COLUMBIA — Ben Askren is a lot of things.
He is a mixed martial artist and a wrestler, a national champion and an Olympian. He is a competitive Frisbee golfer. He is a husband.
And, perhaps more than anything, he is a concerned human being.
The 27-year-old Askren won individual NCAA wrestling championships at Missouri in 2006 and 2007, wrestled for the United States at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, then made the transition to mixed martial arts in 2009. He has adapted fluidly, winning all eight of his professional fights and capturing the Bellator welterweight title.
Despite his success, he hasn’t forgotten his past.
Bellator, a professional mixed martial arts event promoter, recently gave 300 tickets to its event on Oct. 8 in Miami, Okla., to Joplin residents. It wasn’t a life-changing contribution. It wouldn’t rebuild houses or bring back loved ones. But at least it was something.
And without Askren, it never would have happened.
In May, when the devastating EF5 tornado hit Joplin, Askren was teaching at a wrestling camp in nearby Neosho. Compelled by curiosity and concern, Askren and former Missouri wrestler Cody Crocker decided to take a look at what was left of the town.
“Cody drove us to different places. Families had lost everything. There was nothing left standing in certain places — even anything that resembled a house,” Askren said. “It was just flat, and there was debris everywhere.”
Walking through Joplin impacted Askren more than a news report or an online slideshow ever could. Houses were reduced to rubble. Cars were displaced and overturned. Residents were left to pick up the pieces.
The scene gave Askren an appreciation of what he had and also moved him to try to do something to make a difference.
“You definitely feel for people, and you definitely want to help out,” Askren said. “I realize this a lot, that you can’t ever take for granted how fortunate you are to be safe and sound and not have anything like that going on in your life.”
About a month ago, Bellator announced that it would be holding one of its upcoming events in Miami, Okla., less than 30 miles outside Joplin. Within 24 hours of the announcement, Bellator CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney received a call from Askren, imploring him to find a way to give back to Joplin's residents. After a series of negotiations, the company decided on the 300-ticket giveaway.
While the tornado received blanket media coverage at the time of the tragedy, Rebney says that it takes a special person to keep pushing and keep trying to help, even months later.
“When you live in Chicago, or like Ben, in Milwaukee, or Los Angeles or New York, you see the pictures on CNN … and then you forget about it. It doesn’t impact you. It’s not right in your face,” Rebney said. “It speaks volumes about Ben Askren because he’s not living in the community, but he felt a connection to the community through what Mizzou had given him and what the state had meant to him.”
Askren certainly wasn’t expected to put any time or energy into helping a community he had never been a part of, especially considering the conflicting developments in his own career. The Bellator welterweight champion is set to defend his title on Oct. 29 in Kansas City against Jay Hieron, in what he called the most important MMA fight of his life.
For most fighters, the few months before a big fight are completely devoted to training and preparation. That wasn’t the case for Askren.
“It speaks volumes to the person he is that he’s weeks away from a major title fight, fighting the toughest guy he’s ever going to face, and top amongst his concerns isn’t getting more training gear or flying in more sparring partners,” Rebney said. “Chief amongst his concerns was reaching out to me proactively and saying, ‘There’s got to be something we can do.’”
Throughout the process, Askren never sought any recognition for his efforts. He wasn’t trying to build his own reputation or gain Twitter followers. He just wanted to give back in any way he could.
“There’s a lot of athletes and a lot of entertainers who are self-focused and self-absorbed. It comes with the territory. And then there are others that are selfless and are really genuinely concerned,” Rebney said. “Ben never said to me, ‘This will be a great story.’ It wasn’t anything other than a guy concerned for people who were in a horrible situation, one that was very real.”
Ben Askren is a lot of things. He’s a joker and a prankster, a freewheeling guy who doesn’t take life too seriously. He’s a laid-back dude, as evidenced by his floppy, curly hair and wry smile.
He’s also someone who saw something terrible, and as a sympathetic person and an adopted Missouri resident,he felt he needed to help in any way possible. It wasn’t a huge contribution, but it was something.
“I knew that whatever I could do could never surmount to much for these people because they lost their whole life, essentially — their whole house and all their possessions, and some people died,” Askren said. He paused, trying to find the right words.
“I just thought that maybe I could do something small and something nice.”