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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Making sense of Ben Askren's role in Saturday's boxing match

    Ben Askren at the Beat the Streets NYC "Grapple at the Garden" event in 2019 (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    This isn't the article I intended on writing Sunday morning. That uncertain sentiment seems to be appropriate because I'm not sure exactly what transpired late Saturday night as 2008 Olympian and two-time Hodge Trophy winner Ben Askren took on YouTube star Jake Paul in an unsanctioned pay-per-view boxing match.

    I'll admit as soon as I heard that this fight was signed, I vowed I wouldn't pay to see this circus. I really didn't even want to watch it. The “highlights” and clips would be all over Twitter Sunday morning and that would be more than sufficient. But, as the event grew closer, my curiosity overtook the sensible part of my brain. Now I kept my promise to myself and did not order the pay-per-view; rather, I went out to Buffalo Wild Wings for a late-night dinner and drinks with my wife. In the last couple of days preceding the fight, my wife asked how I thought it all would turn out on a couple of occasions. She was even slightly intrigued by this spectacle. We agreed that watching it at a bar would be a decent enough proposition. Well, we bailed. At 10:30 eastern, with no end in sight, we went home and called it a night. All of the other concerts, skits, and preliminary fights were too much. My original plan to check ESPN and Twitter when I woke up seemed like the best solution.

    So Sunday morning came calling, and there it was, in all its glory, the knockdown. Jake Paul stopped Askren via TKO in under two minutes. While I was shocked, I wasn't THAT shocked. My first inclination was to write about the fight and take Askren to task. On Saturday, my Twitter feed was lined with current and former wrestlers imploring Askren to shut this guy up and represent for wrestlers everywhere. Askren showed up looking even less threatening than usual and was beaten by a guy that's famous for….well, truthfully, I don't know exactly what he's famous for. Paul has tons of followers, a substantial social media presence, and is generally unlikeable. And not in the Askren, pro wrestling heel, tongue-in-cheek, way, either. The whole escapade almost made me go into a sanctimonious rant about Askren embarrassing himself, his actual sport, and destroying his credibility. Luckily, I stepped back and reevaluated for a bit.

    What made me have a change of heart was seeing the clips of Askren and his wife leaving the Georgia Dome, seemingly in great spirits. And why not? They are at least $500,000 (maybe more) richer. I can't say whether this was a fixed fight or just beautifully orchestrated by Paul and his team. Perhaps the fix wasn't exactly in, but they picked a prominent ex-MMA fighter who was never known for his stand-up prowess, only a few months removed from hip surgery, who is past his athletic peak, and challenged him to a boxing match. However, it was engineered, the cards were stacked in Paul's favor. Las Vegas oddsmakers agreed. But, at the end of the day, Askren left with at least half a million dollars in his account for less than two minutes of work. Of course, Askren has a big smile on his face!

    I'm sure we've all played the hypothetical game with friends or family members before. “How much money would it take for you to get punched in the face by Mike Tyson.” $10,000, $100,000, $1,000,000? What amount of money would you need to do something embarrassing or gross, or test your greatest fears, or even put your life in danger? I know I've had those fun discussions. Well, Ben got to do it for real. A huge sum of money to lose (or have the possibility to lose) to a YouTube fighter who will certainly gloat about it for years and there's video evidence that will never go away.

    Many in the wrestling community either would not have put themselves in that predicament in the first place. In contrast, others may have taken a crash course in boxing to possibly avoid humiliation. But not Ben Askren. Ben's always been built differently than most wrestlers. He can compartmentalize these seemingly humiliating circumstances and laugh them off like no other. After losing via a brutal flying knee to Jorge Masvidal in the UFC octagon, Askren poked fun at himself and didn't seem to take it too seriously. I witnessed it up close and personal in Fargo, less than a week after the Masvidal fight. While some champions like Ronda Rousey went into hiding after a humiliating defeat, Askren was at 16U and Junior Nationals coaching his kids. Plenty of people gave him little digs about the Masvidal loss and if they were funny, Ben laughed.

    While Askren can be a polarizing figure in the wrestling and MMA community, those that follow him know about his work with his Askren Wrestling Academy in his home state of Wisconsin. Ben and his brother Max have had great success with AWA and put in the time and effort needed to build a club that can compete on the national level. Three of the four DI All-Americans from Wisconsin in 2021 (Eric Barnett, Keegan O'Toole, and Parker Keckeisen) trained with the Askren's. They have helped revitalize the state on the national level. Before this March, the last time the state produced a DI AA was Alex Dieringer in 2016! You have to go back two more years to 2014 when multiple Wisconsin natives got onto the podium. So if Askren now has a half-million dollars extra at his disposal, I'd imagine a portion of it will go into his wrestling academy and end up benefiting the kids in Wisconsin. I can't argue with that.

    This isn't the first time that Askren has been a part of a glorified exhibition that was generally set up for him to lose. In 2019, just two months after a controversial win over Robbie Lawler and two months before the Masvidal fight, Askren faced Jordan Burroughs in the main event at the Beat the Streets NYC's Grapple at the Garden. After the event, I praised Askren for essentially sacrificing himself to Burroughs so that his sport could get more exposure and raise a ton of money, in the process. Ben's MMA hype was at an all-time high, and sports media, outside of the wrestling world, was actually interested in this wrestling match. It ended up being a squash in Burroughs' favor, but Askren didn't care, and I left with a new sense of respect for him.

    So, I guess the question is, why can't this boxing match be viewed in the same light as the Burroughs Grapple at the Garden bout? If Ben is okay with being the subject of another handful of embarrassing GIFs, who am I to judge? Many of us would like to think that we have the high moral ground and self-respect that would allow us to turn down half a million dollars for public embarrassment and ridicule. But would we? I'd like to say I would, but I have a wife and kids, as does Askren. Ben's an intelligent guy; I think he probably realizes that the wrestling/MMA/boxing train has left the station after Saturday night. I'd be shocked if he gets another call for one of these types of events again. I can't speak for Askren, but I'm guessing that's okay. He's laughing all the way to the bank and he doesn't care what you or I think.

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