For a debut as anticipated as Ben Askren’s at UFC 235 (ending near a -300 favorite against an all-time great in Robbie Lawler), his fight was irritatingly inconclusive; while he showed excellent recovery and was able to get into a favorable position as the fight ended, he took the lion’s share of damage (to what should’ve been a TKO) and the finish was the result of a referee error.
The fight didn’t show anything that wasn’t already known about Askren, for better or worse, but it did insert him as a potential title contender with one more win. Askren gets that opportunity at UFC 239, ideally for a much more convincing performance than the one he started with.
Jorge Masvidal has long been known as one of the more technically sound boxers at welterweight (and lightweight, when he was there), but he only broke through to the top echelon in 2017 with his beating of then-#5 Donald Cerrone. Since that fight, Masvidal has gone 1-2, but is still in position for a title shot with one more win; while the losses to Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson were serious setbacks, his excellent win over Darren Till (combined with Maia and Thompson taking a few losses that knocked them out of contention) placed Masvidal right back into the conversation. If Masvidal can decisively defeat Ben Askren, a title shot is likely forthcoming.
Ben Askren is about as one-dimensional a fighter that has ever existed in MMA, and while that can be framed as a compliment (after all, the best fighters in the world tend to be specialists), his lack of tools to bring fights into his preferred area have troubled him even against sub-UFC level competition at times. Askren’s edge in grappling (as a standout folkstyle wrestler out of the University of Missouri) has been evident over many of his opponents, as he’s often able to make use of his sound chain-wrestling and top game to dictate the action and control them the whole way; however, everything about his skillset until he makes contact is barely functional.
Askren’s lack of striking aptitude means that he doesn’t have a sound entry game; he can’t shoot reactively or set his shot up with his striking, which means that he often just has to look to make contact (even in the form of a sprawled shot or a messy clinch entry) and chain from there. Askren’s initial shot isn’t particularly strong or fast, and Luis ‘Sapo’ Santos was able to hold it off by just being a much better athlete; combined with a lack of pressuring aptitude, Askren’s chain-wrestling (and by extension, his top game) isn’t set up to be particularly successful by the rest of his arsenal. That it has brought him to 19-0 speaks to the unique strength of his strongest areas (in addition to insane toughness, which largely won him the Lawler fight), but also of the lack of strong anti-wrestlers or outfighters in his CV.
While Askren found a way to make it work (to an extent) against Robbie Lawler, Masvidal is a more elusive challenge; while Lawler’s pocket-boxing and sprawl weren’t favorable conditions for Askren, they did give him opportunities to make contact and build from there, where Masvidal doesn’t play the same game. While he’s strong in the pocket (stronger than most welterweights), Masvidal isn’t a defined pocket boxer; instead, the gamebred Floridian has gotten by on a deep striking toolbox in every range, as well as a great deal of cleverness and versatility.
Masvidal’s boxing is his strongest skill, and it hinges on an excellent jab that he can use in many different ways: to push into range and set up the right as he did against Cerrone, counter entries as he did against Till, interrupt the charges of an aggressive opponent (and set up combinations behind it) as he did against Iaquinta, or draw counters to punish as he did against Ross Pearson. Masvidal’s boxing and his intelligence were largely what won him his last fight, a difficult one against Darren Till; while Till was able to push Masvidal to the fence early to crack him with the straight, Masvidal was able to close the distance on the bigger man with a leaping shifting left hand.
Masvidal’s also a very good kicker; Masvidal was able to deal with an extended distance against Till with his round-kicking, and keeps a light lead leg to push into range behind teeps and feints (as he did against Cerrone). What’s more important in his fight against Askren than the details of his striking is his historically-strong wrestling and grappling defense; Masvidal has always proven difficult to take down with the initial shot, and even when Maia was able to fight through the sprawl with his crafty half-guard work, he had a tough time getting the rear-naked choke. If there’s a large weakness in Masvidal’s game, it’s often just lack of urgency; he’s lost a few split decisions due to coasting late in the fight when he thinks he has a lead.
The most similar fight to Askren for Masvidal was at UFC 211, against Demian Maia, and while it was a fight he officially lost, it was very encouraging; Maia is a lot better at pressuring than Askren, his striking defense is functional at the very least, and he’s a much better top player (Askren can be fairly inert on top, and Lawler was out from underneath him when he caught a questionably-valid submission), and Masvidal arguably won. Askren is a much better pure-wrestler than Maia, but his lack of ability to pressure (combined with Masvidal’s sound footwork on the outside, pivoting and countering well to defuse Iaquinta’s attempts at pressuring) will hurt him in pinning Masvidal down and being able to work his wrestling against the fence, and Askren getting on top isn’t nearly as perilous as the same with Maia.
Jorge’s massive striking edge combined with Askren’s total lack of defensive tools (or the threat of a reactive shot) in any range make it academic if he can keep it on the feet. It’s possible that Masvidal unwisely sits on a lead to a cagehold split loss, but the fight should be his.
Prediction: Masvidal via TKO2. This writer caps Masvidal at -250.
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