It’s genuinely shocking how much traction Ben Askren has gotten in the minds of the public; his signing was in exchange for a man that the UFC proclaimed #1 in the world at one point. While the dissolution of flyweight makes it likely that the UFC was too happy to have Demetrious Johnson off their hands, the trade is still (on its face) uneven for the UFC: a fighter who would almost certainly be a top ten bantamweight traded for a thoroughly unproven welterweight. It speaks greatly to the reputation of Askren, who has been built as a Nurmagomedov-esque destroyer when his actual career hasn’t been quite that impressive. The UFC seems to have big plans for Askren, though; he’s been given a top five welterweight and a former champion for his debut, a fighter who Askren is meant to outclass in order to establish himself as a top welterweight.
That the fighter in question is Robbie Lawler would be a good cause for concern in the Askren camp, even accounting for Lawler’s recent fights. Brutal Bob has had a rough go of it; his title reign was spectacularly violent but left a lot of questions as to where he stood among the elite, his reign ended at the hands of Tyron Woodley, he had a far closer fight with Donald Cerrone than he should’ve, and lost a lopsided bout to an all-time great in Rafael dos Anjos. After over a year off due to an injury sustained in the dos Anjos fight, Lawler returns as the UFC looks to sacrifice him to a man who many believe is the next big thing. If Lawler can overcome the odds as a hefty underdog on the books, he can keep a spot on top of the rankings for a little while longer.
A Scholar’s Brawler
Robbie Lawler’s image as champion, as a brawler who thrived on battles that hinged on heart and durability, wasn’t entirely inaccurate; that said, it also did a great disservice to Lawler’s true skillset as a striker, more thoughtful and defensive than his fights would suggest. Lawler’s transformation from a UFC washout to a champion was largely facilitated by one of the sharpest boxing arsenals that the welterweight division had ever seen; combined with excellent takedown defense and a good getup game, Lawler was no longer the middling middleweight who had alternated wins and losses for the four years prior.
A great deal of Lawler’s success during his resurgence came as a byproduct of the best lead hand in the division (and one of the best in the UFC). The southpaw Lawler dealt a great deal of the damage with his left hand, but his right hand was as versatile as a southpaw’s has ever been; not only did Lawler have a punishing jab and a clean counter right hook, he was also largely able to keep himself safe in the pocket with his ability to deflect strikes in the pocket, and stifled his opponent’s lead hand to deny their offense and set up his rear hand. Lawler’s lead hand work was very strong in the Rory MacDonald rematch; it was a relatively messy fight, but Lawler was able to continually deny the jab of the orthodox MacDonald and use his own jab to repeatedly snap back the head of MacDonald (and break his nose with the follow-up straight).
Prime Lawler was a force of nature in close; very difficult to hit clean, and with real power to complement a rounded boxing skillset. This came to a head in his fights against Johny Hendricks; Lawler delivered two characteristic performances in every way, from the entertainingly vicious pocket work to the nail-bitingly close decisions that seemed to mark his elite tenure.
Lawler seemed to leave his prime somewhere around the end of his title reign; he didn’t look great against Condit and arguably lost, and then was quickly sparked by Tyron Woodley. Lawler’s boxing looked diminished against Donald Cerrone; while his southpaw straight-punching posed the theoretical problems to Cerrone that he hasn’t been able to deal with for his whole career, Lawler’s historically uneven output throughout a fight looked worse than ever as he relinquished round two entirely. Lawler is definitely no longer in his prime, and off an absolute beating at the hands of Rafael dos Anjos, he could be considered a step below elite; however, he’s as legitimate of a challenge as any UFC debutant has faced.
Funky Ben Askren
With respect to Askren, the details of Lawler’s striking aren’t particularly important; Askren is an incompetent striker, as he seems to have very little grasp of what makes effective offense or defense in the open. For the most part, Askren plods forward without anything else that could be described as pressure; he doesn’t have much that could be described as defense, he doesn’t cut off the cage particularly well with footwork nor with strikes, and his transitions into the clinch are horrifically ugly (without any way to pin down his opponent on the feet, nor time their strikes to do anything reactively). This dynamic changes when Askren can make contact with his opponent; one of the most decorated wrestlers to ever step into MMA, Askren’s persistence and his craft as a wrestler have brought him to a sterling record.
Askren is a decent finisher, but it isn’t a function of power in his strikes nor of slick submission grappling; Askren maintains a level of control with his wrestling that basically allows him to do whatever he wants, and he can ride to a decision, throw enough arm-punches that his opponent just doesn’t want to be there anymore, or take a submission that his opponent gives up. There have been relatively few successful pure-wrestlers in modern MMA, but Askren is definitely one of them.
Askren has legitimately impressive names on his record; current UFC welterweight Lyman Good is an underrated victory, and he also has wins over Bellator welterweight mainstays Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov. These victories were dominant, but none of these fighters were quite as world-class when Askren beat them; Lima and Korsehkov were great fighters when they faced Askren, but neither had real wrestling defense when they faced Askren and they turned into top-ten WWs later in their career.
In that sense, it might be more useful to look at Askren’s most challenging fight, against Luis “Sapo” Santos; Sapo was denying Askren’s takedown attempts and winning in the clinch until an accidental eye poke ended the bout. The trouble Askren had with Santos definitely came down to athleticism to some extent; Sapo was a front-loader who looked insanely strong in the clinch, reversing Askren’s throws with comical ease. However, it also came down to Santos knowing exactly what Askren was going to do at any given time; Askren tried to throw a few right hands to conceal the takedown, but they didn’t have the threat to distract his opponent from defending the fall towards the hips that immediately followed. Askren was able to enter the clinch, but most of his shots ended upon Sapo’s ankle and were shook off relatively easily.
Askren’s control is strong and he’s an excellent takedown artist when he can get into the clinch (Koreshkov can attest to that, being bent in half about 25 seconds into the fight), but Askren hasn’t shown a real way to keep those skills viable against high-level competition; he gets his first shot at proving he can make it work against Lawler at UFC 235.
Conclusions and Capping
The sentiment around Askren overall seems built upon the broad generalizations that “striker vs. wrestler” fights seem to elicit far too often. “Wrestling is the best base for MMA” is a notion popularized by commentator Joe Rogan, but that has grown into the shockingly common take that the pure wrestler will mostly beat the pure striker. In modern MMA, there haven’t been many pure wrestlers; there have been many high-level wrestlers, but to hang at the top, they needed at least serviceable striking.
Fighters like Daniel Cormier and Colby Covington at least developed the rough mechanisms to close distance, Khabib Nurmagomedov has become quite good at playing his striking and wrestling off each other, Henry Cejudo only had a competitive fight with Demetrious Johnson once he restructured his striking, and Yoel Romero and Chad Mendes became legitimately elite strikers (as their wrestling alone failed to do the job against their most skilled opponents). Askren fighting a top 5 fighter without having developed any of those skills isn’t analogous to anything that the UFC has seen since its early days.
Lawler might just be too shot to keep from being smothered, but the matchup favors him if he looks anything like he used to. Lawler’s takedown defense and getup game are a step above that of someone like Jay Hieron, who Askren legitimately struggled with, and Askren being able to close the distance to find the clinch is somewhat unlikely. If Lawler straight-punches as he did against MacDonald, there’s really no reason to expect Askren to be able to get inside at all; Lawler could conceivably just jab him up for fifteen minutes since Askren doesn’t have the striking craft to do anything but walk into them. Current Lawler isn’t quite as sharp, but he’s still a relatively savvy boxer who can deal serious damage in the pocket.
Current-era Lawler might have some issues keeping up the output, which is the biggest worry going into a fight against a wrestler as persistent as Askren, but Lawler also has the relentlessness and power to find a finish if he can sustain an advantage for any length of time. Askren might have some upside in the UFC, but his current form likely isn’t viable to defeat high-level competitors; until further evidence, Lawler has to be considered as one of them.
Prediction: Lawler via TKO (Round 2). This writer caps Lawler at -200.
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