Bellator welterweight champ Ben Askren insists he wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that his boss, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, might not be hard at work trying to figure out how to retain his services now that his contract is up.
“I’m happy, more than anything, that they’re [waiving] the exclusive [negotiating] period, so now I don’t have to sit out 90 days before anything even starts to happen,” Askren told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “That’s definitely a positive thing.”
It’s also a little bit strange. Here’s Askren, the undefeated 170-pound champion who’s been slicing through the competition in Bellator, and the company isn’t even going to try to get him to stay?
That’s what Rebney told Josh Gross of ESPN.com earlier this week, saying, “I don’t think we’re going to make an offer at this point. So I don’t see any reason to make anybody sit out. If Ben’s going to go to the UFC, we should speed up that process so he can go fight. I’d love to see Ben versus [UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre].”
This comes just a matter of weeks after Bellator trumpeted the re-signing of another unbeaten champion, lightweight titleholder Michael Chandler, who Rebney claimed had become one of the “highest-paid lightweights in all of MMA” with his new deal. And that was before his most recent title defense against David Rickels at Bellator 97, before Chandler’s existing deal had even come close to expiring.
Meanwhile, Askren – a college teammate and then coach of Chandler’s on the University of Missouri wrestling team – defended his welterweight title for the fourth straight time on the very same fight card, finishing off challenger Andrey Koreshkov via fourth-round TKO. So why does Chandler get the main event spot and the new deal, while Askren gets a pat on the back on his way out the door?
For starters, there’s his fighting style, which Rebney said is “not for everyone.” Askren’s known for suffocating opponents with his wrestling ability, although the way he sees it, that might just mean that he’s making Bellator’s job too difficult.
“Because let’s face it, they’ve got these guys they’re trying to bring up, trying to make into stars, and then I outstrike them 248-3 and make them look like they’re a child,” Askren said. “It’s pretty tough to make them a star after that.”
And then, as Askren also pointed out, there’s the very strong possibility that Bellator does intend to re-sign him, and Rebney’s public comments are merely a means to an end.
“Honestly, I think it could be a ploy on their part to get the UFC to make a lower offer, so when they go to match it’s not as hard,” said Askren, who is ranked No. 8 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie.com MMA welterweight rankings.
Either way, Askren added, he’s prepared to move forward with the next step. With Bellator reportedly waiving its 90-day exclusive negotiating period with Askren, the former Olympian said he expected to have the ability to officially negotiate with the UFC, which has expressed an interest in talking to Askren, as early as Friday.
“I’m fairly indifferent to what [Rebney] said,” Askren said. “I got in MMA for one reason: to see if I could be the best in the world. Actually, he’s doing me a favor if he lets me go to the UFC and test myself. I mean, I wouldn’t be upset that I’m getting paid a bunch of money to beat up guys who aren’t as good as me, but I would like those challenges if it’s possible.”
If he really does leave for the UFC, and if Bellator truly makes no effort to keep him, it might not look so great for the legitimacy of Bellator’s 170-pound title, Askren said, “but people are still going to watch to see the fights.”
“The casual fan’s not going to know too much about it, because the announcers will play it a certain way and they probably aren’t going to bring up the fact that I already owned that guy,” Askren said. “They’ll pitch him as the new champion. I think I bring legitimacy because people know that I’m a real Top 10 guy and not just some guy they’re calling the champion.”
As things stand now, Askren said he sees an “over 50 percent” chance that he’ll end up in the UFC when it’s all over, which is just as well for him, he added.
“I don’t know that there are any challenges left in Bellator, so yeah, I think the only challenges for me are in the UFC.”