Ben Askren recently announced on the popular Helwani show that he is retiring from MMA. In his own words, he’s “retiring from everything.” As usual, Askren was a pleasant combination of honest, self-aware and yet entertaining. Apart from the specifics of his fights, the career ending hip injury and his plans for the future, Askren and Helwani spent time discussing the personalities of the fighters on the current roster. Askren also plugged the creator of the world famous Dilbert comic strip and the highly underrated pundit Scott Adams.
While Askren had retired once earlier, he had made his return to the world of mixed martial arts earlier this year in March as part of the first (and so far only) trade between major MMA promotions.
Upon learning that he will be stepping out of retirement to fight, Askren proceeded to mock a significant section of the UFC roster, particularly the welterweight division. This included digs at the Diaz brothers, current champion Kamaru Usman, current title contender Colby Covington among others.
The taunts and trash talk would continue for the following months as Askren became more and more well known. Askren didn’t limit his verbal barbs to just the athletes on the roster, he went after UFC President Dana White as well. Dana and Askren already had a history of some animosity, most exemplified perhaps by Dana’s now famous tweet. The one where he talked about flies.
However, as Askren’s popularity continued to rise, it may have translated well into revenues for the UFC. Perhaps for this reason or some other unknown reason, the Dana and Askren began seeing eye to eye.
Askren’s first fight in the UFC was a win, but it was a controversial one to say the least. He looked to be in big trouble as former champion Lawler slammed him early on and then went on to land several dangerous looking shots. Askren had never been in this much danger of losing a fight. Askren would eventually recover and manage to get a grip on Lawler. Lawler’s arm would drop and veteran referee Herb Dean would wave his hands signalling the end of the fight. Lawler would then stand up immediately and protest the decision, much to the confusion of Herb. While Lawler did recover his composure swiftly and gracefully complement Herb Dean, the stoppage would be debated intensely by fans for several weeks thereafter. Nonetheless, the official record still had Askren undefeated.
Askren’s next fight was scheduled against Jorge Masvidal who was coming of a knockout victory over rising star Darren Till. It was an interesting clash of personalities to say the least. In the buildup to the fight, Jorge was conspicuously absent from media events and Askren further increased his own visibility. During fight week, Masvidal, clearly the superior striker, with an extensive history in street fighting and a personality to match was chomping at the bit during fight week. Askren on the other hand was quietly confident, an almost taunting manner to his rhetorical question “Why you so mad bro?”
Most people reading this article do not need to refresh their memories on what happened next. It was a masterpiece of high level fight IQ accompanied by perfect execution. A clear front-runner for knockout of the year, Jorge Masvidal broke several things. He broke the record for the fastest knockout in UFC history. He broke Ben Askren’s perfect record. And perhaps for the first time in a public forum, he broke Ben Askren’s ego.
“Well that sucked” tweeted Askren a few hours later, simultaneously dissipating concern about his well being and providing a simple, frank and relatable assessment of the situation. Askren would later go on to make multiple media appearances. In each and everyone of them he made it clear that while he expected to win, the flying knee was not just impressive, but that Jorge deserved credit for it. He emphatically mentioned that it was not something that he could have pulled off. In the face of perhaps the greatest highlight reel knockout, played repeatedly countless times on social media, Askren did not once flinch.
It’s interesting to note at the same time, when asked if he would dial down the trash talk Askren promised he would continue. Without hesitation.
Fast forward a few months and Askren went face to face with one of MMA’s most decorated and celebrated grapplers. Many Askren fans expected a comeback to the win column and thereby rendering the previous fight a one off deviation from the norm. However it would be Maia’s turn to shine once more reminding the world of his highly advanced martial arts knowledge and prevail victorious once more.
It’s interesting to note that during the buildup Askren continued to provoke on Twitter while there was a conspicuous lack of trash talk towards Maia.
While announcing his retirement, he reiterated that his last two losses were simply because he was beaten by more talented athletes.
So what then explains this pattern? An alternation between what looks like hubris and what also appears to be humility and self-awareness.
There’s a lesson to be learnt from Askren and it extends beyond sports. Askren understands ego and views it as a tool. Most people are defined by their egos and broadly fall in to one of two buckets, i.e. (1) humble, self aware and willing to learn; (2) egotistical, driven and hungry to prove a point.
We all know that both have their advantages and disadvantages. But Askren understands that he need not be defined by his ego. It’s something he can increase and decrease at his own discretion. When it comes to self promotion or selling a fight his ego and confidence skyrockets. When it comes to assessing his failures and learning from his mistakes or laughing about a Jorge bobblehead on Helwani’s desk, his ego comes crashing down faster than the 2008 economy and he has no hard feelings over what most people would die of embarrassment from. I personally have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people comment on Twitter about how well Askren takes a loss and express that they’ve only grown more fond of him as a result.
Askren’s UFC run may have done irreparable damage to his fighting record, but has a valuable lesson to those who wish to learn and know where to look.