Anyone who has read my book Love in the Time of Likes knows about my unhealthy relationship with social media. I waste so much time browsing aimlessly and get so worried about things I see that I would be a much healthier and happier person if I just threw my smartphone away, moved to the isolated plains of Oklahoma, found myself a fat little wife, and toiled away at a minimum wage job in blissful oblivion.
But I still haven’t done it, and I’m currently sick to my stomach.
The social media trend that has me overwrought is the public’s glee at seeing Ben Askren knocked to the brink of death at UFC 239. For a multitude of people, the result of the bout was poetic justice, a shit-talking fat guy who got what he had coming to him. For me, it was heartbreaking to see a hero lying asleep on the canvas, leg pointed lifelessly in the air as his opponent bashed the side of his unconscious face with reckless abandon.
You see, Ben Askren represents everything that I wish I were: tough, fearless, and unapologetically confident in everything about himself. He comes across as cocky to most people, and maybe he is. I’m not here to argue which side of the confident/cocky line Ben lies. However, if the verdict is cocky, it’s also important to remember that Ben is also playing a role. For all we talk about the importance of humility in sports, the bottom line is that humility doesn’t sell. Humility is boring. Professional wrestling figured this out decades ago. Create a feud, spend months “talking shit” back and forth, and you will sell out an arena, regardless of how the audience feels about the authenticity of the final product. To be able to play the heel with the very real possibility of getting sent to the hospital if you can’t cash the checks your mouth is writing takes a special kind of courage that most of us have never sniffed.
This is what makes Ben Askren a legend: he’s had this courage for years. People act like Jorge Masvidal “finally shut up Ben Askren.” What most don’t know is that long before Jorge Masvidal, Ben Askren was a funky, curly-headed kid who just couldn’t beat Chris Pendleton. That after Ben spent months telling the wrestling world that he was going to put the “chin” in China at the Beijing Olympics, he had to eat a big plate of crow when he laid an egg at The Games. That when Dana White wouldn’t give him a shot in the prime of his career, Ben was brazenly challenging every elite wrestler anywhere near his size to special bouts, eventually to get thumped by Clayton Foster. That just a couple of months ago, Ben got steamrolled by Jordan Burroughs in New York City after significant social media banter.
Through all of his “shameless self promotion,” Ben has given wrestling, a relatively obscure sport in the national media, unprecedented exposure. With all due respect to Cael Sanderson, Henry Cejudo, Kyle Dake, Kyle Snyder, and the numerous other wrestling stars this country has produced since the turn of the century, only Burroughs can rival the work Ben has done to bring wrestling to the mainstream. For that, we should all be most appreciative.
We should also appreciate the humanitarian that lies behind that brash, curly head. Ben came to Colorado when I was a kid and would spend hours “off the clock” rolling around and talking wrestling with a bunch of mediocre youth grapplers. A couple of years later, as I was being recruited for college wrestling, I unexpectedly received a call from Ben offering to use his connections to help me find a team. And a few years into my remarkably unremarkable college career, Ben stopped me at a tournament and said, “Hey, you’re that kid from Colorado, aren’t you? How’s it going?”
I personally hope that Ben decides to call it a career on competition. He doesn’t need to win anymore bouts to prove to me that he’s the greatest. I realize going out as the recipient of the fastest knockout in UFC history is by no means storybook, but Ben’s career has not been a fairytale. The story of The Great Ben Askren has had lots of typos, obscenities, and confusing leaps of logic, but it has been a damn entertaining one. That’s enough for me, sequel or not.