The leadup to UFC Singapore’s headlining bout, which features Ben Askren and Demian Maia, has been a bit different than what fans and media members have come to expect, particularly from Askren.
For one, he has reeled in the trash-talking that defined his earlier media obligations. Askren entered the UFC as a brash, undefeated welterweight, and his willingness to trade barbs with fighters on the mic and on social media earned him a quick following. That hasn’t been the case of late.
Askren’s opponent has a lot to do with the change of heart. Not only does he respect Maia as a man — and he’s very unlikely to draw anything but kind words out of him anyway — but Askren also knows the dangers that the Brazilian jiu-jitsu savant presents when the two enter the Octagon.
“This is like really the first time in my competitive career where I’ve actually had to worry about grappling,” Askren said in a promotional press conference (via Andrew Whitelaw). “Before, you know, one of my coaches was like, ‘Well, you kind of give up this and that.’ And I’m like, yeah, that’s because I know that the other guys suck and I don’t really have to worry about it too much.”
The former Olympic freestyle wrester has unsurprisingly built his entire MMA career around his wrestling, which has been good enough to defeat nearly everyone he has faced.
The same can be said for Maia’s jiu-jitsu. His focus has always been on finding ways to get his opponent to the mat and opening up submission opportunities, and he doesn’t plan on changing that to appease Askren.
Maia expects the fight to be “a totally different challenge than I ever had.” While he has certainly faced wrestlers numerous times throughout his 36-fight career — recently competing against the likes of Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington, and Kamaru Usman — it’s been rare for any of these fighters to even try to enter Maia’s world.
“All the fighters pretty much know [how] I fight,” Maia said. “They want to just strike, they want to sprawl, they want to avoid takedowns, they want to avoid, you know, grappling.”
The thought of finally facing someone willing to engage with him entices the fourth-degree BJJ black belt.
“In this point of my career, it’s very exciting. It’s very interesting for me and for my team, this challenge right now,” Maia said. “Another great thing is like, you know, I pretty much carry on the flag of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and he carries almost the flag of wrestling and that makes this fight even more interesting. You know, because it’s not I think, you know, a challenge of styles but it’s a kind of fight that is kind of rare nowadays.”
Even though he willfully admits he will be leaning on his wrestling as he always does, Askren knows he has to be a lot more selective with his shots and avoid Maia’s deadly half guard. “Funky” learned the ins-and-outs of Maia’s game when he emulated him in sparring in the buildup to his teammate Woodley’s title defense against Maia in 2017.
Still, the predictability of the two fighters’ styles is exactly what makes this fight so exciting to Askren.
“It’s going to be a battle of wills. I know what he’s going to try to do, so can I execute to stop him or not?” Askren said. “I feel like that’s like a lot of my fights. Like I am so narrow-focused and I’m so good at what I do that it’s like, okay, if I can go execute, which 19 out of 20 times has happened, go execute on what I want to execute on, I’m going to win, plain and simple.”
The one time that Askren failed to execute is why this bout is pivotal for his future. Unlike Maia, who said that he wants “maybe a couple more fights” before he hangs up his gloves, Askren still has his sights solely set on reaching the top of the welterweight.
In his last fight, Askren was on the wrong end of the quickest knockout in UFC history.
“In 20 fights in my career, I hadn’t ever been knocked down or anything like that. I had never really been rocked, not once in 20 fights,” Askren said. “And so for that to happen, that catastrophic event to happen, and it kind of, you know, it knocked me down a few pegs.”
Askren believes he was within reach of a title shot before Jorge Masvidal’s flying knee put his lights out five seconds into their grudge match. He predicts that if the result of that bout favored him, he would be the one fighting Usman at UFC 244, not Covington.
“Funky” expects that the “short memory” of MMA will benefit him if he is able to get the job done against Maia.
“If I can go beat him, I very clearly establish myself as one of the best guys in the weight class, which I think I am,” Askren said. “So then after that, then I’d have to go to reevaluate who am I going to go after next? What is my path forward? Because yeah, I was right there. I was right there and I just, I effed up, and I effed up at the wrong time.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.