COLUMBIA — Ben Askren the wrestler wants Olympic gold. But Ben Askren the mixed martial arts fighter needs green.
The 2008 Olympian and two-time NCAA champion wrestler at MU is dabbling in the no-holds-barred and potentially lucrative world of mixed martial arts to make ends meet. He isn't the only top amateur wrestler to do so, and that's led USA Wrestling to try and stem the tide by offering an eye-popping payout to gold-medal winners at the 2012 games in London.
At $250,000, the awards will be the biggest bonus by far available to a U.S. Olympic athlete. Michael Phelps took home a relatively meager $25,000 for each swimming gold in 2008.
"Wrestlers have been underpaid for years. It's hard to make a living for your family without having a job besides wrestling," Askren said. "And when you want to be the best in the world, that's a hard thing."
Askren is eager to improve on his performance in Beijing, where he finished seventh in freestyle as a 163-pounder — one of many disappointments that led to the worst showing by a U.S. team in 40 years. That performance was on the minds of USA Wrestling officials in June when they raised their top incentive from $40,000.
Silver medalists will earn $50,000, while a bronze medal will fetch $25,000. World champion medals will mean prizes of $50,000, $25,000 and $15,000 for gold, silver and bronze.
"We hope (the bonus) serves as a motivation for those athletes to stay in wrestling," said Rich Bender, USA Wrestling's executive director.
That money must compete with the paychecks offered in MMA, where top fighters can earn millions and even mid-level grapplers can make serious money. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, considered the major league of mixed martial arts, estimates 20 percent of its nearly 200 fighters under contract are former college wrestlers.
UFC president Dana White said he is "happy to hear we've raised the bar."
"The bar probably should have been raised a long time ago, but there was no other outlet," he said. "Now that they've sweetened the pot, I love it."
In Beijing, 121-pounder Henry Cejudo was the only American to win gold across 16 weight classes in three divisions. Cejudo bypassed college wrestling to train for the Olympics after high school and he remains on a post-Beijing victory tour that includes a New York book signing for his new autobiography and sharing red carpet space in Miami with celebrities Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony at a Univision awards show.
Like Askren, he plans to compete in the London Games in 2012, calling the potential pot of gold for winning gold secondary to representing his country and defending his Olympic title. But he knows the bonuses are significant for amateur wrestlers accustomed to scraping by on annual stipends that rarely exceed $10,000 to $20,000, and leaving competition to find their career prospects limited to low-paying coaching jobs.
And like Askren, he too has considered a move to MMA.
"MMA is only going to help wrestling," he added. "No complaints from me."
Askren won his first MMA fight in 85 seconds and followed it up with a win that lasted just two seconds longer. But his nascent MMA experience has scarcely resembled the UFC's glamorous pay-per-view fights and million-dollar payouts.
As a co-promoter, he lost $8,000 of his own money at those first two fights — nearly half of the $18,000 stipend he earns from a local wrestling foundation to remain in Columbia as an assistant coach at MU. While the big-money bonus for Olympic success certainly caught his attention, he insists the quest for cash isn't his bottom line.
"It's going to motivate some people," Askren said. "But when I come back it will be to help out my country and prove that I'm the best."