While trading players between pro sports teams playing in the same league is common, it’s a practice that has never quite translated between promotions competing against each other.
According to Wednesday’s report from ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson could be on the verge of being granted a release from his contract in order to allow him to sign with Asia-based ONE Championship. In exchange, according to the proposed deal, UFC would acquire the rights to former ONE and Bellator MMA welterweight champion Ben Askren.
Both fighters are currently under contract with their respective promotions with multiple fights remaining on their deals. Askren (18-0, 1 NC) previously announced his retirement following his November 2017 win over Shinya Aoki with the caveat that he would only return for a dream fight against the likes of Georges St-Pierre, Tyron Woodley or Rory MacDonald.
Although the swap between promotions has not yet been finalized and hurdles reportedly still remain, talks have been ongoing. What has helped the process is the connection between Johnson (27-3-1) and his AMC Pankration head coach Matt Hume, who also serves as ONE’s vice president of operations.
In addition, Johnson (27-3-1) has long felt underpaid and under appreciated by his promoters and has clashed publicly with Dana White, including the UFC president’s open threats that he might shut down the 125-pound division. The 32-year-old Johnson was the lone flyweight champion in UFC history until his upset loss in August to Henry Cejudo via a disputed split decision in their rematch when Johnson persevered through a pair of injuries.
The loss snapped Johnson’s dominant 13-fight win streak which saw him achieve pound-for-pound No. 1 status and a seat at the table in the conversation of G.O.A.T. He also set a new UFC record with 11 consecutive title defenses.
The idea of the 34-year-old Askren, a former two-time NCAA wrestling champion, ever appearing in UFC seemed unlikely for years dating back to a 2012 Twitter spat in which White called him “the most boring fighter in MMA history.” One year later, following the end of Askren’s Bellator deal, White publicly denied him a chance to sign as a free agent.
Askren, who made four defenses of his Bellator 170-pound title before going on to do the same with ONE after signing in 2014, saw his UFC hopes dramatically increase in August when White, during a guest spot on the “UFC Unfiltered Podcast,” said he responded to a text from Askren and said he was willing to talk.
Askren further fueled rumors on Monday when he responded to a tweet from a fan asking if a UFC debut was in his future.
News of the potential trade spread quickly on social media and fueled creative ideas of what the future of MMA might look like should this become a practice more promoters are willing to consider.
What becomes of UFC’s flyweight division is unknown should the trade to come fruition. Supporting the idea that the weight class could be folded is talk that Cejudo’s return could be against current bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in 2019.
ONE made headlines in recent weeks by signing former Bellator and UFC star Eddie Alvarez to a multi-fight deal that “The Underground King” revealed was eight figures. Alvarez showed his support upon hearing the news of the Singapore-based promotion potentially signing a second big name.
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