On Friday, Ben Askren will defend his ONE Championship welterweight title against Agilan Thangalapani. The challenger is 7-0 and currently ranked #204 at middleweight. During his six-fight ONE career, he has fought fighters with the following records: 0-1, 2-2, 3-6, 3-1, 4-5 and 6-2. This is what a title challenger looks like in a promotion run by people who publicly say things like, “If Conor McGregor was a free agent, ONE Championship would not try to sign him.”
Askren left Bellator in 2013 and signed with ONE the following year. During his Bellator run, he went 9-0, won the promotion’s welterweight title and defended it four times. At the time, many expected the Olympic wrestler to sign with the UFC. He even posted on Twitter, “I am now free to go to the UFC and beat whoever I want.” Instead, fans were treated to a never-ending war of words between Askren and UFC president Dana White.
During his time in ONE, his ranking has fallen from #6 welterweight in 2013 all the way to #50 in the current ranking release. This is partially due to inactivity, but his lack of quality opponents is the main impetus for the drop.
In 2014, Askren made his ONE debut with a first-round submission victory over Bakhtiyar Abbasov. He then returned and bested Nobutatsu Suzuki for the promotion’s welterweight title. The following year, he fought to a no contest with Luis Santos after Askren landed an accidental eye poke. The two were supposed to rematch, but Santos missed weight and ate too much brunch, so the fight never materialized. Last year, Askren defeated Nikolay Aleksakhin.
The following chart shows the contemporary, that is at the time, and career-high ranking points of all of Askren’s opponents in Bellator and ONE. Ranking points are the result of the Fight Matrix statistical model. The more points a fighter has, the higher the fighter is ranked. You can find more information here. As you can see, with the exception of Santos, Askren’s opponents in ONE do not really stack up.
On one hand, it is hard to blame Askren for not seeking out tougher competition. For all intents and purposes, he was effectively blackballed by the UFC. By all accounts, he makes a decent living fighting for ONE. On the other hand, he has spent a large part of his prime fighting lesser competition.
Since ONE debuted in 2011, they have always brought plenty of sound and fury, but, from a talent acquisition perspective, the noise has signified nothing. Their level of talent remains virtually identical, and they have never been a big player in free agency. Overall, the promotion seems more concerned with generating positive press, expanding into new markets and raking in venture capital like Bitmoji. While this has worked for them in the short term, eventually they will need to either sign high level competitors or develop them from scratch.