, and it was soon sent back to Bellator to allow the promotion the right to match. This is the point in the story where things go horribly wrong.

While Bellator was willing to let Lombard leave without giving up too much of a fight, the Alvarez situation was a completely different animal. The Viacom and Bellator team put together a deal that they felt was on par with the offer that Zuffa had put on the table and sent it back to Alvarez. He wasn’t satisfied. The deal that Alvarez had signed with the UFC featured numerous perks, including a title fight on pay-per-view and a few percentage points from pay-per-view buys to go along with his fight purse. Oddly enough, these same pay-per-view points were cited as one of the main reasons that Bellator was forced to part with Lombard a few months earlier, as Rebney said that pay-per-view wasn’t quite on Bellator’s radar yet.

Since Bellator had yet to even announce plans for a pay-per-view event when it matched the UFC’s offer, it’s easy to see why Alvarez didn’t believe he was getting a fair deal. Dana White blasted Bellator numerous times for holding one of its fighters hostage, Alvarez and Bellator filed lawsuits against each other, and it appeared that one of MMA’s top lightweights would be fighting in a courtroom sooner than he would in a cage. Things got so ugly that eventually even White came out and publicly said that Alvarez should just head back to Bellator instead of wasting his career in legal battles. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and, after Bellator announced pay-per-view plans, Alvarez and the promotion were able to come to terms on a deal (rumors suggest that the deal will allow Alvarez to head to the Octagon after a maximum of two bouts), but the entire fiasco was a public relations nightmare for Rebney and Viacom.

Now, as the third major Bellator star prepares to hit the open market for offers, it’s going to be interesting to see if Askren’s path away from the Bellator cage mirrors that of Lombard or Alvarez. Bellator pushed hard to try to resign Lombard, but eventually the promotion was forced to give in to the UFC and its abnormally large pocketbooks. Bellator went even harder after Alvarez, risking an obscene amount of media and fan backlash in order to retain the services of one of its homegrown guys. All the evidence we have from the past suggests that Rebney and the rest of his team would do anything under their power to make sure that Askren stays under the Bellator banner too.

Instead, Rebney has almost gone out of his way to make it clear that Bellator is all but ready to move on from the Ben Askren era. On paper, this makes no sense. Logically, it probably makes even less. Askren is a 12-0 fighter that has spent over half of his career fighting inside the Bellator cage, winning the season-two welterweight tournament with relative ease and taking the strap off of champion Lyman Good soon after. Since that time, Askren has been nothing short of a monster. Outside of a tough fight with MMA veteran Jay Hieron, no one that Bellator has thrown at Askren has had much to offer the former Olympic wrestler, and Askren has rolled through the past three Bellator tournament champions.

Not only has Askren been on a roll as of late, but he’s slowly working towards changing the public’s perception that he’s a boring fighter. While his grappling-first style isn’t exactly the most fan-friendly to watch, “Funky” has slowly improved his ability to earn stoppage wins, forcing a doctor’s stoppage against Karl Amoussou and finishing Andrey Koreshkov with punches over his last two bouts. Throw in Askren’s increasingly entertaining in-fight antics (starting a U-S-A chant while he has his opponent’s back, for example) and post-fight interview skills (where he was last seen soaking in the boos like a true WWE heel…or at least a young Josh Koscheck), and it’s hard to believe that Bellator is really going to let this guy walk.

The skeptic in a lot of fight fans believe this is all a ploy from Rebney to try to get the UFC to make a lower offer, which actually does make a little sense. Despite saying that its interest in signing Askren is low, Bellator hasn’t given a single reason as to why it would allow its welterweight champion to walk, other than a throwaway quote from Rebney where he simply stated that “how he fights and what he does isn’t for everyone.” Based on that little snippet, Bellator would like for everyone to believe that it is letting Askren go due to his “boring” style, but all the promotion has to do is look at its main competitor’s welterweight champion to realize that it may be making a huge mistake.

Georges St-Pierre is the most popular MMA fighter in the world at the moment, and to be completely honest, his last few years haven’t been all that much more entertaining than Askren’s. Much like his Bellator counterpart, GSP has spent much of the last few years taking his opponents to the mat and suffocating them with his outstanding top game. My MMA Corner colleague Eric Reinert actually wrote a great piece comparing the two last month Really, the only difference between the two (other than level of competition, of course) is that Askren may be doing it better. GSP hasn’t finished an opponent since B.J. Penn was unable to come out for the fifth round of their UFC 94 main event in 2009. Read that again—2009?!? Meanwhile, Askren has at least found a way to finish his last two opponents.

Yet, somehow, GSP remains the most popular fighter, or at least the biggest pay-per-view draw, in the entire sport. Why? Because he wins. St-Pierre has been dominating top-shelf competition for almost a decade now, rattling off 18 wins inside the Octagon, and he hasn’t lost since Matt Serra shocked the world way back in 2007. It’s the same reason people always buy a Floyd Mayweather fight even though his style doesn’t usually produce fan-friendly bouts. Fans want to see dominant fighters, and in Askren, that’s exactly what Bellator has.

Can Askren reach popularity levels that rival GSP while fighting under the Bellator banner? Probably not. But the least the promotion can do is try to replicate the success of the UFC, and the way to do that is by building dominant champions. Bellator may not need Askren, but he would be a huge asset to the promotion’s growth in the MMA scene, especially if he keeps winning. Every promotion that has been able to compete with the UFC has had at least one fighter that fans believed could be the very best in the world. Pride had Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva. Strikeforce had Gilbert Melendez and Alistair Overeem. Bellator has a chance to do the same thing with a core group of Askren, Pat Curran and Michael Chandler, and it just seems too foolish to throw all of that away just because Askren “isn’t for everyone.”

It certainly appears that Bellator may be laying on an act in hopes of getting the UFC to lowball Askren—or at least offer him a deal easier to match than those of Lombard and Alvarez—but if that’s the promotion’s play, then it’s playing a very risky game here. Askren’s style and overall personality (“Funky” has traded barbs with Dana White in the past) may end up hurting him a bit in the negotiation process, but the UFC has a tendency to make sure it gives the fighters it wants an offer they can’t refuse. And after seeing Josh Barnett make his UFC return at UFC 164, it’s becoming more and more clear that Dana White is more than willing to put his ego aside in order to sign high-level fighters.

If this is just a ploy by Bellator to trick the UFC into giving Askren a lower offer, the promotion may have overplayed its hand. Askren seems more than ready to make the move to the Octagon, and if he attempts to block a Bellator match offer like Alvarez did before him, the MMA community would be outraged at what would likely be considered “shady” tactics by Bellator. Even if Askren takes the new Bellator deal without any complaints, it’s likely that Rebney’s comments about not going after Askren will rub some fans the wrong way. There really doesn’t seem like a situation where Askren walks back into the Bellator cage without the reputation of the organization taking at least a little bit of a hit.

Of course, maybe this is all just speculation and Bellator doesn’t feel the need to resign Askren. Maybe it actually doesn’t want a 12-0 fighter that has dominated the promotion since the day he joined it. Maybe Bellator doesn’t want a fighter that has become one of the few names synonymous with its organization. Maybe the promotion truly is prepared to let one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in the sport just stroll on over to its primary competition. Just don’t ask me why Bellator would feel that way, because I have no idea.

Photo: Ben Askren (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.