It has been a long time since ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben “Funky” Askren has tasted defeat in any type of sporting competition. So long, in fact, it was back in the days when he was competing in wrestling, nearly a decade ago.
When he defends his title against Agilan Thani at ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES on Friday, 26 May, in Singapore, the champion aims to extend his remarkable winning streak, all while pushing his last defeats further into the past.
The 32-year-old’s path to mixed martial arts began long before he first walked into the gym to lace up a pair of eight ounce gloves. A standout wrestler at Arrowhead High School, Askren was twice a state champion in Wisconsin, and earned a full scholarship to the University of Missouri.
During the 2004 and 2005 collegiate seasons, he received his first major pair of setbacks. He fell short of the NCAA Division I Championship, losing to Chris Pendleton both times in the final, even though he had put in the training and desired winning more than anything in the world.
“Funky”, however, rebounded to capture the prestigious title not once, but twice, in 2006 and 2007. After accomplishing collegiate wrestling supremacy, he set out to climb another wrestling mountain: becoming an Olympian.
The US Olympic Trials went his way, as he defeated national runner-up Tyrone Lewis to qualify for a coveted spot on Team USA’s wrestling team.
Beijing would not be kind to him, however. At the 2008 Summer Games, Askren went 1-1 in the Olympics. He pinned Istvan Vereb of Hungary, before dropping a contest to Cuba’s Ivan Fundora. That lone defeat knocked the American out of contention, dashing his medal aspirations.
“The heartbreaking thing about the Olympics is you’ve got to wait four years. You do not get another chance next week, or next month, or next year. You do not have another chance. This is not like fighting, where you know you can bounce back and win a title a couple of months later,” he says.
“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 would be four years away. That was really hard to swallow.”
It did not take long for “Funky” to begin wiping the bitter taste of the Olympic defeat to focus on something else. Just days after, he sat down at a Beijing pizzeria with his now-wife to plot out his next steps. Askren long had an interest in mixed martial arts, and decided to give it a shot.
The results have spoken for themselves.
Since making his professional debut in 2009, Askren has gone a stellar 15-0, 1 No Contest. In 2014, he achieved the sport’s pinnacle by capturing the ONE Welterweight World Championship. He has sat atop of the division since.
“Being a champion is more than wearing a gold belt around your waist,” he states. “It is a lot about how you live, and a lot about how you affect others around you by the way you live and train.”
With each victory, Askren adds to his growing mixed martial arts legacy, and while he looks to add another win to his resume at ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES, he is also adding to his legacy outside the cage.
Along with his brother Max, his Askren Wrestling Academy is grooming the next generation of grapplers. Given how the sport literally changed Askren’s life, there may not be a better way for the champ to pay it forward than handing down the virtues that made him a modern-day legend.
“You are seeing life change, and it is really real. It is a powerful thing. I remember it happening to me when I was 16,” he explains, thinking about the many young wrestlers under his care. “I was not recruited by anybody, and I went to a national tournament and I beat a kid who was highly-ranked.
“All of a sudden, I am getting a call from everyone. I really remember that moment in time, thinking, ‘I just got my college education paid for.’ I achieved the goal I wanted to achieve. I went to the University of Missouri, I met a bunch of fantastic people there, I met my wife there, and I have kids with that wife. All that, I would never have, if not for wrestling.”