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At UFC 235, it’s Ben Askren versus everybody

Undefeated longtime One FC, Bellator champion isn’t without grudges in the UFC

Askren

Julio Cortez / AP

In this Nov. 3, 2018, file photo, UFC fighter Ben Askren waits for the start of a middleweight mixed martial arts bout between David Branch and Jared Cannonier at UFC 230, in New York. Askren is finally making his UFC debut after a decade in mixed martial arts and a lifetime of wrestling.

UFC 235 Open Workouts

Ben Askren, left, and Tyron Woodley talk to reporters during open workouts for UFC 235 at the MGM Grand Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. UFC 235 takes place at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday. Launch slideshow »

Ben Askren arrived last November in New York as the world’s most in-demand fighter days after the UFC acquired him via trade with One Fighting Championships.

The undefeated welterweight, whom the UFC swapped for longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, had enough people to meet and obligations to fulfill during UFC 230 fight week but wanted to make one summit a priority. The 34-year-old sought to clear the air with UFC President Dana White after years of the two battling through the media.

Only problem, according to Askren, was White had no interest.

“He said we didn’t need to talk,” Askren said. “He has my phone number, we’ve been in the same area. If he really wanted to hash it out, we could have hashed it out plenty of times by now. I don’t feel like he wants to. Maybe, he probably feels like he also doesn’t need to, and that’s fine. That’s whatever.”

Cold shoulders have become as synonymous with the former NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion as double-leg takedowns. Askren (18-0 MMA, 0-0 UFC) has fostered feuds far and wide going into his long-awaited debut in the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion against Robbie Lawler (28-12 MMA, 13-6 UFC) tonight at T-Mobile Arena at UFC 235.

Their welterweight bout is billed third on a pay-per-view that begins at 7 p.m., but Askren’s outspokenness has extended into both headlining title fights.

Reports of a minor backstage altercation between Askren and Kamaru Usman, who challenges Tyron Woodley for the welterweight title in the co-main event, dominated discussion at a news conference to announce UFC 235 in January. Askren has even taken digs at Jon Jones, who attempts to defend his light heavyweight belt against Anthony Smith in the main event, on social media over the years.

That’s in addition to picking a fight with nearly every notable non-teammate on the UFC’s roster at his weight — except for the former champion Lawler, and the irony that he wound up the debut opponent isn’t lost on Askren.

“That’s funny, right,” Askren said at UFC 235 media day earlier this week. “But no, it’s a great fight for me. It’s not the easiest fight, but as far as proving how good I am as a fighter, from a popularity standpoint, it’s a really good fight.”

It’s also a divergent fight stylistically. While Askren won and maintained titles in Bellator and One by smothering opponents with his wrestling, Lawler reached the top of the sport behind electric striking.

Askren doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s matched up against a fighter seemingly tailor-made to test his weaknesses.

“I think it’s a win-win for (White),” he said. “If I get my ass kicked, he gets to smile and be happy because I got my ass kicked. If I win, I think I become a huge star immediately so they win there too … So it was a smart move on his part.”

Askren is convinced White is rooting against him, and if that’s the case, the boss is not the only one in the other corner. Many assume an Askren vs. Usman bout is imminent after their run-in, but the latter said he wasn’t sure it was a fight he wanted despite their hostility.

He said giving in to fight Askren after UFC 235 would be enabling “a society of trolls.”

“Trolls are relating to him, but at the end of the day, this is the UFC,” Usman said. “There’s a certain level of product that people want to see from UFC fighters. Wait until all those trolls see his product. Let’s see if they’re going to be behind him with that product, especially in this fight.”

Lawler and White have been more dismissive of the Askren talk altogether, in different ways.

Lawler, who debuted in the octagon at UFC 37 in 2002, says he’s been in the sport too long to get drawn in by theatrics. White insists that, despite Askren’s claims, he holds no ill will.

“It’s great: I’m the one who wanted to bring Ben Askren into the UFC. He’s here, he’s a UFC fighter, and yeah, we’re cool. I’m cool anyway,” White said at the press conference in January.

Askren isn’t buying it. He’d still like to repair their relationship but feels like he’s put forth all the effort he can.

The only thing that may change White’s mind is a run of UFC wins, and Askren is unsure about reconciling under that scenario.

“If he waits that long, that’s kind of a bandwagon,” Askren said. “I might close the door.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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