Duke Roufus, one of the game’s best striking coaches, says those folks are in for a surprise.
Wrestling is always going to be the staple for Askren, the Bellator welterweight champion and a member of Team USA in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing. But those who saw Askren in his early days could see an accomplished striker when he defends his title tonight at Bellator 64 in Windsor, Canada, against Douglas Lima.
“He has hammers for hands,” Roufus said. “I’ve sparred with Ben myself and I was unpleasantly surprised after getting hit by him. A lot of people sleep on Ben’s striking. He’s not an intimidating looking guy and he looks just like an average Joe. But believe me when I tell you, we have a lot of really good strikers at Roufusport and they’ll all attest that he’s a formidable opponent striking.”
Askren was 8-0 and already the Bellator champion when he started to work with Roufus in August. With a fight slated in two months, Roufus didn’t want to tear Askren’s game apart completely.
He added little touches as best he could to prepare Askren for his bout with Jay Hieron, which he won by split decision.
But with five months of work in the gym, Roufus said it will be a different man on display tonight.
“He’s got a great aptitude for fighting and he is one of those guys who, day after day, you see the improvement,” Roufus said. “He picks up on the little things real well and you can see it. It’s ridiculous how he picks up on things.”
Askren has worked assiduously to make himself into a complete fighter. He was devastated after losing in the Olympics and had a difficult time accepting it. He decided to try MMA, knowing that if he didn’t care for it, he could still continue preparations for the 2012 London Games.
And while he admittedly doesn’t have the passion for MMA that he had for wrestling, he decided last year to concentrate full-time on it. After a glorious wrestling career in which he won two high school state championships, two NCAA Division I championships at Missouri and represented his country in the Olympics, he knew it wouldn’t be easy to walk into another sport and have the same success.
As a competitor, though, he felt compelled to try. He’s one of the sport’s best wrestlers, clearly, but he’s become a brown belt already in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and his striking is coming on.
“I’ve wrestled my whole life and I worked a long time and very hard to get those [NCAA titles],” Askren said. “Obviously, that was the pinnacle of a lifetime of work. In MMA, I’m trying to do the same thing. I want to push myself every day and see how far I can take this.”
He faces a tough challenge in Lima, a Brazilian who trained with UFC veteran Brian Stann in Atlanta. Lima is a hard hitter who knocked out Ben Saunders in November in the welterweight tournament final to earn the shot at Askren.
Askren knows he has to respect Lima’s punching power, but Roufus pointed out that his fighter is a lot more versatile.
“I can go in my gym and find a guy who can do what Douglas Lima can do and we can give Ben work and get him ready,” Roufus said. “But where is Lima going to find a guy like Ben, with his level of wrestling and his level of jiu-jitsu and who punches as hard as Ben does? That’s a lot harder to find.”