SINGAPORE: After over a year of competitive inactivity in the mixed martial arts (MMA) cage, ONE Welterweight Champion Ben Askren will be back in action at ONE: Dynasty of Heroes at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on May 26.
The American will put his undefeated record on the line against unbeaten contender Agilan Thani, who has competed three times since Askren’s absence from competition.
However, 32-year-old Askren is still the overwhelming favourite, with his decades of experience in wrestling. A two-time NCAA Division I Wrestling Champion and former Olympian, Askren also has 15 straight wins in his unblemished MMA career.
The accomplished wrestler believes his experience will prevail in the bout against Thani. "It does not matter what my opponent's strengths and weaknesses are, because at the end of the day, I have got the trump card," said Askren.
"If he can't stop my wrestling - and he can't - then he is going to be on his back, and he is going to get beaten up."
Although he has not been as active as Thani, who has seven wins and no losses so far, Askren has faced numerous MMA contenders from around the world and none has been successful.
Since entering ONE Championship in 2014, the ground game specialist has never looked like he was in trouble. He has picked up a pair of first-round finishes and, most recently, a dominant five-round decision over Nikolay Aleksakhin at ONE: Global Rivals in April 2016.
In just his second bout for the organization, he took the belt from Nobutatsu Suzuki in under 90 seconds.
"Once they are on their back, they only have one choice, and that is to fight off their back," Askren notes. "Usually, it is just not enough. And by usually, I mean it always is never enough."
Malaysia’s Agilan Thani, however, refused to concede the pre-bout mind games before facing the Evolve MMA wrestler. Also with an undefeated record himself, the Kuala Lumpur native’s quest to end Askren’s title reign began as soon as the contest was announced.
“Most people put him way up there in their minds, so they have low self-esteem about themselves and do not believe in what they can do,” the 21-year-old challenger explained. “The key to fighting somebody good is your mind. You have to stay strong and believe in whatever you have.”
Thani’s toughest battles came long before his martial arts training, or even stepping inside the cage for an actual match-up. As a child, he fought against the challenges of bullying and obesity.
After climbing over those hurdles and becoming a MIMMA Welterweight Champion in Malaysia’s amateur mixed martial arts ranks, the Monarchy MMA product made his professional debut in December 2013 which he won via technical knock-out (TKO).
Thani continued racking up victories and joined ONE Championship, where he has established himself in the promotion’s welterweight division. To date, he owns a perfect 7-0 record, with four wins coming by submission and three more via TKO.
The Malaysian’s thirst for more reached a boiling point following ONE: Throne of Tigers in February. Once “The Alligator” overcame Taiwanese combatant Jeff Huang via a rear-naked choke in the second round, he demanded a title shot at Askren’s gold.
“I have been competing in ONE Championship for two years now,” he says. “I have been winning all the time and finished my opponents, and I wanted to fight someone better than Jeff," said Thani.
"I do not want to keep facing pretenders.”
Aware of Thani’s enthusiasm to win the welterweight belt off of him, Askren simply brushed away the notion. "A lot of people have been excited to get their shot.”
“But once they get into the cage and realize what they are really in for, their excitement levels drops,” said Askren.