For plenty of amateur wrestling fans, Monday’s main event at this year’s Beat The Streets is a fantasy matchup.
On one side, there’s Jordan Burroughs, among the most accomplished U.S. wrestlers of all. Opposing him is Ben Askren, the curly-haired former collegiate champion and Olympian who’s currently an unbeaten UFC star.
Burroughs in his prime in the sport, is singularly focused on wrestling. Askren, on the other hand, largely left active competition in the sport in his past as he is focused on MMA. For him, stepping back into a singlet will feel a bit — to borrow his nickname — "Funky."
"It’ll be a little different," Askren told amNewYork on the phone on Thursday. "It’s kind of funny to think about. Obviously, it’s what I’ve done my whole life."
The headliner for 2019 Beat The Streets, to take place at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden and be broadcast on FloWrestling.org, will be contested at 79 kg (about 174 pounds), 5 kg more than either traditionally competes, at Askren’s request because, in his words, "I would never make 74 ever again in my life."
Askren referred to his opponent as "the guy in America," a fair assessment given Burroughs’ stacked resume. The 30-year-old won 74 kg (about 163 lbs) freestyle wrestling gold four times at the world championships, most recently in 2017, and earned Olympic gold at the 2012 Games in London. Other than a disappointing ninth-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he has medaled on the world stage every year since 2011. He previously established himself at the collegiate level, winning two NCAA championships and earning All-American status three times at Nebraska.
While not as decorated on the international level, Askren distinguished himself before transitioning to MMA in 2009. A 174-pounder in college, he won a pair of NCAA championships and was a four-time All-American at Missouri. He won a U.S. championship in 2008, the same year he competed at the Beijing Olympics to finish sixth at his weight in freestyle.
Nowadays, Askren is better known for his exploits in mixed martial arts, having made the overdue leap to the UFC last year. His arrival at the world’s top MMA promotion last fall came within a year of announcing his retirement from the sport. The 34-year-old swears he wasn’t anxious for competition in retirement and returned only when the opportunity to fight the top fighters on the UFC roster manifested itself, nine years after his professional debut.
"I was absolutely content," said Askren, a father of three who operates wrestling academies. "I really enjoyed it."
Once in the UFC fold, Askren wasted no time antagonizing via social media nearly every notable welterweight on the roster. For him, pushing buttons isn’t just an act to get fights. He says it’s something he loves to do on "a daily basis."
"Any team I’ve been a part of, we enjoy ribbing each other," Askren said. "Nothing super mean-spirited, but just giving each other a hard time. It’s just how I grew up."
His first UFC bout, a technical submission victory over former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler in March, moved Askren to 19-0 (1 no-contest) in MMA, giving him one of the most impressive active unbeaten records in the sport. The fight was far from perfect, as Askren found himself in major trouble early. Lawler countered Askren’s takedown attempts with a suplex and follow-up punches that nearly finished Askren within 30 seconds. After survivng and recovering, Askren gained the advantage through his vaunted wrestling before locking in a bulldog choke. Referee Herb Dean saw Lawler go limp and called a halt to the bout in what some considered a controversial stoppage.
Regardless of the nature of the finish, Askren wouldn’t deny that Lawler put him in the most compromising spot of his 20-fight MMA career.
"That was the worst position I’ve been put in, singularly," Askren said.
Next up for Askren, after Beat The Streets, will be Jorge Masvidal at UFC 239 on July 6 in Las Vegas, a bout that could lead to a title shot against the winner of the planned bout between champion Kamaru Usman and challenger Colby Covington. Askren hopes that’s the case, but the confident grappler is in no hurry.
"If it doesn’t, I’ll just beat somebody else up," Askren said. "No big deal."
Usman, whom Askren delights in calling "Marty," a name coaches assigned him as an amateur wrestler, claimed the title the same night Askren won his UFC debut by defeating Askren’s teammate, Tyron Woodley. Both Askren and Woodley have their sights on the 170-pound division belt, but neither will fight the other to get there. That doesn’t mean there’s no competition between them as they train together at Roufusport MMA Academy in Milwaukee. There’s a friendly competition to claim, or reclaim in Woodley’s case, UFC gold.
"Whoever gets there first," Askren said.
If Askren reaches the pinnacle and claims the welterweight crown, he doesn’t intend to ride off into the sunset immediately, even if it means risking his undefeated record. He said that such a distinction "was never important, in the slightest, at all."
"I’ll fight for a little bit longer," Askren said, "and then, whenever I’m sick of it, I’ll call it a day."
Askren, when he’s not sharpening his MMA tools under Duke Roufus, works with youth wrestlers in his native Wisconsin. Still motivated to help the next generation of grapplers, he believes in the cause of Beat The Streets, which works with youth wrestlers in New York City. Monday will be his second time competing on behalf of the NYC-based organization, following his appearance at 2010’s inaugural event on the U.S.S. Intrepid.
"We have three youth wrestling clubs, so youth wrestling is what I do all the time," Askren said. "… I think [Beat The Streets is] a great cause, and I try to help them out whenever I can."