The UFC president actually had it backward. Yes, he was slinging an insult Askren's way for his smothering fight style, characterizing it as sleep-inducing to watch. But in reality, the experience of watching "Funky Ben" fights during his four years with ONE Championship has been more about sleep deprivation. The fights have mostly been in Asia, which means they've taken place in the middle of the night, United States time. Did you set your alarm?
Even if you're a diehard MMA fan, there's a good chance that you've never seen a ONE Championship fight. The promotion, huge in Asia but barely noticeable in the U.S., has held eight events in 2018 -- in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and two apiece in Indonesia and the Philippines. With no American TV deal in place, fans in this country have had to groggily find an online stream.
So much is about to change, now that the UFC is reportedly in the process of pulling off an unprecedented deal to bring Askren over from ONE in exchange for allowing its former flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson, to sign with the Asian promotion. This trade, of sorts, comes on the heels of ONE signing Eddie Alvarez to a contract that the former UFC and Bellator lightweight champion said is worth "eight figures."
Fittingly, the Asian fight promotion's reach into the U.S. landscape of MMA also is poised to include a TV deal, according to CEO Chatri Sityodtong. He told Forbes on Friday that ONE has "a major U.S. TV deal coming before the end of the year." Putting on fights at venues in the U.S. would seem to be a logical next step.
But for now, all we have in front of us is the pending "trade" of "Mighty Mouse" for "Funky Ben." Who's getting the better of the deal?
Demetrious Johnson to ONE Championship
The signing of Alvarez was a positive first step to amassing talent, especially with word getting out to the fighter community that "The Underground King" will be bringing home more than $10 million. But unless that shocking amount of money entices the game's biggest stars to book travel to Asia, the Alvarez signing is not the game changer that bringing in Demetrious Johnson (27-3-1) can be.
Alvarez, though a past champion in two promotions and always a fighter to watch, has won only one of his last four fights and at this point was generally viewed as being barely on the fringe of the UFC's lightweight title picture. Johnson, on the other hand, is just one razor-thin split decision removed from being the consensus No. 1 fighter in the world, pound for pound. His 11 defenses of the flyweight crown were the most title defenses by any champion in UFC history. He is in the discussion for greatest fighter of all time and, at age 32, is still in the prime of his career. He is MMA royalty looking for a new kingdom to conquer.
Will "Mighty Mouse" find a stiff challenge in ONE Championship? Probably not. The reigning 125-pound champion is Geje Eustaquio, a 29-year-old Filipino with a 11-6 record and no notable names on his resume. The only lower-weight fighter in ONE who'd be an intriguing matchup for Johnson is bantamweight champ Bibiano Fernandes (22-3), but he trains with DJ under coach Matt Hume at AMC Pankration in Kirkland, Washington. So forget about that.
Even if Johnson finds the competition to be no more challenging in ONE than it was for him in the UFC, though, he still could be a far bigger star in Asia. UFC fans never seemed to take to him or the flyweights in general, and considering the speedy, technical, non-Ambien-like fisticuffs that take place in that division, it might be that a lot of folks simply aren't interested in seeing 125-pounders fight. (Who knows why? I'm endlessly intrigued by watching men half my size who can kick my butt.)
Or perhaps the size that matters most is the audience to which ONE can present Johnson. At a press conference this summer in Singapore, Sityodtong said his 7-year-old promotion's fights are aired in 136 countries and that, since 2014, social media impressions have risen from 352 million to 19 billion. Last year he told the website The Drum, "Metrics indicate that ONE Championship is 5-10 times larger than UFC is in Asia, depending on the country."
You think all those ONE fans will be intrigued to know they now can watch perhaps the greatest fighter in the world?
The only bigger deal would have been if ONE had landed a fighter elite in both fighting and promoting. There aren't many of those out there, though, and the UFC isn't about to let go of them.
UFC, ONE working on Johnson-Askren trade
Ariel Helwani breaks down how a potential trade involving UFC's Demetrious Johnson for ONE Championship's Ben Askren came to be.
Ben Askren to the UFC
Despite all of the accolades that Demetrious Johnson has earned for his jaw-dropping skills, his departure is not a big loss for the UFC of 2018. Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for the world's leading MMA promotion to relinquish the contract of the greatest fighter in any of its weight classes. But under the Endeavor ownership, the fight business appears to be more about the bottom line than the top of the rankings.
The UFC still does have most of the best fighters in the world and also the most depth of any fight company, but the Johnson deal is far from the first incursion upon the promotion's aura of competitive supremacy. Bellator's Gegard Mousasi might be the best middleweight in the world, and that promotion's light heavyweight (and soon-to-be heavyweight?) champion, Ryan Bader, is no worse than top five among 205-pounders.
And until now, ONE boasted a top-shelf fighter as well: Ben Askren. But moving forward, the man whom White used to call "the most boring fighter in MMA history" is all his to try to sell to fans. Oh, how this business is changing.
Once upon a time, White did try to build up Johnson and the flyweights. The night in 2012 when "Mighty Mouse" became the UFC's first 125-pound champ, White described himself as being "horrified" to hear the Toronto crowd booing what was an action-packed, fast-forward fight.
"If you didn't like the flyweight fight, please, I'm begging you, don't ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again," the incredulous UFC boss said that night. "I don't want your money. You're a moron. You don't like fighting. You don't appreciate talent."
It appears that hordes of fans heeded White's challenge. Johnson never emerged as a megastar even as he was becoming the most dominant champion in MMA. The UFC tried to sell four of his title defenses in 2015 and '16 as pay-per-view headliners, and three of them did dreadful business, barely eclipsing 100,000 buys. The other one did a little better -- but only because it was boosted by an undercard featuring a rising Conor McGregor.
More recently, Johnson fell out of favor with White and the UFC for declining a superfight with bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw. This was one last shot to sell "Mighty Mouse." When it didn't come to be, it was time to move on.
To Askren, though?
That might be a head-scratcher for those who've witnessed all of the verbal sparring between White and the unbeaten welterweight over the years. But if there's a fight to sell, why not? Askren has shown himself to be an eloquent spokesperson for himself. In today's MMA, this is far more relevant than some bald UFC exec calling him boring.
The arrival of Askren might be just the bait to entice Georges St-Pierre back into the Octagon for one last big fight. If not GSP, perhaps the UFC can find a way to put Askren, who wrestled in the 2008 Olympics, in a cage with lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. The one fight we won't likely see is Askren vs. welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. They train together under Duke Roufus at Roufusport in Milwaukee.
Askren, 34, retired from ONE after his fight last November, so who knows how much fight he has left? But rest assured that the UFC will wring every last drop out of him. The publicity engine probably will even find a way to turn that Ambien quip into promotional gold.
The grade would have been higher if the UFC brought in a younger fighter who was poised to compete for the belt in his weight class. But this is a good deal for both the promotion and the athlete.