Within the week, Bellator MMA CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney contacted Ben Askren, the promotion's free agent welterweight champion, and proposed a scenario the undefeated Olympian couldn't refuse.
"He just called me and said straight up, 'I think you're the best welterweight in the world,'" Askren told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "I thought, OK, where's he going with this?"
Rebney wondered aloud: "How about I let you go free if you fight GSP?"
Askren obviously jumped at the suggestion, which came down to this: Rebney promised to waive Bellator’s right to match a Zuffa offer, so long as the first fight of the deal guaranteed a UFC title shot.
There are just a few hurdles to clear, not the least of which is Rebney can't promise that UFC will lift a finger to make anything happen. Eleven months prior to Askren’s free agency, UFC president Dana White wrote on Twitter, “When Ambien can’t sleep it takes Ben Askren.” Not so subtle. And it’s not like the 29-year-old curly-haired two-time Dan Hodge Trophy winner from Hartland, Wis., hasn’t stirred White’s famous ire. He has. Askren is adversarial. He doesn’t seem to care if people care when he mixes it up. Sometimes that can come with a cost.
"Dana says, 'Don't sing it, bring it.' Sounds good to me,” Askren said. “I'll step in the cage any day of the week. Just tell me when. That would be ideal."
This summer when White began fielding questions about UFC’s interest in Askren the sharp-tongued promoter no longer referenced sleeping pills. He did insinuate, however, that Askren assembled a 12-0 record against inferior opposition.
“It’s going to be tougher to do that here,” White said.
Askren is eager to find out if that’s true, and Rebney has been quick to advocate for his fighter and promotion.
“I think he wants to prove that Bellator has really good fighters,” Askren said of Rebney. “And they do have really good fighters. I literally think I'm the best welterweight. I think I could beat GSP. I think Bjorn really thinks that. Obviously he wouldn't be sending me over to get smashed and make his organization look stupid. Of course, I get a hundred tweets a day telling me how stupid I am for thinking I could compete with GSP. But that's something in my heart I really think I can do.
"The reason I got into MMA was to see if I could be the best in the world at it. That's just my personality. So, boom, this is my shot to prove I'm No. 1 in the world. I really think I am No. 1 in the world. I don't think there's anyone that can beat me. This is what I want. It's what I'm looking for.”
According to Askren's contract, Bellator owns the right to match any offer he accepts from another promotion through July 31, 2014. Rebney told ESPN.com in August that if "Ben's going to the UFC, we should speed up that process so he can go fight." Entering the second week of October, despite a window that precluded Bellator's 90-day exclusive negotiating period, little has been accomplished.
Two weeks after Askren bludgeoned Koreshkov, White said the UFC would "talk to Ben." Thus far, Zuffa hasn't moved beyond preliminary discussions with his management, Zinkin Entertainment.
"It didn't really get down to any nitty-gritty details and work on the contract," Askren said.
After an ugly legal squabble over matching rights exposed a lucrative financial offer to former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, the terms of which surprised some Octagon-tied fighters, Zuffa remains understandably apprehensive about delving into another situation with its would-be Viacom-owned competitor. It’s no surprise, then, that White hasn’t given Rebney or “Viacom MMA” the benefit of the doubt.
Said the UFC president prior to a recent event in Indianapolis:
"The guy says, 'Yeah, we're going to let him go. Let's just part ways.' You ain't f---ing parting ways with him. He's got a matching right and all that bulls---. This guy is a f---ing typical boxing piece of s---. Everybody knows the guy is a s---bag.
"We'll see what happens with Ben. First they say they're going to let him go. They're not going to let him go. They'll probably end up suing him too and make him sit out and lose a bunch of money and f--- him in a deal. Bad guys. They're bad guys."
White's words went a long way towards motivating Rebney to conjure up his "deal."
"Here's my message to the UFC,” Rebney said. “Stop saying that the best in the world fight in the UFC. And stop saying that our matching rights are stopping you from talking to one of the greatest welterweights in the game. And that's it. It's simple. It's straightforward. There's no back talk. No back track. No game to it. It's as simple as that.
“If you want to say the best fighters in the world fight in your organization and one becomes available and you have the unfettered right to talk to him, pick up the phone and call him. And if you claim our matching rights are so prohibitive -- the exact same matching rights that you have in your agreement -- then give him a title fight out of the box, which is not unreasonable given that he's ranked in the top six in the world, and I'll just walk away from our matching rights. So I'm making it as simple as I can possibly make it for them to live up to what they claim. Go for it. Or don't go for and I'll re-sign him. And if you want to fight the best you can come here to Bellator, train your wrestling like a wild dog, and try to beat Ben Askren."
Askren said he has no reason to distrust Rebney, his promoter since 2010. He then went on to call himself a "pawn."
"I'm not making these deals here," claimed the fighter. "That said, I like the deal that Bjorn is trying to give me.
“And I think on Dana's side, it will work out well. If GSP beats my ass, I think he says, 'See, UFC is much better than Bellator.' I think if I kick GSP's ass, I could be a very good UFC champion. One that sticks around for a while. One that is entertaining to the fans. Because GSP was entertaining, but honestly the last time he had a real finish I was wrestling in the U.S. Open [in 2008]. I hadn't even considered MMA at that point. And his whole shtick. He's quiet. Very little personality. I could put the UFC welterweight division back on the map because no one really, legitimately gave GSP a run for his money."
The notion that UFC needs Askren to put the welterweight division "back on the map" is comedy. The 170-pound division consistently ranks among Zuffa's most bankable weight classes, and sits a pretty penny with the 32-year-old Quebecer at the helm. Much more serious is the idea that Askren's grappling is so good and translates so well to MMA that given the chance he could oust St-Pierre or Johny Hendricks.
"Bjorn is saying if they give me a title shot, no matching rights. He's not saying if they give me a contract there's no matching rights. If the UFC says, hey, no title shot, then all this is for nothing. I'd have to go back to the drawing board and talk to Bellator. See what their offer will be. See what's going on. And at that point see what's best for me."
Askren hasn't thought through sitting out the year. He doesn't want to rush to judgment, and will “leave that one open because I'm not sure."