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Matter's Best of Mizzou: No. 2, Ben Askren
AT LARGE: ON MIZZOU SPORTS

Matter's Best of Mizzou: No. 2, Ben Askren

From the Catch up with Matter's Best of Mizzou series
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University of Missouri wrestler Ben Askren, left, celebrates his win over Pittsburgh's Keith Gavin after their 174 pound match at the Hearnes Center in Columbia, Mo. Thursday, Dec. 21. Askren pinned Gavin in 2:34 to pick up his 11th straight win by fall this season. PHOTO BY JUSTIN KELLEY

Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith once visited a recruit in Colorado, a heavyweight prospect who never made it to Columbia. But Smith couldn’t believe what hung on the recruit’s wall: A photo of Ben Askren.

There he was, Mizzou’s two-time national champion. On a high school wrestler’s wall. In Colorado.

“What other athlete at Missouri has that in another state?” Smith marveled last week when he told the story.

That memory encapsulates why Askren is ranked so high on this list — and one spot ahead of Mizzou wrestling great J’den Cox, the program’s only three-time national champion. In many ways, Askren was bigger than Mizzou. From his unconventional and trendsetting wrestling technique to his outsized personality, Askren both defined and transcended Mizzou’s TigerStyle program. His impact was felt well beyond the medal stand at the NCAA Championships. He changed his team and his sport.

Oh, and he when he stepped inside that 32-foot circle of foam, he dominated his opponent unlike any Mizzou wrestler who came before or after.

Just ask his coach.

“I don’t think it’s close,” Smith said. “Ben is head and shoulders above all those athletes (at Mizzou). Some went on to the pros and he crushed it in the pros, too. For an athlete, as a competitor, nobody came close. He won the Heisman Trophy of his sport two years in a row and never lost. There’s pitchers, there’s runners, there’s football players. They all lost. Ben not only won, but if you look closely at what he did, it’s crazy.”

We shall look.

When finalizing this list of the greatest Mizzou athletes from the time I’ve covered the Tigers since 1998, this was always going to be the hardest decision: Cox or Askren? Who ranks higher? Cox has more hardware in international competition, but this series has always put more focus on collegiate success. Cox won three national titles to Askren’s two and owns the greater career winning percentage (96.4 to 95.0), but when you peel back the onion — hey, this is wrestling, let’s call it a cauliflower — Askren gets the nod. By a chin.

Let us count the ways.

• In 2007 Askren became the sport’s second multi-time winner of the Hodge Trophy, the award given to the nation’s best wrestler. He also won as a junior in 2006. He was a finalist both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Cox was a finalist just once, his senior year, and did not win. The trophy is awarded based on a combination of both objective and subjective criteria: record, number of pins, dominance, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart. Before Askren, the only wrestler to win the award multiple times was Cael Sanderson, widely hailed as the sport’s greatest college wrestler.

• Askren didn’t just win. He dominated his matches, going 87-0 as a junior and senior. Of his school-record 153 career wins, 91 came by pins. That’s nearly 60 percent of his victories. (Pins are worth the most points in team scoring.) Only two wrestlers in NCAA history have more career pins. As a senior, Askren recorded 29 pins. For his four-year career, Cox had just 27 pins. During his senior year, Askren had 23 pins in the first period, including 18 in a row during one stretch. That’s not normal.

“It would be like beating teams in football 60-0 every game,” Smith said. “You go out and completely decimate any hope they had. J’den would go out and win matches but he’d win by a major. Every once in a while he’d get a pin — but nothing like Ben. What Ben did would be like Chase Daniel scoring 60 points every game. That just didn’t happen.”

• Askren competed for the Tigers when Mizzou was part of the Big 12. That meant annual matches against some of the sport’s elite programs, including the Big 12 tournament. During Askren’s four seasons, at least two other Big 12 teams finished in the top 10 at the national meet every season, including four teams at the 2004 meet. Mizzou moved to the Mid-American Conference in 2013, and while Smith has scheduled challenging nonconference matches, Askren’s teams generally faced stronger conference foes. Cox’s 2015 team beat Iowa in the National Duals and swept the MAC championships, but no other MAC team finished in the top 10 during Cox’s four seasons.

• Askren reinvented folkstyle wrestling. The 174-pounder wasn’t strong or fast enough to beat opponents by conventional measures. He had to create his own style. Some called it funk. To the layman, it was hard to describe, even harder to defeat.

“Early in his career they used to laugh at him because his body type was awful,” Smith said. “They’d say, ‘I’m going to kill this dude.’ Ben’s not very athletic, but the way he holds and pulls and puts you in scrambling positions, people just get exhausted. A guy would take him down and if we’re on the road the crowd would go crazy. Then Ben would get out and all of a sudden Ben would win a scramble and the kid would collapse. Two minutes into the match the kid would be broke and Ben would roll him up and pin him.”

“A lot of college matches are boring,” he added. “They’re low scoring and like a chess match. Not with Ben. If a person took a shot on him he’d just pin him.”

Askren cruised through most matches his first two years — he lost in the NCAA championship match as a freshman and sophomore, both times to Oklahoma State’s Chris Pendleton, who handed Askren all but one of his college losses — but he eventually mastered his style and became unbeatable. Many times, he believes, he won the match before it started.

“I had previous success, so that’s an intimidating factor for a lot of people,” Askren, 35, said from his home in Wisconsin. “And people knew I wrestled hard. They might think if they weather the first storm I’d go away. No, I’m going to wrestle hard the whole seven minutes. Then the other thing is, how do you wrestle someone who’s doing things that nobody else does? For a lot of people that’s intimidating. They think, well, I can’t train for what this guy’s doing. I don’t know what it is. My coaches can’t explain it. So how do I get ready for that?”

They usually couldn’t. Some just avoided him altogether.

“People were jumping out of his weight class his senior year,” Smith said.

Askren won his first national championship in 2006, smashing Northwestern’s Jake Herbert 14-2 in the final match. Coincidence or not, the next year Herbert moved up a class to 184 pounds. Iowa’s Mark Perry finished third in 2006 — and moved down to 165 the next season.

Askren’s scrambling style caught on with younger wrestlers and his popularity coincided with the rise of FloWrestling, a streaming company that’s turned into a mass content machine for the sport.

“When I was growing up you didn’t see other wrestling matches on video,” Smith said. “We didn’t’ have the Internet. But Ben became so popular and people were watching those sites and they promoted scrambling and young kids started using it. Coaches had to learn how to coach it. When you hear these college coaches talking about Ben it forced them to sit down and analyze what he’s doing and figure it out.

“We now have a rule in place that when you’re in scrambles and a guy’s on his back and you hold him there they start a count and they start giving points. It’s because Ben put people in those positions. He was doing it so often they created a rule for it.”

Long before then, Askren chose Missouri over a mix of schools — he visited Arizona State, Edinboro, Michigan, Northern Iowa and his home-state program at Wisconsin — but sensed a natural fit with Smith.

At Mizzou, everything about Askren’s persona was big, from his poofy hair to his bravado on and off the mat. Askren credits Mizzou’s coaches for encouraging his unique style.

“They saw how I wanted to work and how badly I wanted to be good,” he said. “They weren’t scared by me doing things slightly unconventional. I think if I had went other places, who knows, maybe I would have had the same success but maybe not. By them giving me leniency to try things and fail a little bit, then try them again and fail a little bit more, I could eventually come up with some really good things. That was instrumental to my success.”

Along the way, Mizzou joined the country’s elite, peaking Askren’s senior year with a third-place finish at the NCAA championships, still the team’s best finish at the national meet. When Askren captured the program’s first national championship, Smith’s recruiting sales pitch gained credibility, leading to what’s become a powerhouse program.

“He changed the face of what’s probably the best sports program at Missouri,” Smith said. “J’den grew up saying, ‘I want to be on that team with Ben.’ J’den probably doesn’t stay home if we don’t have Ben Askren. So many kids grew up watching him. I’d hear it in the living rooms all the time.”

In 2008, Askren became the first Mizzou wrestler to qualify for the Olympics but fell short of earning a medal in Beijing.

From there, he made the transition to mixed martial arts and by 2010 captured the Bellator welterweight championship. He later fought for ONE Championship, a Singapore-based company. All the while, a feud famously simmered with Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White. Askren called White “a bald-headed fat man.” White blocked Askren on Twitter. In 2018, Askren briefly retired from the octagon until the war of words thawed and White’s company traded for the fighter known as “Funky.”

“I was  thoroughly enjoying my retirement and really had no intention to come back,” Askren said. “Then when the trade happened, which I didn’t think was possible, I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Then I came back and had a great and crazy and at some point terrible year. I got to experience the myriad of emotions.”

In his UFC debut, Askren scored a controversial victory over Robbie Lawler. In his next two fights Jorge Masvidal knocked him out with a vicious flying knee, then Demian Maia won by submission. In November, Askren announced his retirement with an MMA record of 19-2.

These days, Askren keeps busy running the five Askren Wrestling Academy locations he owns with brother Max, another Mizzou national champion. He also appears on six podcasts a week and dishes daily opinions to his 312,000 Twitter followers. Lately he’s been aiming his jabs at politics. No one is spared.

Even in retirement, no one’s accused Askren of being boring.

“There’s a lot of people out there more stupid than me giving their opinion,” he said. “So I’m like, why not?”

BEN ASKREN Q&A

Q: When you think about your four years at Mizzou, you’re most proud of what?

A: I’d say my personal success with the national titles and the Hodge Trophy and then establishing the Mizzou wrestling program as one of the top programs in the country. Our success, you could argue volleyball’s success was earlier and it led to a golden era for Mizzou athletics. You had that time period right at the end of our run where football had a lot of success, volleyball and other sports had success right after us.

Q: How much do you think your wrestling style changed the sport at the college level?

A: Yeah, absolutely. There definitely was a paradigm shift in folkstyle wrestling to the way that I wrestling. I surely couldn’t have won the normal way. What I did has now become very commonplace in folkstyle wrestling. Everyone has a  pretty good understanding of it.

I think I understood what I was doing and the rhyme and reason for it. In a lot of ways it was a better solution for me. For me I’m the kind of person who always believes the better solution will always turn out over the course of time. Some of those things have become commonplace. Some of those things have been replaced by even better evolutions than I came up with. Like life, wrestling evolves and smart people constantly come up with better solutions. What I came up with was a better solution at the time. Other people have furthered the progression of what I was doing.

Q: Did you get any pushback initially from Missouri’s coaches when you brought this new style?

A: Not really, and that was one of the awesome things about Coach Smith and the staff there. I felt like I had a whole bunch of buy-in from them. They saw how I wanted to work and how badly I wanted to be good. They weren’t scared by me doing things slightly unconventional. I think if I had went other places, who knows, maybe I would have had the same success. But maybe not. By them giving me leniency to try things and fail a little bit, then try them again and fail a little bit more, I could eventually come with some really good things. That was instrumental to my success.

Q: Did anything change for you between your sophomore year and your junior year that launched you into those final two seasons?

A: Everything just started clicking. The Chris Pendleton thing, one of the big things was I started working a lot on my stance and motion. That plagued me my entire career but I got significantly better at it. I think I really just came into my own with my scrambles and I was just so far ahead of everyone else in the country that it led to me winning so many matches very dominantly. Everything just clicked into place. If you watch my freshman-and sophomore-year scrambles then watch my later-year scrambles, there’s some similarities but they’re not very close to the same thing. I talked about the process of people evolving past me, but I even evolved past myself. Freshman and sophomore years I started to figure out. I had these conjectures on what the right way to do it was. By the time I was a junior and senior I had all these smart people in the Mizzou room helping me come up with conclusion to what the best way it actually was.

Q: Brian Smith believes you won some matches before they even started. Did you feel there was an intimidation factor at play before those matches?

A: Oh yeah, 100 percent. There were a lot of factors there. I had previous success. That’s an intimidating factor for a lot of people. And people knew I wrestled hard. They might think if they weather the first storm I’d go away. No, I’m going to wrestle hard the whole seven minutes. Then the other thing is, how do you wrestle someone who’s doing things that nobody else does? For a lot of people that’s intimidating. They think, well, I can’t train for what this guy’s doing. I don’t know what it is. My coaches can’t explain it. So how do I get ready for that. 

Q: How do you spend your time these days?

A: My brother Max and I own five wrestling academies. We have two kids currently on the Mizzou team (Jake Raschka and Peyton Mocco) and one more coming next year. Then I do a lot of podcasts. I have six podcasts weekly, three of them through Flo Wrestling, then three other ones. Life is good.

Q: You’re always entertaining on Twitter and not afraid to mix it up when it comes to politics. Do you get a kick out of that?

A: It’s interesting. A lot of people are intimidated to speak on areas where they’re not super experts. Some athletes only speak on their sport-specific expertise. For me, I’m not on here telling people I’m a political science major or some genius politically. At the same time that doesn’t mean I don’t understand anything and that I can’t give my opinion. There’s a lot of people out there more stupid than me giving their opinion, so I’m like, why not?

Q: I can’t even tell where you fall politically. You’re all over the place.

A: In my life I’ve voted Republican once, Democrat once and Independent once in the presidential elections. So I feel like I don’t fit into any one category. Honestly, that’s one of my issues on Twitter that I bring up a lot and one of my stronger points. I hate the hyper-partisanship. I hate the tribalism: This is what these people are supposed to think so I’m going to repeat this mantra. I’m just like, think for yourself, people. Listen, Donald Trump is going to do some great stuff and he’s also going to do some really stupid stuff. If you’re a Democrat it doesn’t mean everything he does sucks and if you’re a Republican it doesn’t mean everything he does is great. Let’s just think a little bit for ourselves, people.

Q: Do you catch any blowback from your followers when you dive into politics?

A: I have so many mentions on a daily basis. I scroll quickly threw them and every once in a while I’ll see something. I’m used to it. Being a polarizing figure in everything I’ve done I’m used to getting a lot of pushback no matter what I think. The one thing I was blown away by was I posted something bashing Joe Biden and there was zero pushback. I was like, holy shit! How does no one else see this? Listen, there are  people who hate me no matter what I say. I could say the sky is blue and at least half the people would say, ‘You’re a freaking moron. The sky is not blue.’ But I say Joe Biden seems senile and people were like, ‘Yep, that’s pretty obvious.’ So obviously the people who picked him to run aren’t dumb people. That’s not the case. They’re all really smart. So what are we as a people missing here? Are they going to replace him? Are they giving up because they realize they can’t beat Trump? There’s obviously something they’re not telling us. I can’t figure out what it is.

Q: Do you miss competing, whether it’s wrestling or MMA?

A: Not very much. I did. I never expected to compete past 30. And I ended up competing until I was 35. I never really saw that in my life. I loved to compete, and I still get to compete a little bit, but in certain other ways. One of my business vendors taught me that every solution should try to be a win-win. That’s how you’ll be successful. If you’re trying to take advantage of someone, if you’re trying to make it a win-lose like it is in sports, at some point in time that will catch up to you. There’s a lot of situations where there’s no reason it can’t be win-win. Every once in a while there will be situations where it can’t but most of the time it should be win-win. You have to find as many as possible. That’s what I try to do with my business. I want to help everyone out. I want everyone to win and be successful.

Q: You have three kids, right? Do they wrestle?

A: Yes, they’re 7, 4 and 2. Alex, my oldest, she wrestles. I told them they’ll all wrestle from 5 to 9 in youth classes and then after that if they don’t want to wrestle, that’s fine. If they want to keep going, that’s cool, too. I think being well-rounded as a young kid and trying a lot of things is important.

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