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Hodge Trophy winner Askren has high hopes for U.S. Nationals



LAS VEGAS - He's an undersized 185-pound freestyle wrestler who is the No. 7 seed in his weight class.

But don't try telling Ben Askren he's an underdog entering Saturday's U.S. Nationals at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The reigning Hodge Trophy winner and NCAA champion from Missouri is supremely confident when he steps on the wrestling mat. No matter which opponent he is facing.

"I'm the favorite in my mind," Askren said. "I will wrestle with the same mindset I had during the college season. I expect to win every time I go out there. That's the approach I've always used."

That approach served Askren well during a remarkable 45-0 junior season at 174 pounds. He recorded 25 pins en route to becoming Missouri's first national champion.

The massive afro that Askren sported during the NCAA meet is gone now. He had his hair trimmed the week after nationals.

"I'm enjoying the shorter hair now," Askren said with a smile.

One thing he didn't have to cut this week was weight. Askren's natural weight is 182. He said he plans to compete internationally at 74 kg/163 pounds when his college career ends.

As good as he is in folkstyle, Askren may be even better in freestyle. He was a Junior National champion in freestyle and placed fifth in the 2005 World Team Trials. He won the Pan American Championships last year and was sixth at the 2004 Olympic Trials.

"I think freestyle is more of a thinking man's style," he said. "In folkstyle, you take the guy down when you're on your feet, you turn the guy when you're on top and you escape when you're on bottom. In freestyle, you can go for a turn when you're on your feet and do a lot of cool things like that. I really enjoy freestyle."

Since Askren didn't compete in the Qualification Tournament on Friday, by virtue of being one of the top eight seeds at 185 pounds, he did a little bit of coaching. One of the wrestlers he sat in the corner for was his younger brother, Max, who competed at 96 kg/211.5 pounds in freestyle.

Max Askren redshirted this past season. He is expected to make an immediate impact nationally next season as a freshman 197-pounder for Missouri.

"Max is doing great - he's improved tremendously and he has amazing potential," Ben said. "He has a great work ethic and loves those long practices and wrestling for a long period of time like I do. I'm excited to see what he can do in college."

Rolling around with Max in the room helped top-seeded Ben Askren roll to a lopsided win over No. 2 seed Jake Herbert of Northwestern in the NCAA finals.

"I had a really easy time scrambling with Herbert because of working out with Max," Ben said. "Max was the biggest reason I did so well in that match. No one else in the nation is as good a scrambler as Max. Scrambling against him every day has helped me a lot. He really pushes me. I don't want to lose to my brother, so I have to stay on top of my game."

It's not just his wild hair that has stamped Askren as a fan favorite. His aggressive, wide-open, attacking style also is appealing.

"I hope it catches on more and we see more of it," he said. "I try to have fun out there and put on a good show when I compete. I've always wrestled that way."

Askren said he's been so busy since the end of his whirlwind college season he hasn't had much time to reflect on the magical year he pieced together for Missouri.

"All the recognition I've received is nice," he said. "Now I've turned my focus to the freestyle season. I've had a couple real good weeks of training. I'm ready to go."
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