Ben Askren is scheduled to make his long-awaited return to the cage on Friday, 26 May, at ONE: DYNASTY OF HEROES at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. There, he puts his ONE Welterweight World Championship and undefeated record on the line against unbeaten contender Agilan Thani.
When the champion known as “Funky” enters the Singapore Indoor Stadium for the big showdown, it will have been over a year since he last made the walk. His Malaysian opponent, however, has competed three times since then, and at 21 years old, still has the enthusiasm and drive to seek improvements in his game every day.
However, the 32-year-old American has been competing in wrestling for almost as long as the challenger to his throne has been alive. Thani’s rise in mixed martial arts after just a few years in the sport has been spectacular, but Askren believes there is nothing Thani can do that will prepare the Malaysian for what is about to come.
“It does not matter what my opponent’s strengths and weaknesses are, because at the end of the day, I have got the trump card,” the champ asserts. “If he cannot stop my wrestling, which he cannot, then he is going to be on his back, and he is going to get beaten up.”
That confidence is not misplaced. Askren was a two-time NCAA Division I Wrestling Champion and former Olympian, which shows just how much expertise he has in that particular area. Not only that, but unlike some other high-level collegiate and Olympic wrestlers who have made the switch to mixed martial arts, he has made his style phenomenally effective. His 15-0 (1 NC) record attests to that.
Although he has not been as active as Thani (7-0) has been lately, Askren undeniably has the tools to defeat anybody in his way. He has faced many top contenders from around the world, and so far, none have been successful.
In fact, ever since entering ONE Championship in 2014, Askren has never looked like he was in trouble. He has picked up a pair of first-round finishes and, most recently, a dominant five-round decision over Nikolay Aleksakhin at ONE: GLOBAL RIVALS in April 2016. In just his second bout for the organization, he took the belt from Nobutatsu Suzuki in under 90 seconds.
“Once they are on their back, they only have one choice, and that is to fight off their back,” Askren notes. “Usually, it is just not enough. And by usually, I mean it always is never enough.”
On the other hand, it has been Thani’s grappling acumen, notably his ability to take his opponents down and finish them from dominant positions, that has seen him amass so many victories in quick succession. Ever since making his debut in 2013, it has worked like a charm.
Against a foe with a combat sports history like Askren’s, however, it may be near-impossible to out-grapple the champion. It will call for a change of tactics from the soaring Malaysian, though he is up to the task, and called for the title shot after defeating Jeff Huang at ONE: THRONE OF TIGERS back in February.
Thani is excited about fighting Askren for the title, and at the prospect of capturing the gold to become Malaysia’s first-ever world champion in mixed martial arts. But, as the American suggests, all of his opponents feel that way until his game is being forced upon them.
“A lot of people have been excited to get their shot, but once they get into the cage and realize what they are really in for, their excitement levels drops,” says Askren.