Maybe we can all learn something from Ben Askren

THE GOLF CART is already moving when the driver, Ben Askren, waves his hand for me to get in. The tour of the Funky Farms ranch has begun.

It’s a wild, rocky ride over 11 acres of property 20 miles east of Milwaukee. Funky Farms is tucked into a suburban Wisconsin neighborhood, but there are enough woods surrounding it to make you forget that you’re walking distance from a Target and a Noodles & Company.

Askren is zipping through his property in late July, up and down hills, over stumps and sticks, and past tree swings and kids toys. Nestled among it all is Askren’s pride and joy: his 18-hole disc golf course. The 18 holes average 75-100 yards long apiece and sprawl across most of the property. Askren recently hosted a celebrity pro-am and is considering a run at turning pro himself now that his fighting days are done. He’s a highly ranked disc golf amateur who is probably good enough to qualify if he hits more events.

A kid who has come over to mow the grass calls Askren over to let him know he hit a stump with the mower and the blade is grounded. “Again?!” Askren yells in mock frustration.

As Askren lays on the ground grunting, trying to uproot the blade from the grass, he jokingly barks out, “Were you daydreaming about your girlfriend again?” before he hulks it up and back into place. It’s all playful — there’s nothing on earth that Askren loves more than cruising around his property, tending to the disc course, hacking down trees and goofing on the workers.

But… how? Almost every part of his life has been paid for by two of the most embarrassing, meme-able moments in the history of sports. He is single-handedly responsible for giving boxing credibility to Jake Paul, who, after flattening Askren in April, will fight former UFC champion Tyron Woodley on Sunday. And Askren’s epic five-second fail against bitter rival Jorge Masvidal will live on forever in the GIF Hall of Shame. Shouldn’t there be sadness around every corner?

From above the whir of his golf cart engine, Askren shakes his head and says, “We’ve all taken bad L’s in life. I took two really bad ones. I don’t care if you remember me by those.”

Most of us need a week to recover after finding out we had something stuck in our teeth on a work Zoom call. Askren can’t pound out a harmless Bitcoin hype tweet without an immediate string of Jake Paul mentions and shots of him knocked out cold by Masvidal. His most public losses follow him like a shadow, and always will. Only an android could process humiliation in the way that Askren is claiming. This has to be some kind of performative nonchalance, right? But if it isn’t, how can we all incorporate a bit of Ben Askren into our own lives?

He mentions the recent viral quote from Giannis Antetokounmpo, who said after his epic Game 4 block of Deandre Ayton in the NBA Finals that ego is living off past accomplishments, pride is tied up in expectations and fear about the future, and humility is rooted in living right here, right now. That is the ideal we should all be embracing, Askren says. “I’ve been sending that to everybody I know. That’s how you should live your life. It’s how I live mine.”

But before he can get too existential, Askren slams down the golf cart brake. He is apparently not an emotionless android, because right now he’s pissed. He marches over and lifts up the small rectangular mat that covers one of the course’s tee boxes. “Freaking groundhogs are back,” he mutters.

Askren has spent way more time this summer worrying about the local woodchucks than the barrage of dunk attempts that accompany his every social media move. One of his former pupils from the Askren Wrestling Academy — Keegan O’Toole, now a sophomore at Missouri — volunteered a few months ago to take care of them. O’Toole and some other AWA kids came out, dropped smoke bombs down four different holes, waited and … nothing. Askren loved their misfire — he has thick skin and expects you to, as well. (For the record, it’s legal for landowners to hunt groundhogs on their own property in Wisconsin.) Even his kids sometimes throw a burn his way, and cap it with Askren’s favorite mic drop when he’s goofing on someone: “Boom, roasted.”

He went to groundhog removal option No. 2, and let’s just say, it did not involve a farm for other unwanted rodents. A friend’s brother trapped them in cages and, within 24 hours, the four groundhogs were gone. “He makes them into hats,” Askren says.

Hats? That seems kind of sad. They’re God’s creatures, aren’t they?

“I’m not religious,” he says. “But even if there was a God, he’d hate groundhogs, too.”

THERE ARE MANY THEORIES about the Jake Paul fight. Most of them were birthed from a single photo of Askren and his wife, Amy, with their arms around each other and laughing as they left the ring minutes after Askren lost to Paul.

Fight fans were enraged. Did Askren throw the fight? Did he not care? Did he just take the money and barely try? How could he have trained and looked like he did that night?

He laughs at all those theories. He says he did train hard, that he did care, that he’s had a dad-bod his whole life. He says he just got beat. That’s it. Jake Paul won.

He admits he made a terrible underestimation of Paul’s boxing skills, and also badly overestimated his own. In the run-up to the fight, Askren insisted that he’d drag Paul to the deep end of the pool, tire him out and beat him up. He shared the conventional wisdom of most fight experts: Askren’s striking wasn’t great, but a former Olympian with three months of training, plus a 19-2 pro MMA career and decades of breaking the will of wrestlers was simply a different level of athlete than Jake Paul, who’d never competed in anything past high school. He was way, way off. To steal a phrase from Askren, he got boom, roasted.

“No excuses,” he says. “I lost to a YouTuber. I have to own that. I trained really hard for the fight. I don’t know what else you want me to say. I’ve been rocked twice in my entire fighting career, including practice, and unfortunately, Jake Paul was one of those times. Wouldn’t it be so much easier for me if I blamed an injury or said I didn’t try?”

He’s not wrong. He probably would be better off saying he just wanted the $500,000 paycheck, or that he had a hip replacement surgery nine months before the Paul fight. Isn’t it human nature to search long and hard for a place to point the finger when we flop? Doesn’t a part of all of us stumble and look back in disgust at whatever jerk decided to put that curb there on the side of the road?

That instinct seems especially prevalent in the minds of combat athletes. It takes a complex mix of ego, fear and bravado to walk into a ring or get locked into a cage with just one other person to unleash violence. When the outcome is bad, fighters often fall back on stories to explain their losses — stories that make them feel better about a loss, and make us feel better about them feeling better. Even fighters who admit defeat often throw in a caveat: “He/she was the better fighter tonight.” Tomorrow would be a different story.

After his most recent loss, Conor McGregor immediately made the case that his broken foot was actually a problem the whole time leading into the fight, that he gave it a shot anyway on our behalf. When Paulo Costa lost to Israel Adesanya last September, he first said he had been hungover after drinking too much wine the night before the fight. Then he pivoted to saying he’d suffered an injury before the fight. Either way, he wants a rematch.

So Askren says he did care, but he represents a fascinating case study on the notion of athletes and caring. Most fans expect athletes to care deeply, in a very specific way. To train hard, to compete hard, to be furious when they lose. There should be mourning. Laughing and moving on is fine — eventually — but not for a while. We don’t really love the postgame jersey swaps and locker room congratulations from the losing side because we’re grieving, and you should be, too. To lose like Askren did and then smile about it minutes later with his wife? How dare he? We’re those dog owners who rub their pet’s face in accidents on the kitchen floor.

That’s the part he doesn’t get. He’s embarrassed that he lost to Jake Paul. But he doesn’t understand the expectation that he should put his humiliation in a backpack and carry it around with him. He’s big on phrases like “You’re responsible for the effort, not the outcome.”

So that brings him back to The Photo. What could possibly have been funny about how that night turned out? Amy says as they left the ring, they both felt pangs of sadness but also incredulousness. He’d just made $500,000 for a boxing match — boxing! — while Snoop Dogg and Mario Lopez — AC Slater! — did commentary, right after Justin Bieber — Biebs! — did a live performance. “Aren’t our lives amazing,” she told him, and they laughed together as cameras zeroed in on them. Asken fired back that they made a helluva lot of money, too.

“Ben thinks about losing to a YouTuber different than most people,” Amy says. “He tells kids if you want to chase something, you should go do it without fear of losing. He thinks that’s a stupid reason to not do something. He’s Exhibit A of that.”

She mentions the Giannis quote — Askren really did send it to everybody he’s ever met, apparently — as the ideal blend of devoting yourself to something but accepting when it doesn’t work out. As she talks, their three kids are all hanging from a wild bunk bed setup in the basement. The beds are there for climbing, not sleeping (all three kids do gymnastics or wrestling, or both). Right next to the bed is the bottom of one of those big, curvy, enclosed slides you see on many playgrounds — something both Amy and Ben thought would be fun for the kids. The slide’s opening is stashed inside a hutch between the kitchen and dining room upstairs, so the kids will oftentimes duck out from dinner, open up the hutch doors and slide down to play in the basement.

It’s hard to look at 8-year-old Andi, 5-year-old Alex and 3-year-old Ozzi Askren and not wonder about the toxic fallout awaiting them, whether looping on TikTok and Twitter, or via brain implants and holographic phones embedded in their wrists. Every boyfriend, girlfriend, coworker, friend and enemy will have access to something most of us would be mortified of. “That will make them tougher,” Amy says. “An embarrassing meme … I don’t think it matters. It would help them build thick skin.”

A few minutes later, Askren’s mom, Michele, shows up to take the kids. Grandma Askren walks them out to the car and starts to buckle them in. She closes Ozzi’s door and waves goodbye as she opens the driver’s side door to depart Funky Farms. Right before she closes it, she turns around.

“You know, if you want to understand Ben, and why the Jake Paul thing won’t ever be an issue for him, there’s a really good quote that pretty much summarizes his mentality. It’s from Giannis…”

ON THE MONDAY after the Jake Paul loss, some parents were surprised when they saw the giant, black F-1 pickup truck of Ben Askren pull up outside the Askren Wrestling Academy branch in Delafield, Wisconsin. But there it was.

“Most guys wouldn’t have wanted to show their faces for a few weeks,” says Colleen Wolbert, who has taken four of her six kids to train under Askren at AWA. “He did lose in a relatively embarrassing fashion. But he just dove right back in. I know he fielded questions about it from the kids, but he just said you keep going, you don’t let it define you.”

The next chapter of Askren’s life will involve being a teacher, not an athlete. He’s done wrestling and fighting, but he is hoping his mentality will live on in a barrage of future champions. He has five branches of AWA in Illinois and Wisconsin, instructing hundreds of young boys and girls who will have an impact on the next generation of American and Olympic wrestling and, most likely, MMA.

The first wave has already begun: Several AWA alums had impactful freshman wrestling seasons in college, with O’Toole finishing third at NCAAs. The AWA kids are coming, and they think a lot like Askren does.

It’s fair to wonder whether Askren might be a unicorn, if his mindset might not actually be teachable. And it’s too early to tell, for sure, but the early results are promising.

Askren teaches a philosophy identical to how he wrestled and lives. His nickname has always been Funky because he is one of the originators of an edgy style of wrestling in which he puts himself in constant danger, having mastered both the technique and the mentality to be comfortable working from spots where most people would just give up points and move on. In wrestling and MMA, one wrong move and the bout is over.

He preaches to the AWA kids that the only way to walk through fear is to take risks on a regular basis. Expose yourself to danger and learn to live with the consequences. He doesn’t do any of the old-school yelling and screaming after losses. When wrestlers take calculated risks and fail, he gives them big hugs and tells them to do it again. It’s not that he wants his wrestlers to fail, but when they do, he sees opportunity for growth. “He’s played a huge role in my life, especially when I was struggling mentally and shying away from tough challenges,” O’Toole says. “I used to think in close matches, ‘This kid’s pretty tough and I tried my best,’ but Ben taught me to push myself and fight to the bitter end.”

One time when O’Toole was about 12, he told Askren he couldn’t compete in a big tournament because of an injury. Askren thought something else was going on. O’Toole eventually admitted he wasn’t injured, that he was just intimidated to be on such a big stage for the first time. “I told him, ‘That’s bullsh–, we don’t do that,'” Askren says. “We go and compete. If we lose, we lose. Whatever. I think that really freed him from anxiety.”

That’s a nice story and all, but that happened years before the Masvidal and Paul KOs. For kids who watched those fights, how could Askren not be diminished in their eyes? He has a counterintuitive response: “My losses make me more relatable to kids,” he says. “I’ve been more embarrassed than anybody. It gives me a trump card when I tell a kid to get over a loss.”

At a recent private lesson, four parents and their sons, ages 8-12, show up to work with Askren. They all say the same thing: They love that he lost the way he did. Alisa DeMarco says her son, Vince, isn’t just a different wrestler since he started working with Askren — he’s a different human being. Giving book reports, speaking in front of others, recovering from his worst moments — Vince learned to handle it all by seeing Askren refuse to be defined by his epic faceplants.

“I see the kids lose and maintain their composure and try again in a way that I can’t even do, as an adult,” DeMarco says. “It’s because Ben told them and then showed them that if you fail, even in front of millions of people in a way that would embarrass other people, you get back up and do it again.”

That’s when it really hits home that we might be asking the wrong questions about Ben Askren, and of ourselves every day. Askren stares just as hard at his losses as anybody else. But he’s not looking for the cost of the failure — he’s trying to find the value in it.

Last week, many of the kids from Askren’s main Wisconsin branch of AWA gathered for a watch party at the facility. An AWA alum was wrestling for a Junior World title in Ufa, Russia. Juniors is often a precursor to Olympic success, so the place was packed. Askren was at his home, in the middle of his weekly wrestling podcast on FloWrestling, so he did live commentary.

The AWA kid ran up five points in the first period, and just needed to hang on for the three-minute second period in order to bring home a gold medal. This is an old standby of wrestling — build a lead, circle the mat, run out the clock, win.

But that’s not how Askren students roll. With 90 seconds left and a six-point lead, the AWA kid initiated a wild exchange full of risk — and reward. He locked up a cradle, a rare technique in international wrestling but a staple of Askren’s teachings, and ended the match early, with an 11-0 technical stoppage.

Askren’s kids exploded at AWA, leaping up and down. Askren tries to take wins and losses in stride, but as he broadcasted live from the podcast booth in his basement, 20 feet away from his kids’ indoor slide, he couldn’t help but let out a big smile as he raised his arms in celebration: Keegan O’Toole was a world champ.

ASKREN POPS OPEN the protective lid on the side of his chainsaw. He comes out to the shed and grabs it when he wants to hack down some trees — especially the buckthorns. “Buckthorns are the worst tree ever,” Askren says, staring at the inner workings of his chainsaw. “They’re mostly invasive and they really hurt other trees.”

He can’t get the chain to grab properly and it keeps flopping off. He steps back and gives the chainsaw the middle finger. This is as close to therapy as he’ll ever get, and he’s fuming that he can’t start hacking away. He loves the coaching side of AWA, but he still ends up doing a lot of hiring and management stuff for the academies that he doesn’t love. “A lot of the things in my life right now, I’m in charge of and have really tough decisions to make that will affect people emotionally,” he says. “I have a lot of things to consider when making decisions. With the chainsaw, it’s just me and the tree, and the tree doesn’t have feelings.”

Askren’s academies occupy most of his time, and he has a role as both a founding father and a lead instructor. AWA enrollment is through the roof — the academy has gone from 50 total kids in 2013 to 650 in 2021 — but it’s not yet a booming moneymaker and may never be. But Askren says he can afford it: He has a nonstop stream of requests for private lessons, and he’s sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into Bitcoin, including $200,000 or so from the Jake Paul paycheck. He bought much of his Bitcoin when it was valued at $4,000, and now it’s in the $45,000 range, so he says he’s secure enough to break even at AWA for a while.

Askren eventually just gets a new chain to hook in, and he pulls on a goofy-looking safety helmet with a mask as he heads for his golf cart. Askren chews on a question about regret — it sure doesn’t seem like he feels any. “That’s not true,” he says. “I do occasionally think back on things I wish I could have done differently, but not for long. I don’t have a time machine so why would I waste time regretting it?”

There is one misstep that comes to mind more than any other, though — the Masvidal fight. He really believes if he would have avoided that first flying knee, he’d have won and gotten a UFC title shot. “I take him down and beat him up,” Askren says. “For sure. Easy. Every once in a while, I think, ‘F—, I should have got out of the way of the knee.’ But I can’t change it.”

He grabs the chainsaw and hops in the golf cart and starts trucking back through his yard to a buckthorn that is about to be flat-out murdered. As he nears the tree, two deer peek their heads up and take off running across one of his disc golf course fairways.

Askren works the tree over, limb by limb, sawing his way down to the base at a frantic pace. When he climbs back in the cart, he’s sweating and breathing hard, but he seems more relaxed. He pops the brake and hits the gas. “OK, I feel better now,” he says. “Hit me with more questions.”

Is he excited that Woodley, his good friend from their Missouri wrestling days, could possibly avenge his loss on Sunday? Askren shrugs. “Tyron is my friend, whether he wins or loses,” says Askren, who plans to watch the fight on TV. “I hope he wins. It would be great for him. It would be great for his life.”

A Woodley win would give him the title of Jake Paul-stopper, something most of society hoped Askren would earn. So has he helped out at all with Woodley’s training? Askren laughs out loud. “I can’t box,” he says. “What would I help him with?”

Askren is driving past the groundhog hole he’d spotted earlier when he slams on the golf cart brakes again. Clack-clack.

He gets out of the cart and stalks over to a spot in the grass and points an accusatory finger. He glares at the ground for a second before he comes back to the cart.

He unclacks the brake and starts driving again. He drives in silence for a minute before he finally mutters, “Another god damn groundhog hole.”

He parks the cart, throws the chainsaw on a counter and pulls off his helmet. He starts to walk into his house to grab a shower when he stops and stares back out into his yard in the direction of the new groundhog homes.

“A–holes.”

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