Pep Talk: Askren Answers Questions

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(Askren and Thomas at BFC XIV weigh-ins. Photo by Thomas M. Rozdzynski.)

When the 2008 Olympic Games came to a close, wrestler Ben Askren wasn’t happy about his failure to medal. While he intended to return in 2012, the more pressing issue was the pursuit of a career in MMA. We’ve seen the story play out time and time again where a great wrestler makes a smooth transition into the cage, so it was understandable that Askren, a two-time Division I NCAA National Champion, would be sought out by both Strikeforce and Bellator. It’s equally understandable that Askren would choose Bellator with its tournament structure and ability to control your own destiny, familiar territory for a decorated wrestler who won more than his share of tournaments. And the financial rewards and television exposure couldn’t hurt either.

Askren rolled through his first three opponents, scoring two submissions and a TKO, all in the first round. But beating no-name fighters on the regional circuit doesn’t tell you much about where Askren’s talent is, or isn’t. In UFC vet Ryan Thomas, Ben’s round one opponent in the Welterweight BFC tourney, he would find his first real test to date. Thomas, who entered the bout 10-3, suffered losses to Matt Brown and Ben Saunders in his UFC stint but wasn’t concerned about Askren’s game. In fact, he said that if he could choose any opponent in the tournament to fight it would be Ben. “I’ll show him the difference between wrestling and MMA. We’ll see how well he can wrestle with my fist in his mouth and my foot up his ass.”

Thomas was unsuccessful in using any of his limbs to plug any of Askren’s orifices, which certainly made the wrestler’s victory less painful than it could have been. Askren used that wrestling to control the fight and take Thomas down at will. He almost got caught in a triangle early in the round but was able to power out and attempt a nice D’arce choke. After a scramble, Askren, a fan of front chokes, locked in an Anaconda choke that looked to be pretty deep. Thomas closed his eyes and when the referee twice asked him for a sign that he was OK, he didn’t respond and the fight became another first round finish for the Olympian. Ryan immediately popped up and protested and it was clear he was never out. The announcers called it one of the worst stoppages they’d ever seen, but I’d have to disagree. When the ref asked for a sign that he was alright, Thomas’ failure to respond left no option but to stop it. While announcer Jimmy Smith argued that Ryan may not have been able to hear the instruction or that the ref should have raised his arm to test if he was out, fighter safety has to come first. Given the time he was already in the choke and the lack of response, credit Askren for a decent, albeit controversial victory. Askren secures the first spot in the Welterweight semifinals with the win.

Bellator Fighting Championships XIV
(Reis turns the other cheek against Lierley. Photo by Thomas Michael Rozdzynski.)

Bellator season one semi-finalist Wilson Reis made it clear in his pre-fight interview package that he hasn’t forgotten about his loss to eventual BFC Featherweight Champion Joe Soto. In fact, the pre-tourney favorite said that it is in his head every day. We’ve seen that kind of obsession play out well for someone, not so good for others. While NYU grad and collegiate wrestler Shad Lierley probably wished that Soto would be a distraction for Reis, that wasn’t the case. Reis, the 2004 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion in the brown belt division repeatedly took Lierley down in all three rounds, maintaining top position and coming close on several submissions in the first round. Wilson started the third round much the same way as the previous two, taking Shad down and working to a full mount. But unlike when he had the position several times earlier in the fight, Reis postured up and rained down several blows, causing Lierley to turn away from the punishment. When he did, the submission wizard was on his neck in a flash and had Shad tapping second later for the win. Reis now joins Georgi Karakhanyan and Joe Warren in the semifinals.

Bellator Fighting Championships XIV
(Curran looms over a downed Ricci. Photo by Thomas M. Rozdzynski.)

Highly regarded lightweight Mike Ricci fought for the first time outside his native Canada when he took on Pat Curran, the first cousin of WEC and Pride veteran Jeff Curran. When you’re undefeated and train with the likes of Georges St. Pierre, Kenny Florian and Rashad Evans there are going to be high expectations. In fact, Ricci said that when you get used to sparring with fighters of that caliber, everything seems to be moving a lot slower when he gets in the cage with other fighters. Everyone, apparently, except Pat Curran. After a feeling out process that saw Curran throw mostly kicks that seemed to be for the purpose of measuring the distance against his taller opponent, Curran landed an overhead right that crumbled Ricci to the canvas, out cold. The referee jumped in to call a halt to the bout after a few academic punches landed to an unconscious Ricci. Curran, who was the subject of one of the episodes of the Tapout reality series, pleased the hometown crowd as he advanced to the semifinal round.

Bellator Fighting Championships XIV
(Imada works Krause’s body. Photo by Thomas M. Rozdzynski.)

Toby Imada’s inverted triangle during BFC Season One may have been the closest thing to Griffin/Bonnar 1 in terms of its effect on the success of the promotion. The video went viral and became everyone’s Submission of the Year and helped put both BFC and Imada in the spotlight. Now back for Season 2, Imada, who has a heavy judo background, was scheduled to take on French judo Olympian Ferrid Kherer until he was hospitalized with appendicitis. Enter WEC vet James Krause who weighted 190 pounds last Saturday when he got the call to replace Kherer. To his credit, he dropped 35 pounds to make weight and take his shot in the BFC Lightweight tournament. Krause held his own in the first round, but had to verbally tap to Imada when he used quick hips to transition from a triangle to a fight ending armbar in the second round. Lightweight winners Pat Curran and Imada join Roger Huerta and Carey Vanier in the semis as the four look for their shot against BFC Champ Eddie Alvarez.

Larry Pepe is the host of Pro MMA Radio. Follow him on Twitter @LarryPepe.

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