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FEATURE: Ben Askren opens up his wide-open style with quarterfinal win



There are fans that enjoy watching wrestling, the skill and determination and toughness that is required to be a champion. Then there are wrestlers who are showmen, the kind of athletes who people pay the price of admission to see.

Ben Askren of Missouri is one of those wrestlers.

It has to do with much more than his funky style of wrestling, or the wild hair he tends to display, or the laid back but outspoken style he uses when talking the sport. Ben Askren of Missouri is a wrestler's wrestler, a mat rat, a lifer, somebody who is more comfortable in a wrestling room and on the championship mat than anywhere else in the world.

"I enjoy wrestling. It is my life. I don't always enjoy training, but I enjoy going into the room, playing, learning new things. I love the diversity of this sport. I never stop learning new stuff, all the time. My brother and I say that when learning stops, you stop getting better.

Ben Askren has dominated wrestlers all year, scoring pins and technical falls in a dizzying pace. Yet this year, at the NCAA Tournament, his first two wins were not in the style that people expect.

His first match was a 9-2 win over Christian Arellano of Cal State Bakersfield. Then came his second round 6-4 decision over Wes Roberts of Oklahoma.

However, this morning, Ben Askren showed up. The Ben Askren that all the fans know, and love, and cheer for, regardless of what college they attended or where they live in the nation.

"I wasn't happy yesterday. I was frustrated. I don't think I had two decisions in a day forever. I shook it off. This morning when I got up, I knew it was a new day of wrestling. I went after it today," said Askren.

The unlucky victim of Askren's renewed vigor was Lehigh's Travis Frick, a very tough, hard-nosed wrestler who gives everybody a hard match. Everybody except for a motivated Ben Askren.

Askren put on a takedown clinic in the first period, opening up a variety of shots and finishes for three takedowns. The first came when Frick had Askren's leg, but Ben dove underneath the hold and came out on top on the other side. For extra measure, he drove Frick over, figure-foured his head with the legs, and got three backpoints for a 9-3 lead in the first period.

The second period was highlighted by another takedown, then two cradles for backpoints. Each cradle was from a different angle, going in a different direction. By the end of the period, the score was 17-3. The third period did not last long, another leg attack takedown to get the technical fall. The final score was 19-3, ending in 5:13. Askren had reached his third semifinal round of his career with the victory.

"I got a good warmup. I wanted to get rolling, and I did that. My takedowns come from not thinking. I let my body take over. That does the job," said Askren.

Askren always wants to push the envelope, challenge himself, get the fall or technical fall. That is why Thursday's performance had Ben so motivated to open the floodgates today.

"Finishing it off is my goal every match. I am never satisfied if I let it go the full seven minutes. I wrestle as hard as I can, and try all my moves. I push, push, push to get better. Some guys never get better than they were as freshmen, because they are satisfied winning by one point. If I win by one point, I wouldn't be at the level I am at now," said Askren.

Askren really didn't seem to care if he was wrestling Frick, or somebody from the audience, or the national champion from Afghanistan. Ben Askren just likes to wrestle, and wrestle his own unique way.

"I never worry about what he does," said Askren of any opponent. "A lot of people watch tape to study the opponent. I watch tape of myself, and what I do well. And I watch tape of the great wrestlers in history to see what they do well."

Some journalists want to talk to Askren about his hair, or his style and demeanor. Ben politely answers all the questions about how and why he expresses himself in public. Today, he actually had to talk about why he doesn't like wearing headgear, and how long it has been since his last haircut. But his eyes light up when you ask him a wrestling question, anything about the sport that he cherishes.

Askren is a wrestling historian, and can tell you anything about the sport that you want to hear. In fact, the when he thinks about wrestlers that he wants to emulate, that he patterns his style after, you have to look far outside the U.S. border.

"I think I am like the Saitiev brothers of Russia," said Askren. "They are exciting. There style is similar to mine, but a little different than my folkstyle wrestling. Their freestyle is similar to mine. I aspire to be like them. They have won multiple World and Olympic medals," said Askren.

Now that the Ben Askren everybody knows seems to be "flowing" as he puts it, you can expect that there may be some more matches that resemble a pinball machine. His opponent in the semifinals is another tough athlete who has more of a conventional wrestling style, Mike Patrovich of Hofstra.

It offers another opportunity for Askren to show that Thursday's results are ancient history. Keep the camera on. If the quarterfinals is any indication of the rest of the tournament for Askren, ESPN will need to send the highlight tapes to Bristol, Conn. for SportCenter tonight and tomorrow.


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