Ben Askren got smoked at Beat the Streets, but wrestling is alive and well

NEW YORK – With over 600 local wrestlers gathered at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Monday night for the annual Beat the Streets benefit, you can very well picture the scene. It was a theater full of stone features with improbable stumps for necks. There was a healthy amount of people spitting tobacco juice into plastic soda bottles. Fathers and sons (and even a few daughters) gave themselves away through a connection of cruciferous ears, signaling years of grinding ear cartilage into mats.

It was a literal ground zero for the singlet. Things got a little rowdy.

And really, the crowd wasn’t necessarily there to see Ben Askren compete against Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs in the main event. Most of them were there to see Nick Suriano, a kid from Rutgers, and Yianni Diakominhalis from Cornell, Kyle Snyder, Patrick Brucki — the meat of today’s wrestling classes smashing into each other for a cause. The UFC? Just a fun zone in some other dimension. This was all about the essence of the mat — the core of the enterprise.

When Pope John XXIII’s JoJo Aragona and Adam Busiello toppled over the apron and into the first round of spectators before, it was as loud as it would ever get last night. Turns out that bloodthirst isn’t an MMA patent so much as a national pastime.

The fans rallied around the cause. Beat the Streets’ mission is to “cultivate youth development in underserved communities,” and the benefactors are big on bringing out teamwork and integrity in its intended targets. Throughout the 13 matches, there were many ceremonies. The word “champion” was used perhaps three million times, because everyone involved is decorated (or well on their way to being decorated). The wrestling world is full of achievers. Kids got up and read what Beat the Streets means to them. Henry Cejudo, a BTW alum, was honored as well, and he gave a short speech about all the good the foundation does before reminding everyone he’s fighting on June 8.

The crowd loved hearing about the success of one of their own.

You wouldn’t expect a wrestling event to be as intimate, nor as lively; there was a drum line early on, with a women’s dance team, which put people into the mood for some double legs. It was tense. Every time there was a leg lace in the heat of the competition, a thousand people scooched up in their seats. Wrestling is a different world. People boo some of this stuff in MMA, yet wrestling fans eat it up when points are being tallied by the “traffic cop” in the scenario, which is what our man on the mic called the referee.

Sitting close to the action was a smattering of wrestling royalty. Randy Couture, Kenny Monday, Dan Gable, even Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who wrestled at Harvard back in the day. They were all there to support what the emcee reassured us was the “world’s greatest and oldest sport.” And it was all leading to Askren and Burroughs, a kind of lark for Askren who has a fight lined up with Jorge Masvidal at UFC 239 in July. Askren loves wrestling like the San Diego Comic Con’s love The Avengers. He was donating his purse/proceeds to the cause, just there to help his native sport along.

It wasn’t a lark for the four-time world champion Burroughs, who shined at the University of Nebraska and has more world championships than the master of ceremonies could get through. The whole thing was over in a few minutes.

Askren, the much bigger wrestler, pawed at Burroughs with his hands for only a few brief moments before Burroughs bull-rushed him. It happened so suddenly that I only caught the figure of Ben Askren disappearing off the apron and into the front row of bystanders below. He was here, then he was gone. The crowd, not immune to the thrill that somebody could break their neck in such a fashion, let out a spastic roar. The emcee egged on those same bystanders to catch any toppling figures that might come their way, as if they were human foul balls.

My thought: I hope Askren didn’t just die. He didn’t, but Burroughs scored a point for the step back. Moments later Burroughs was torpedoing in on Askren’s legs like he were made of straw. That was four more points. Right as the emcee was running down some of Burroughs’ accomplishments over the PA — “…he began 69-0, and won the world title less than a month after breaking his ankle…” — Burroughs was taking Askren down again. This time for two points. Then two more for a near fall. Another double leg, and that would be curtains for Askren, the wrestling champion who hadn’t competed in nearly a decade.

Askren survived the period, which gave the emcee occasion to relay an anecdote about a conversation he had with Askren at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in which the man they call “Funky” allegedly told him that he put the chin in China. He may well have, but Askren didn’t put on much resistance in the second. Burroughs landed another double leg, and that was that. Burroughs was declared the winner by technical superiority. Nobody seemed disappointed by the one-sidedness of the match, but rather bemused by its inevitability.

The people paid to see exactly what they saw. Which was the present overpowering the past tense.

Burroughs was the colossus he was advertised to be, and Askren — game as ever, but overmatched — played the good sport. Afterwards he said that Burroughs was trying to kill him. That looked to be the case. Burroughs wasn’t messing around in there. He came to win. As for Burroughs, he pointed out that while Askren was doing it for showmanship, he was doing it to feed his family. Such nobility wasn’t lost on the gathered.

It was fast and easy, well attended and well run. The Beat the Streets is a pretty cool event, and the culture of wrestling is alive and well. On the way out I saw a man no younger than 75 years old wearing a shirt with the old adage, “No Guts, No Glory, No Legends, No Story.” Somehow that image, and that message, felt very much like the spirit of whatever just took place.

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