COLUMBIA — Last season, when Missouri wrestling practices ended, NCAA national champion Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley, the team’s total person program mentor, would often stick around the mats to keep practicing.
But the rules were different.
Pins became obsolete. Chokes, arm and wrist locks, ankle and leg locks were legalized, and whoever could make the other guy tap out, another way of saying “Uncle,” became the winner.
They were practicing jiu-jitsu, and at first, Askren was the one tapping out.
Woodley had more knowledge and experience with submissions from his training in mixed martial arts.
But as time progressed, he noticed Askren became more comfortable with the techniques and suddenly Askren made Woodley tap out.
Mixed martial arts is becoming one of Askren’s favorite hobbies and he is seriously considering making a career of it once he retires from wrestling.
“I think it’s the most natural competition to man,” said Askren, who is now training for the Olympic trials while serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the Tigers. “It’s one man versus another man. There’s no weapons, you go in there, mix it up and whoever’s the best is the best.”
Once he finishes his wrestling career, how likely is it that Askren will make the transition from the mats to the octagon?
“It’s going to happen,” Askren said. “Unless I get a (Division I) head coaching job in the next year and a half, which the likelihood of that is close to zero.”
His brother Max Askren, who is also contemplating taking the mixed martial arts route, confirmed this.
“It’s a very legitimate possibility,” Max Askren said. “Why not? Wrestlers are the best in the game, aren’t they?”
Max Askren also said Ben Askren’s ability to follow a gameplan could make him successful in MMA.
An avid fan of MMA, Ben Askren watches the sport on TV, already sizing up some of his potential competition.
He sounded confident he could eventually make his debut in the sport’s most popular organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“I do see some of those guys fighting and I know I can beat a few of those guys right now just because they’re(not talented),” Askren said.
If Askren chooses to transfer his wrestling skills to MMA, he’ll have the experience of competing in front of large crowds and his wrestling credentials would be among the best in the sport.
“I think it’s an avenue for wrestlers to show their talents and actually make a pro career,” MU wrestling coach Brian Smith said. “Because obviously the Olympics doesn’t pay well.”
Since almost all fighters have some kind of wrestling background, Askren will need to supplement his wrestling ability with a good stand-up game and a variety of submissions.
Randy Couture exemplifies the type of MMA competitor Askren could become.
Couture, who recently resigned from the UFC, is known as one of the best wrestlers in MMA history.
He was a two-time Division I wrestling runner-up at Oklahoma State, three-time Olympic alternate and 1991 Pan-Am Games gold medalist. Couture supplemented his wrestling techniques with MMA’s other aspects to become a champion of the UFC.
Woodley said Askren could use his wrestling to wear opponents down, but he needs to work on the sport’s other aspects.
“If he improves his stand up it’d be really hard to see somebody beating him,” Woodley said.
Woodley is undefeated in six amateur MMA matches. His next match will be his professional debut.
Askren had virtually no stand-up experience and only some practice with jiu-jitsu before Wade Rome, owner of American Top Team of Columbia, invited him to train at his MMA facility.
Askren decided to follow Woodley, a two-time NCAA wrestling All-American, to American Top Team and he says he trains there a couple times a week.
While traveling, Askren said he has also trained with UFC veterans Din Thomas and Hermes Franca.
He said he’s already learned an “ungodly amount” about his hobby.
With his work ethic and ability to learn moves quickly, Askren has quickly captured the attention of American Top Team members.
“He knows the body language of grappling and how the human body works, and now we just give him direction with submissions,” said Dustin Denes, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and professional MMA fighter. “I show Ben something one time and it sticks with him.”
Denes has won 13 professional MMA fights and numerous jiu-jitsu tournaments around the world. Denes thinks, if Askren chooses to become a fighter, he could be among the elite.
“He could go as far as he’s gone in wrestling — to the top,” Denes said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. Ben Askren is incredible. He’s a champion. Everything he does is the way of a champion.”
If Askren eventually dedicates the same time to MMA that he has to wrestling, his “funky” style, colorful personality and loyal fan base certainly give him the potential to become a UFC fan-favorite.
“It’d be a couple years,” Askren said. “But I’ll be practicing my skills until then.”