mma / Columns

Farewell, We Hardly Promoted Ye: The Demetrious Johnson/Ben Askren Trade

October 30, 2018 | Posted by Evan Zivin
Demetrious Johnson UFC 216

It says a lot how little the UFC cared about Demetrious Johnson that his potential exit from the company drove the UFC to do something they wouldn’t normally do: work with another promoter.

It says a lot more that they were willing to do it to get Ben Askren.

That’s right. If the combat sports world is being run by 10 year olds who are really into 20 year old trading card games, and it is, then we just saw a Mewto get traded for a Gyrados.

And yes, I only deal in the original 150 Pokemon. Anything that was produced and sold after was nothing more than a shameless cash grab.

I guess I could have used the NFL as an example of a trade but I’m not sure what would be equivalent to the deal that just got made between the UFC and ONE Championship. Also, you don’t need to trade for players when Mitch Trubisky is your quarterback. Nope.

Seriously, though, does this mean MMA trades are a thing now? Do you think UFC could send Patrick Cummins to Rizin and get Baruto? Because I would support that trade.

Well, “trade” is the word that’s being thrown around but that’s not exactly what happened between UFC and ONE, the largest MMA promotion currently running events throughout Asia, AKA a part of the world the UFC has struggled to break into.

What happened was UFC and ONE reached an agreement where UFC would release Demetrious, the former UFC Flyweight Champion and one of the Pound-for-Pound best fighters EVER, from his contract with no strings attached so that he can sign a deal with ONE. In exchange, ONE would allow for UFC to sign Askren, a man who Dana White has literally called human Ambien.

That’s one of the things that makes this news so amusing, that UFC is letting go of a top performer who has been (wrongfully) criticized for being boring so they can bring in the man who wrote the book on winning fights by putting his opponents, and the audience, to sleep.

Man, that’s exciting. This news is hotter than Derick Lewis’s balls after watching Creed II.

For those who don’t know him, Askren has, for years, been one of the most successful fighters to never compete in the Octagon. He dominated in Bellator, winning and defending their Welterweight Championship in the years before Scott Coker turned the promotion into Yes Country for Old Men.

He then left Bellator for the burgeoning ONE, a promotion that has grown quite exponentially since it put on its first event in 2011, winning their Welterweight Championship and defending it a couple of times before deciding to retire last year, saying he’d only come out of retirement if he was offered a fight to “prove [he’s] the best welterweight in the world.”

I don’t think anyone actually thought he’d get the chance to do that, especially after UFC chose not to pursue him when Bellator released him. UFC not being interested in Ben’s services became such a running joke that we ended up getting “Funky” doing an Adele parody at the World MMA Awards, which I guess makes it a joke within a joke.

Seriously, have you seen that video? Go YouTube it. I’ll wait.

I don’t know what they were smoking when they came up with that but I hope USADA allows it in competition.

The thing that makes this even crazier is that Ben wasn’t a free agent. He wasn’t just hanging out on some beach in Cabo with the Diaz brothers waiting for a phone call (although it is fun to imagine it played out that way…). He was still under contract with ONE. That meant if anyone was going to court him, they’d have to deal with…uh…whoever the guy is who runs ONE.

I think his name is Mr. One? I don’t know. He doesn’t give enough expletive-laden interviews to get his name in the headlines the way Dana used to.

We all know Dana doesn’t like to play nice with other promoters. If he’s talking to them, it’s usually to buy them out. That’s why this is so bizarre. He made an agreement with a rival promoter to release one of his fighters as part of a talent exchange, and then he actually went through with it.

Although, and here’s where things get depressing, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Dana was willing to do this for Demetrious Johnson. There’s a lot of fighters he wouldn’t let go of, especially when it was known the intention for leaving was to sign with another promoter, but I don’t think too many people were shocked to learn he’d do it for DJ, a fighter who the UFC has consistently failed to promote, treating him as more of a nuisance than as the legendary champion he is.

Of course, this deal could be seen as a sign of respect between UFC and Demetrious, a recognition of the fact that they failed him miserably and this deal is trying to make things right. There really is a lot of positives in Demetrious going to ONE, and not just because his coach, Matt Hume, works for them.

He does, though. So does Rich Franklin. Remember him? I miss him. He made losing brain damage for a living seem like an intelligent career choice.

ONE could be the place where Demetrious gets presented as the marquee attraction he should have always been presented as because Asian audiences don’t seem to carry with them the stigma and disdain towards lighter weight fighters that American audiences inherently do. Look no further than the success Kyoji Horiguchi, a fighter Demetrious defeated in the UFC, has had in Rizin for an example of that.

There’s also a lot of fighters coming out of Asia who compete at or near flyweight so DJ should have no shortage of opponents. ONE won’t be able to offer him the same caliber of opponent the UFC could but it’s not like he had much competition in the UFC anyway. Well, besides Henry Cejudo.

Remember, it’s not worth promoting lighter weight fighters because it’s too hard to convince an audience with a heavyweight fetish that they’re worth watching, at least not when they aren’t throwing dollies at buses on a regular basis.

So it is a bit distressing that UFC would let walk a future Hall of Famer who is still in his prime immediately after he was defeated for the first time in 7 years in a hotly contested fight, especially when lesser champions were at least offered a rematch first (I wonder what Cody Garbrandt is up to these days…), but this could end up working out for the best.

I mean, if you thought DJ’s flying armbar submission of Ray Borg was nuts, just wait and see some of the craziness he’ll be unleashing throughout Southeast Asia.

If we no longer live in a world where the fight the best, at least we can see the best look superhuman against nobodies in Singapore at 4 in the morning. All the best, Mighty Mouse. I’m sure Bibiano Fernandes is clearing his calendar.

I just hope this trade doesn’t mean UFC is planning to axe the flyweight division entirely. The division still has value to the company. At the very least, the 125 lbs. champion gives them an option for a Payperview main event (or, more realistically, co-main event on ESPN+) when they don’t have a fight three weeks out and Sijara Eubanks stops returning their calls.

I’m sure UFC will be grateful for the little guys when they’re busy mulling over the possibility of an Interim Interim UFC Welterweight Championship.

Speaking of which, I wonder what the plan for Ben is. I guess it might depend on how long Ben wants his UFC tenure to last, since he’s got the skills and credentials to compete with the top 170ers. He just doesn’t have the name recognition, although it’ll help build his brand if he’s willing to trash potential opponents in interviews and press conferences the way he’s willing to do it on Twitter.

The big fight he’s been aiming for is Georges St-Pierre. I wonder if Askren presents enough of an upside to GSP’s legacy for the first ballot UFC Hall of Famer to take that fight because, stylistically, it sounds like gangbusters.

There’s also the obvious thought to match the unbeaten 18-0 (1 NC) record of Askren’s against the undefeated 26-0 record of UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, with Ben even suggesting that fight be used to start up the 165 lbs. division that all the kids are talking about these days. The thought of seeing whose wrestling is superior would make this match hard to pass up. Plus, Ben already has one of those Dagestani papakha hats growing out of his head. Seems like no brainer booking.

The direction Ben’s UFC career takes will be an interesting one. The current UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley is one of Ben’s training partners so it doesn’t seem like a title shot is in his immediate future, although that may change if Colby “Donald Trump Pretended to Know Who I Was Once” Covington is able to win the belt when he fights Twoodley.

It could be that Ben isn’t too interested in being champion, since he’s been a champion elsewhere. Maybe he just wants to prove that his record is legit and that he can hang with UFC caliber competition. Or maybe he was just looking for a bigger platform to sell his brand of Irish whiskey. All I know is Ben Askren is now in the UFC and it feels like a hole in the MMA space-time continuum has just been plugged.

Hello from the inside, Ben. You finally made it. Took you long enough…

Evan Zivin has been writing for 411 MMA since May of 2013. Evan loves the sport, and likes to takes a lighthearted look at the world of MMA in his writing…usually.