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MMA/Boxing

The Open Mat Weighs In on the Ben Askren vs. Jake Paul Boxing Match

Former Missouri two-time Hodge Trophy winner and two-time National Champion wrestler Ben Askren. (A 2006 photo by Ty Russell of The Associated Press).

When I accepted this position as Editor at The Open Mat a little less than a month ago, a pay-per-view celebrity boxing match between a 2008 Olympian and two-time Hodge Trophy winner, Ben Askren, and YouTube star, Jake Paul, wasn’t something I expected to cover.

But here I sit, typing away…

I admit that I did not watch the event myself. However, I have searched the web and social media, taking in all the content I could over the last three days.

The event seemed to be a spectacle. Some called it a circus.

There was quite an eclectic grouping of celebrities in attendance. There were also many different components and phases to this wild, one-of-a-kind event. Whether the unique nature of this event was “good” or “bad” overall, I have yet to decide.

This was a musical event with some boxing sprinkled in as an afterthought. I feel confident in this assertion, given that the fight card had just four bouts, only one of which was between experienced fighters in Regis Prograis and Ivan Redkach.

Additionally, two hours into the event there were three musical acts and just one fight. It was clear that the action in the ring was far from the focal point. The excessive use and reference to drugs and alcohol also reaffirmed this notion.

This event is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, that said, it did draw quite a youthful audience. It captured the attention of social media. In some cases, people were praising the event. In other cases, people were ridiculing it. Either way, people were talking about it.

Still, there is work to be done to find the right blend of sport, music, celebrity, and event length. What we saw Saturday, wasn’t the right mix for many. However, I can see these hybrid events having some staying power with some adjustments.

What I can’t understand, though, is the seemingly universal hate Askren has received for his performance and general association with the event. Let us dive into some of these topics and questions that have swirled the Twittersphere in recent days.

Many were not surprised by what happened late Saturday night, myself included. Here’s why:

Askren is not a boxer

Askren is a great athlete with athletic accomplishments most of us can only dream of. That said, none of his successes are in boxing. The achievements came in wrestling and MMA. The differences between these three styles are immense. Askren has never been praised as a striker or a boxer, even by his own accord. So, it is not shocking to see him struggle in a boxing ring.

Askren is past his athletic prime

Askren qualifies as an elite athlete. But his days as a serious competitor are in the rearview mirror. Askren has been in and out of retirement over the last couple of years. He is three months shy of 37 years old.

Additionally, Askren hasn’t been terribly active in terms of his training for this fight. He trained for under three months and came off a significant hip injury and surgery.

At this stage of his life, Askren is far more involved in combat sports as a coach rather than a competitor.

While I cannot speculate on Paul’s training regimen (or if Paul even has one), I can say that he is just 24 years old and trying to make some semblance of a career for himself as a boxer. So, Paul has a clear advantage.

Similarly, Paul is far closer to any competitive prime than his aging competitor. It’s also worth mentioning that the match was at a weight significantly higher than Askren has previously performed.

Again, the result shouldn’t be that surprising.

Askren has always had an atypical physique

Admittedly, Askren looked out of shape during his weigh-in and fight. His appearance seemed to ruffle some feathers. That said, has Askren ever looked honestly “in shape” during any part of his career?

Askren has never been the shredded and chiseled wrestler that we see with regularity in wrestling and most other sports today. Even during his collegiate and international wrestling peaks, the Ben Askren body type never matched his results.

Thus, why do skeptics and angry fans fault him for his physical appearance again now?

Askren does not serve as the lone representation of wrestlers everywhere

A common complaint was that Askren represented the wrestling community as a whole poorly on Saturday night. There’s no denying that Askren didn’t perform well, he has said so in numerous interviews over the last few days. But the future of the sport is not tied to one boxing match by one person.

Even if the roles reverse and Askren knocks out Paul, many would have demeaned Askren’s TKO saying, “You’re a former Olympian who knocked out a YouTube star. That’s pathetic.” Askren would have been ridiculed with a win or a loss.

Wrestling is a sport known for its diversity of athletes. This diversity is acknowledged as one of the most incredible benefits of wrestling. The sport is beloved because it can have a positive impact on such a diverse group of individuals from a wide array of backgrounds and circumstances.

With this in mind, I ask, why are we getting so hung up on how one isolated event, spanning just two minutes in time, could possibly set a sport back?

Truthfully, this one performance and outcome does not change what Askren has accomplished and has meant to the sport of wrestling and mixed martial arts on a national level. Whether Askren won or lost this past weekend in Atlanta, he’d still be known as the opinionated, former standout wrestler, with an unconventional style and build, with a polarizing personality that isn’t always well received.

Even if the knockout hurt the wrestling brand (which I don’t believe it did), the sport will recover just fine. Wrestlers are a rare, hard-working, relentless bunch. The actions of one individual (however good or bad) do not determine the future of an entire sport.

A positive spin on the payout

Rumors have it that both Askren and Paul were compensated incredibly well for their respective parts in this event. The duo has reportedly made nearly 1.2 million dollars combined. I can understand why such an extravagant price tag for just two minutes in the ring may anger some (or many).

But let’s look at it another way…

The event was a way for both competitors to earn a living and support their families. Few should find fault in reaching better financial security.

If we, as fans, want to protest these large payouts, go ahead. We don’t have to support, watch, or pay the pay-per-view cost, which ultimately helped pay both competitors.

Concerning how Askren and the sport of wrestling will benefit, I would guess that a sizeable chunk of Askren’s purse will go back into the sport via the Askren Wrestling Academy (AWA) that Ben and his brother Max run in their native Wisconsin.

For those unfamiliar with AWA, if you paid any attention to the 2021 Division I this season, you’ve witnessed a byproduct of the Askren brothers’ efforts from the other side of the whistle as club coaches.

Ben and Max have put in the time and effort needed to build a nationally-known club. Three of the four Division I All-Americans from Wisconsin in 2021 (Eric Barnett, Keegan O’Toole, and Parker Keckeisen) trained with the Askren’s.

Before this NCAAs 2021, the last time the Badger State could claim a Division I All-American was Alex Dieringer in 2016. The last time where multiple Wisconsin natives found the NCAA podium at the same national tournament was seven years ago, in 2014.

A final note

I wasn’t invested in who won or lost. Sure, as an individual who works in wrestling media, I’d say I had a slight bias toward Askren rather than Paul.  But I lost zero sleep (or money) with this result.

I do respect how Askren has owned his performance. He has done many very public appearances and interviews in three days since, and he has welcomed the tough questions.

Financial gain aside, there was minimal benefit to Askren by taking this fight. Either Askren beats a YouTuber, or he loses to a YouTuber. Both outcomes invite potential shame and ridicule toward Askren, with little upside for the former star grappler.

I’m also cognizant that Askren has never been a competitor that cared what others think of him, myself included. This loss doesn’t change that. Despite the loss, this match gave Askren a platform and financial means to advance the sport further at the youth level. We will see Askren doing just that this weekend as 26 of his AWA athletes at the U15 and U17 Nationals.

So, whether you love Ben’ Funky’ Askren or hate him, you can likely find some happiness in knowing this farse of a boxing match probably helps the sport of wrestling in the long term.

As far as I’m concerned some (but not all) of the unrelenting critiques he received by the wrestling community were excessive. But that is only one man’s opinion.

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