LAS VEGAS – For the first time before their boxing match, Ben Askren was in the presence of Jake Paul. It started backstage at the Venetian where Paul, accompanied by his posse, talked trash to Askren while he sat alone at a table. All Askren did in that moment was stare back and hold back laughter.
Soon after that came the press conference for their Triller Fight Club pay-per-view headliner on April 17. Askren and Paul sat across from each other on stage with only boxing analyst Al Bernstein between them.
If you thought Askren didn’t understand the YouTube star’s appeal before, 25 minutes of verbal sparring didn’t do Paul any favors.
“Kind of what I think of his jokes, he always picks the lowest hanging fruit,” Askren told MMA Junkie afterward. “There’s not really any high-level thinking or high-level trash talk. It’s literally the lowest level of stuff, like the Masvidal thing. Do you think I’ve not seen the Masvidal thing a million times?”
The “Masvidal thing” was the moment during the press conference when Paul called Jorge Masvidal on FaceTime. Paul recently turned to the UFC welterweight for training, viewed as gamesmanship by Paul since Masvidal knocked out Askren with a flying knee in a UFC-record five seconds in July 2019.
After Masvidal’s brief appearance, Paul then pulled up the clip of the flying knee and played it on loop, which Askren called out for being a lame attempt at trying to get inside his head.
“A hundred responses to every tweet I do has that GIF on there – or is it a meme? Whatever the f*ck it is,” Askren said. “I don’t know if he thought that was gonna bug me. That was bad.”
And that about sums up what Askren thought of Paul’s performance on stage. When it was all over, they had a faceoff that got physical, with Askren facepalming Paul, who retaliated with a tap to the ribs and shove as Askren’s back was turned.
“You could tell he was trying to talk himself into being really tough,” Askren said of the actual faceoff. “He came back kind of at me, just kind of pushed him away as I left. He didn’t really like that.”
‘This stuff is probably a thing of the past’
Askren, 36, has been open about the fact that he came out of retirement to box Paul because he’s receiving the biggest payday of his career and he views it as easy work – he even threatened “homicide” against Paul if they were to meet in an alley.
Those two factors made the decision a no-brainer for Askren, who had hip replacement surgery last year.
Askren always has handled the trash talking aspect of the fight game well, able to dish it out with the best of them. Dealing with a 24-year-old YouTube star, though, got him thinking a little.
“A little bit of me is like, ‘OK, it’s time to grow up, Ben,’” Askren said. “Also obviously my other thing is podcasting and I coach kids wrestling, and so there’s a little bit of (this) that seems, especially with him, that feels really immature and childish. I don’t know, (fighting Paul) just seemed like too fun of an opportunity to pass up, so that’s why I said yes. Obviously I’m being compensated well, so that’s nice, too.
“But, yeah, this stuff is probably a thing of the past for me or getting close to being a thing of the past.”
MMA vs. boxing?
Askren, a former Olympian and two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler, was never known for his striking during his MMA career in which he won titles at Bellator and ONE Championship. That makes him a perfect opponent for Paul, who’s adamant that he’s taking his newfound boxing career seriously.
Paul has touted Askren as “a real fighter” given his MMA accomplishments, while also acknowledging that Askren’s boxing ability leaves a lot to be desired. In that sense, Paul – who’s fought only three other celebrities – believes a win over Askren will legitimize him and hopefully lure more MMA fighters – such as Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz and Dillon Danis – to take a fight with him in the future.
Askren, who recently sought a week of training with famed boxing coach Freddie Roach, admits his preparation for the Paul fight has been “a whole new ballgame.” But as for any MMA vs. boxing narrative, you can kill that noise.
“I just don’t really see it,” Askren said. “A lot of people are trying to push, especially Jake’s trying to push that narrative. I think maybe it’s because he wants the Conor (McGregor) fight or whatever it is. … He’s selling to the public as though he’s in this for a while. I don’t know. I’m done with that.”