By Carlin Bardsley
Bellator welterweight champion (Funky) Ben Askren is one of the organization’s most polarizing figures.
His supporters point to the gold around his waist, and his Olympic-level wrestling that ranks among the best in the sport. His detractors point to a string of decision victories since he entered Bellator that have failed to galvanize the casual fan base.
His Bellator 86 title defence Thursday night against the dangerous Karl Amoussou marks a crossroads in Askren’s career. If Askren not only defeats Amoussou but does so in an exciting fashion, many of the complaints regarding his previous performances will be forgotten. The vast increase in audience from Bellator’s previous home on MTV2 to its current home on Spike TV means that many will be seeing Askren for the first time.
The move to a larger cable network gives Bellator a chance to turn some of its athletes into household names, the way the network did for the UFC after their Spike debut in 2005. The results for the debut Spike show, which saw lightweight champion Michael Chandler defeat Olympic judoka Rick Hawn smashed Bellator’s previous viewership record, peaking at over 1.2 million viewers.
Thursday’s event can expect similar numbers, with the Askren defense and the debut of former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion Muhammed (King Mo) Lawal. Spike and Bellator have both put a major promotional push behind Lawal. He has appeared on the network’s Impact Wrestling program, and was given a feature spotlight program after the Bellator Spike debut.
Lawal is a perfect example of the type of synergy that was promised by Bellator CEO when Spike TV parent company Viacom bought an ownership stake in the promotion. Rebney spoke of opportunities for Bellator athletes to cross over in programs across the MTV networks platform, helping to both establish the names of the athletes involved in the public consciousness. So far, it has been primarily Lawal who has been the beneficiary of those efforts. Lawal is certainly a charismatic figure and may have the most star power on the current Bellator roster, but if there is anyone who could benefit from crossover appeal, it is Askren.
Looking at his undefeated record, Askren would seem to be an obvious choice for a greater promotional effort for Bellator. But his style is a grinding one, akin to someone like Jon Fitch. Askren uses his superior wrestling to gain top position on his opponents and stifle their attack, using positional control and ground strikes to ensure victory. You won’t see the flash KOs of a prime Chuck Liddell or the unorthodox strikes and spinning attacks of Jon Jones. Fans aren’t left “ooh-ing and ahh-ing” after a Ben Askren fight. But Askren is arguably the best at what he does, and what’s more, he is a genuinely captivating and charismatic man outside the cage.
This is where extra promotion from Bellator and exposure on other shows under the Viacom umbrella would really give Askren a chance to shine. Askren is never afraid to speak his mind, such as after his title defence against Douglas Lima in Windsor, Ont. Met with a round of boos after a decision victory over Lima, Askren chided the crowd for not appreciating his style and advised them to watch boxing instead. In the post-fight press conference, Askren went a step further and lambasted the “idiot Canadians” in the crowd. He has also been involved in a war of words with one of the more outspoken personalities in the UFC, Josh Koscheck.
Askren would seemingly be a perfect fit for an MTV reality program such as the recently defunct “Jersey Shore,” or the “Real World” franchise. A guest appearance by Askren where he riles up some of the participants with his acerbic wit would do more to establish Askren’s presence among the casual fan base than any number of five-round decision victories.
Beyond Lawal, Bellator is very thin on star power. Michael Chandler may prove to be a breakout star as he possesses all the in-cage tools and is a genuinely nice and humble guy outside the cage. Joe Warren is a colourful character with an outstanding resume, but for whatever reason casual fans have yet to embrace anyone below the lightweight division as a legitimate superstar.
Askren fights at the same weight class as UFC pay-per-view kingpin Georges St-Pierre, and some would argue the two share a similar fighting style. If they possess similar tools inside the cage, there’s no reason why Bellator can’t attempt to turn Askren into as big a star outside of the cage. His trademark afro, headband and timeless entrance music of “We Want the Funk” by Parliament make him an instantly identifiable fighter as soon as he steps throughout the curtain.
If Bellator chooses to use the tools available to them through the Viacom alliance and market his outspoken personality in addition to his athletic prowess, public perception of him as a “boring” fighter could change quickly.
Carlin Bardsley is a writer for MMASucka.com and the host of a daily MMA radio show on NextSportStar.com. Follow him on Twitter @CarlinBardsley.