LAS VEGAS (AP) — Ben Askren survived an opening-minute beating and rallied to choke out Robbie Lawler midway through the first round at UFC 235 on Saturday night.
The 34-year-old Askren’s UFC debut and unbeaten record almost ended abruptly when Lawler picked him up, dropped him on his head and battered him with punches that left Askren badly bloodied. Askren survived and eventually gained position on Lawler with a bulldog choke.
Lawler was furious when referee Herb Dean stopped the bout, insisting he was fine in the choke. Some cageside observers thought Lawler was unconscious, but he sprung out of the stoppage.
The outspoken Askren (19-0), a former U.S. Olympic wrestler, joined the UFC late last year after a decade fighting in other promotions and sparring with UFC President Dana White on social media. The UFC surprisingly added him to its roster last year, trading former flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson to the One Championship promotion.
“Dana, is that the best you’ve got? Bring it, baby,” Askren said after beating Lawler.
Lawler, the former welterweight champion and crowd-pleasing brawler, was fighting for the first time since December 2017 after tearing a knee ligament in his loss to Rafael Dos Anjos.
The pay-per-view card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas also includes welterweight champion Tyron Woodley’s defense against Kamaru Usman and light heavyweight champ Jon Jones against Anthony Smith.
Former UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt took his third straight loss in the PPV opener, getting stopped by Pedro Munhoz in the final seconds of the first round after their fight turned into an all-out brawl.
Earlier, Brazilian light heavyweight Johnny Walker injured his shoulder while doing a celebratory Worm after stopping Misha Cirkunov with a spectacular flying knee in the opening minute.
Diego Sanchez, the 37-year-old champion of the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” earned his second straight victory with a second-round stoppage of Mickey Gall.