By Ben Askren
*** Ben Askren is the current ONE Championship welterweight champion. He is undefeated in his eight-year professional MMA career and a former Olympic wrestler. He defends his welterweight title against Agilan Thani this Friday (May 26) in Singapore at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes ***
I can think of four wrestling matches that stick out to me most. Number one would be my first high school state title. I remember everything. The kid’s name was Trevor Spencer. He was from a high school called Baraboo. It’s something I had dreamed about since fifth grade. I made the finals as a freshman and ended up losing in overtime to another freshman who I had a big rivalry with. I came back my sophomore and ended up beating an undefeated kid in the finals 21-8. That was huge for me. I was never one of those kids that was considered a superstar. To win a state title as a sophomore, over a senior who was undefeated and favored over me, was huge for me. Getting my hand raised was the greatest feeling in the world. It is indescribable. When you put your whole life into something – I did at that point, I was all in on wrestling – the feeling is hard to describe but I was lucky enough to feel it a few more times.
Number two would be a tournament in Fargo, North Dakota. This was huge. I beat a kid named Troy Letters, who was the number one kid in my weight class. He was a senior and I was a junior. He already had a scholarship to go to Lehigh. It was the third round. It was a preliminary match. It wasn’t even the finals or anything. I didn’t get anything for winning the match. I ended up taking fourth in the tournament but I knew. I knew it. I knew I had my college scholarship. Sure enough, the next week my phone was ringing off the hook. I got 15 to 20 calls from top colleges just that next week. Up to that point I wasn’t getting recruited very much out of high school. One of my biggest goals was getting a college scholarship. Despite the fact I had already won two state championships in Wisconsin, I hadn’t really beat anyone of note. I hadn’t really placed high in any big national tournaments, so I wasn’t getting any interest from any major college programs. This signified that the second leg of my journey was complete and I had that college scholarship I wanted.
The third match on the list would be beating Jake Herbert in the NCAA Finals. When I went to college the goal was to win a national title. I came up short my first two years but I lost to the same guy Chris Pendleton both times. I got so close to tasting the ultimate glory in folkstyle wrestling. There is no higher award than winning a Division 1 national championship. I was right there my freshman and sophomore years. Going into my junior year I was ranked number one but Jake Herbert was also undefeated. He won two NCAA national titles, he won the Hodge Trophy. He won a silver medal in the world championships, so he won all those things, too. He was a legitimate challenge for me. I just went out there and freaking destroyed him. That was the level I knew I was at. That was the level my coaches knew I was at. That was the level my teammates knew I was at. Everyone at that point knew I was good, but beating Jake Herbert 14-2, that says I’m the best college wrestler in the country, regardless of weight class or division. Sure enough, I won the Hodge Trophy a few weeks later.
Number four was making the Olympic team. My parents sent me to watch the Olympic trials in Dallas in 2000. At that point I had never placed in any national tournament. But I got this idea that I was going to make the Olympic team. People don’t realize how difficult it is to even make the US team. In some of those brackets there are four or five or six or seven guys who have won NCAA titles. It’s the best of the best of the best. In the year 2000 I set a goal to make the team. In 2004 it was my goal and I did, I made the trials. In 2007, the year I graduated, I took fifth place, so I was quite a few spots from making the team. It was a hard year. I needed to be number one and make the team. I beat Tyrone Lewis to make the team. Something else people don’t realize is that the number one guy in the United States goes. Number two, number three, number four…they don’t get a shot. They are sitting at home and nobody cares about them. So I had to make this jump from number five to number one in a single year. I did it. I made the Olympic team. Making the Olympic team for America, that was a culmination of everything else; the state titles, the national tournaments, the NCAA titles. Making the Olympic team is as high of an honor as it gets in American wrestling.
In MMA I just don’t feel like I have had that moment yet. I haven’t had that huge obstacle to overcome. I went to Bellator and whooped everyone. I went to ONE and whooped everyone. I don’t feel like I have had this huge obstacle to overcome yet. In wrestling, I had to overcome huge obstacles to achieve everything I did. That’s why I hold the wrestling accomplishments so dear. What makes the reward great is overcoming adversity, fighting through it and getting what you want.
It’s hard to pick an MMA fight because I don’t want to diminish the other greater accomplishments in wrestling. If I had to pick an MMA fight, really, winning the ONE title in such dominant fashion against Nobutatsu Suzuki at One FC 19 – Reign of Champions would be the one. In the title fight, I just pounded him. It was over in 90 seconds and it should have been faster than that. That felt good. With all the bullshit I had dealt with dealing the UFC, it was nice.
*** Ben Askren was talking to Tony Reid ***