At around 10:15 AM (EST) on Wednesday, October 24, the MMA world erupted.
ESPN’s Ariel Helwani released a sensational report that announced the UFC was close to “trading” their inaugural flyweight champion, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson to ONE Championship. In return, the UFC would receive ONE’s recently “retired” welterweight champion, “Funky” Ben Askren.
According to the report, the UFC and ONE Championship would release their contracted fighters, thereby allowing the fighters to sign with their counterpart’s promotion.
This would be the first such “trade” in MMA history, establishing a mindblowing precedent, while also fundamentally altering the relationship between promotions and the landscape of MMA as a whole.
The report was strengthened by Askren’s, ONE’s, and Johnson’s social media activity.
Chatri Sityodtong, the Chairman and CEO of ONE Championship, offered a subtle hint at the completion of the deal by tweeting: “In and out of the cage, DJ is the #1 pound-for-pound greatest martial artist in history.”
Ben Askren has gone on the offensive, calling out the UFC’s fighters and asserting that his time has come.
Notice not one of these WW's is saying my name right now. They think if they hide their heads in the sand some other poor lamb will be taken for slaughter.
— Ben Askren (@Benaskren) October 25, 2018
Meanwhile, Demetrious Johnson has changed his Twitter handle from “@MightyMouseUFC” to “@Mighty1Gaming”, indicating a break from the UFC.
Likewise, he has acknowledged a change is underway by tweeting: “Good night world. Just so everyone knows I am pumped and excited for the future stay tuned!! #newadventure”
Mighty Mouse has moved on. pic.twitter.com/LFEUlpEIBd
— Kyle Volkman (@volkstyles) October 24, 2018
Regarding the legality of such a maneuver, leading combat sports attorney, Erik Magraken, provided some clarity on Twitter and explained that “the standard language in Zuffa contracts (as disclosed during the Alvarez lawsuit) allows them to trade athletes.”
Here’s How Everyone Wins From The UFC & ONE Championship Trade
With the trade all but confirmed, here’s how everyone involved walked away from the table happy.
The UFC is one of the parties for whom this trade doesn’t look like a surefire victory. To an outside eye, it appears like the UFC gave up the rights to a consensus pound-for-pound king for a semi-retired fighter that their president, Dana White, once labeled too boring to fight for them.
Yet, this trade is significantly better for the UFC than it may seem at first.
For one, Askren is no slouch. The former two-time NCAA DI wrestling champion and U.S. Olympian is as decorated as they come in the worlds of collegiate and international wrestling. After transitioning to mixed martial arts, Askren compiled an undefeated record, notably competing Bellator MMA and ONE Championship.
In both Bellator and ONE, Askren won the promotions’ welterweight titles, showcasing his dominance tangibly.
Throughout his career, fans of the sport have clamored for Askren to get a bid in the UFC, only to have White and the UFC decline. After Askren’s announced retirement, those calls regained momentum. A large social media campaign spurred the UFC to take an interest in Askren, culminating in this “trade.”
— FOX Sports: UFC (@UFCONFOX) February 15, 2018
To the UFC, Askren is a veritably elite fighter in one of their most stacked divisions. His undefeated record and championship pedigree make him a compelling contender, and the support he has garnered on social media leads the UFC to believe he will attract attention – hopefully in the form of pay-per-view buys and TV ratings.
The loss of Johnson seems less stomachable at face value, however.
It’s hard to rationalize the decision to let a record-breaking champion walk, but the UFC may have an ulterior motive.
With Johnson out of the UFC, the clearest reason to keep the men’s flyweight division open is nullified. Although Dana White has been openly ambivalent about, if not outright against, the division over the years, Johnson’s contention for the title of being the “greatest of all time” forced the UFC’s hand to keep the division it deems negligible active.
The other main reason, the title reign of the current champion, Henry Cejudo, could be negated by a “super fight” with bantamweight champion, T.J. Dillashaw. If Cejudo moves to 135-pounds to challenge Dillashaw, it could be enough justification to close the division.
As for now, the UFC gains an undefeated welterweight with a strong social media backing, while potentially inching closer to closing a division that they have sought to remove for quite some time.
ONE Championship is unquestionably a winner in this trade.
Essentially, ONE received one of the most dominant, well-regarded, and storied fighters in his prime for a retired fighter.
For all of Askren’s accomplishments and history, to ONE he was merely a retired fighter still under contract with them. Askren was not competing and was not considered a financial asset, given his retirement. To ONE at this stage in time, he was a nonfactor.
ONE capitalized on the UFC’s desire for Askren to join their promotion and swindled away Demetrious Johnson, their highest profile signing to date – a feat more impressive on the heels of the Eddie Alvarez signing.
The “trade” also provided ONE Championship with a much-needed diversion from articles by Paul Gift (Forbes) and John Nash (Bloody Elbow) that uncovered and explained the dire financial landscape of the promotion.
A Google search of “ONE Championship” under the “News” section is now littered with posts about the Demetrious Johnson acquisition, the Alvarez signing, and a well-timed fight announcement for ONE’s heavyweight champion, Brandon Vera.
Gift’s Forbes article is the only of the two aforementioned exposés on the first page, and even it is buried more than halfway down.
ONE Championship’s productive month continues as they sign a living legend at the expense of releasing a retired fighter, all at the perfect time to deflect attention from mounting concern over their finances.
Ben Askren finally gets to fulfill his lifelong ambition of fighting in the UFC.
Askren has long been dogged by claims that he faced no opposition, in other words: that his achievements were marred by weak competition. By joining the UFC, he has the chance to put that kind of talk to bed.
So many fighters said stuff about me in the past. I don’t even get hit. I might tell @ufc to set up a bum of the month club and fight every month!
— Ben Askren (@Benaskren) October 25, 2018
Financially, Askren might be set to do exceedingly well. Potential super fights against former welterweight and middleweight champion, Georges St-Pierre; lightweight champion and undefeated star, Khabib Nurmagomedov; and other meaningful divisional matchups have long been discussed and can now be actualized.
Askren now gets the opportunity to answer his critics, fight in the UFC, and make a boatload of money doing it.
Although ousted from the UFC, this isn’t a negative for Demetrious Johnson.
Johnson has long expressed interest in facing new competition, and a move to ONE would certainly do that for him. Likewise, he stated in recent interviews his desire to collect numerous belts and titles from several organizations, a feat he considered definitive proof of his greatness.
Johnson’s coach, Matt Hume, has been employed as the Vice President of Operations at ONE Championship since 2012, meaning that Johnson wouldn’t be alone throughout this transition.
Personally, Johnson’s deeply rooted qualities of respect and integrity also fit in seamlessly with ONE Championship’s values.
Johnson’s fit with ONE, coupled with the opportunity to fight new competition for new titles, means that he’s a winner in this “trade”, too.
While fans may bemoan the fact that Demetrious Johnson has left the UFC, they can take solace in the fact that his future fights for ONE Championship will stream live and free on the ONE Super App, which is almost universally praised.
Meanwhile, they’ll also get to see Ben Askren finally compete in the UFC, and there are a dozen perfect matchups for him, like fights with heel figure, Colby Covington, among others.
This “trade” also sets the precedent for others throughout the MMA landscape, allowing for other such deals to come to fruition, which could, in turn, create more fan-friendly fights and promotions. Scott Coker, the president of Bellator, and Martin Lewandowski, the CEO of KSW, have already hinted at their openness to such “trades” on Twitter.
Ultimately, it looks like everyone wins this trade. From the fighters to the promotions to the fans, everyone gets something they want. This “trade” creates a precedent that has the potential to change the way MMA operates, and it will be fascinating to watch the aftermath of this deal.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.