UFC 235: Ben Askren Brings Funkytown to Robbie Lawler

Undefeated former Bellator and ONE FC champion Ben Askren makes his highly anticipated UFC debut against former champion Robbie Lawler at UFC 235.

In 2017, it appeared as if the ship had simply sailed on Ben Askren ever making it to the UFC. He had retired from ONE FC and never gave an inkling of a return for most of last year. Then, in an unprecedented turn of events, the UFC sent ONE the rights to sign Demetrious Johnson and Askren was given the opportunity to showcase his talents inside the Octagon. At UFC 235, he will make his promotional debut against former champion Robbie Lawler.

To those unfamiliar with his work, “Funky” Ben Askren is one of the best fighters to have never fought in the UFC. A former Olympian who competed at the 2008 Games in Beijing, Askren rose to prominence as the long-time Bellator welterweight champion. During his time in the promotion, he notched victories over future champions Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov. In ONE FC, Askren won five bouts including a victory over former Dream, Shooto, and ONE lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.

Between 2013 and 2014, it was expected that Askren would sign with the UFC in free-agency. Instead, the UFC declined to offer him a contract and he went on to sign with ONE. Following his victory over Aoki, Askren declared that he was done competing and that he wanted to retire before he stayed too long and saw a steep decline in his abilities. Furthermore, he also said he would not return unless it was to fight to prove he was the best in the world. At 34, and not having taken serious damage in his career, he certainly isn’t over the hill by any means. But there is question about just how long he is prepared to stick around, especially considering he will not be fighting for the title unless his good friend Tyron Woodley is unseated as champion.

Former champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler has become lost in the shuffle since his last appearance in 2017. In the past twelve months as he rehabbed an injured knee, contenders down the board from Kamaru Usman, Darren Till, Colby Covington, and Santiago Ponzinibbio have all put together impressive runs to get into title contention. But if Lawler has been forgotten, a victory over Askren would be exactly the fight he needs to re-inject himself into the conversation.

While he has not been as consistent as in years past, Lawler’s reputation as one of the most exciting fighters in the UFC continues to draw fans. His five-round classic with Rory MacDonald stands as one of the best fights of all-time, and that is just one war to go along with his battles against Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks, and Matt Brown. A victory over Askren won’t get him back into title contention immediately, but it could set him up for another big fight that could get him there later this year.

Stylistically, Lawler poses exactly the kind of problems that fans have wondered for years if Askren could deal with. Lawler carries formidable knockout power and is a competent grappler in his own right. The key for “Ruthless” is to use his physicality early on to get Askren on the defensive. Straight punches down the middle and uppercuts as Askren is changes levels coming in will be the most effective. He is up against one of the best grapplers in all of mixed martial arts so he should keep kicks to a minimum and those that he does throw should be aimed at the calf, so as to make it more difficult to be caught by Askren.

Askren, in much the same vein as Khabib Nurmagomedov, is prolific in his ability to get close to opponents and force the fight to the ground. “Funky” has done an incredible job throughout his career minimizing the damage he takes using this strategy, but he will be tested as Lawler is one of the most explosive athletes he has ever faced. Askren should look to clinch immediately with Lawler and get the fight to the mat. If he struggles there, he should try to pepper the former champion from the outside and force Lawler to charge so he can change levels and get a takedown in the middle of the cage. Lawler is a competent grappler in his own right but it is still expected that Askren will be able to dominate if he gets top position.

If Tyron Woodley is unseated as champion, it’s not out of the question that Askren could be in title contention with a victory. He has also already said he looks to challenge the winner of the upcoming fight between Darren Till and Jorge Masvidal, a bout which would make sense should Woodley remain champion. Lawler with a victory could set up fights with either Colby Covington or Santiago Ponzinibbio to get back into title contention.