Ben Askren finally has his chance to prove he's the best in UFC

Ben Askren finally gets his shot in the UFC (4:19)

'Funky' Ben Askren could be the best MMA fighter not to compete in UFC, but now he is finally getting his shot to prove himself. (4:19)

HARTLAND, Wis. -- It has been nearly 11 years, and Ben Askren still doesn't like talking about the Olympics.

Not that he won't talk about the Olympics, of course. Askren, 34, is willing to comment on just about anything. The man has a one-liner for every scenario imaginable, and he once hashtagged a tweet about UFC president Dana White with #fatbaldmansegoistoobig.

He's not shy, in other words.

No, Askren will answer any question you have about his failure to win a medal at the 2008 Olympics; he just doesn't have a lot to say about it. When he addressed reporters that year in Beijing, shortly after he was eliminated in his second match, Askren said, "I don't know what you want to hear from me. ... I sucked."

All these years later, Askren's take on his Olympic experience remains the same.

"My feelings about the Olympics are closely tied to the results, and I didn't get what I wanted," Askren told ESPN. "I think the whole experience was kind of like, really thumbs-down for me. I didn't get a medal -- and that's what I was there for, right?

"It was like a vacation with a purpose, and it just turned into a s---ty vacation because I didn't fulfill my purpose."

Askren is a two-time high school state wrestling champion. He's a junior national champion, a two-time NCAA champion and one of only four men to have ever won the prestigious Dan Hodge Trophy multiple times. But he will calmly tell you, his chance to prove he was the best in the world was the 2008 Olympics -- and he failed.

But he will also tell you he's very happy he got that chance. As an amateur wrestler, Askren got to find out if he truly was the best.

That kind of chance is something Askren has never had during his undefeated, 10-year run in mixed martial arts. Until now.

Askren (18-0) will make his long-awaited UFC debut on Saturday, at UFC 235 in Las Vegas. He's scheduled to face former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler (28-12).

When Askren transitioned into MMA, shortly after the 2008 Olympics, this is where he assumed he'd end up. The UFC. He signed with Bellator MMA in 2010, but he was only three fights into his career at that point. The UFC was an obvious destination.

"That was the main organization I followed as a kid, you know?" Askren said. "I think I said something, like, 'Going into the UFC is inevitable,' during an early interview at Bellator. And [then-Bellator president Bjorn Rebney] lost his s--- on me. I was like, 'Ah, OK. That's fair. I probably shouldn't have said that.'

"But I still kind of felt like, 'Obviously, when I'm done with this and I've beat everybody [in Bellator], I'm gonna take the next step.'"

The time for Askren to take that next step came in 2013. He won Bellator's welterweight title in 2010 and successfully defended it four times. He dominated all of the top 170-pound fighters on the promotion's roster, and his exclusive contract had come to an end. He informed Bellator in 2013 that he had no intention of returning.

"I was 12-0, feeling confident, and I was ready to move on," Askren said. "And then, you know, Dana and I couldn't see eye-to-eye."

Askren and White have offered different accounts and explanations on what exactly happened next. Askren claims the UFC initially told him they were interested, only to reverse course the second he officially burned bridges with Bellator. White has maintained he simply had no interest in Askren -- that it wasn't a good fit.

Either way, the UFC never made a formal offer. Askren eventually signed a two-year contract with Asia-based promotion One Championship, with the potential of an extension period. Between 2014 and 2017, Askren went 6-0 competing in Asia and won the company's welterweight championship.

His feud with White would occasionally resurface on social media -- and when it did, it would spark speculation about how Askren would have fared in the UFC -- but the reality of Askren's UFC-less career had more or less sunk in. Contractually, he couldn't even speak to the UFC about rekindling negotiations.

"I just didn't give a s---," says Askren, about his stance toward White and the UFC during that time. "[Fighting in Asia] wasn't the path I thought my life was gonna take, but it also taught me a lot of things.

"And I fight in a cage for money. Some people try to make that into a noble profession. It's not. For me, it was like, 'Well, this is what I do. I fight people.' I was getting paid to fight people over there, and I was getting paid really well."

In late 2017, Askren announced his retirement from MMA at age 33. He'd made a lot of money, and he was leaving a dangerous sport virtually unscathed.

But Askren left one door open. While he did formally retire, it came with a caveat that he would come back for one thing: a chance to prove he truly was the best.

In October, the UFC and One Championship announced an unprecedented trade, which brought Askren into the UFC in exchange for longtime flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.

Askren says he never completely gave up on the idea of competing in the UFC, but he never could have fathomed the way in which it came about.

Within a month, Askren had called out nearly every UFC welterweight ranked in the top 10, as well as undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. He has promised the creation of a new, 165-pound weight class (something White has adamantly said will never happen).

"There will be [a 165-pound division]," Askren says with a smirk. "Bank on it."

And what will it mean if he falls flat? If Askren goes out and loses his UFC debut to Lawler on Saturday, would it prove any of his naysayers over the last decade correct? That he was never that good the entire time, and his record was the result of weak competition?

Askren shrugs at the notion. Failing to reach a goal is one thing. Never knowing is quite another.

"I always thought I was one of the best in the world at wrestling, and I failed at the opportunity," Askren said. "This is another chance, and I'm probably not getting any more after this.

"A lot of people fail in life. Having that feeling where you never know, and you always wanted the opportunity, that is like ... I learned to let it go, because I couldn't control it, and I think it's unhealthy to have emotions about things you can't control. But it's one of those things that can really puzzle you and make you wonder. I think it's going to feel good to put some closure to that."