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Ben Askren, Mike Poeta play up Wisconsin-Illinois battle for upcoming Agon III

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The third Agon Wrestling Championships event is called a Festival of Funk, but it also could be named Border Battle.

Two of the headliners of Agon Wrestling III: Festival of Funk – Ben Askren, and Mike Poeta – generated some heat for their upcoming meeting on the mat Jan. 26 by playing up a Wisconsin vs. Illinois rivalry during a conference call and related media events Thursday.

Although he was a two-time NCAA champ for the University of Missouri, Askren referred to his Wisconsin mat roots… while Poeta, a two-time NCAA finalist at University of Illinois who is now on his alma mater’s coaching staff, made a strong case for wrestling in the Land of Lincoln.

"I am pumped to compete in front of a hometown Wisconsin crowd for the first time in over ten years," said Askren prior to Thursday’s conference call promoting Agon III, which will be held at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater next Saturday. "It is going to be amazing to compete on the same day with my brother and high school coach John Mesenbrink. With our AWA wrestlers competing the same day it should be a blast." (As with previous Agon events that have dovetailed with existing youth wrestling tournaments, Agon III will coincide with the already scheduled AWA Winter Classic.)

"Bringing Agon to my home state of Wisconsin is a dream come true,” said Askren, a two-time Wisconsin state champion at Arrowhead High who went to wrestle freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and become a mixed martial arts champion. “I can't wait to put on a show for the hometown crowd."

While incorporating MMA-style trash talk in promoting previous Agon events, Askren seemed to avoid that direction in talking up Agon III. However, his opponent Mike Poeta more than made up for that lack of fighting words from Askren in his pre-event comments.

"I am excited to wrestle Ben in front of his hometown crowd,” said Poeta. “I watched him at Agon I. I think he is overweight and slow. With my speed I can take advantage of that, no problem."

"Not only will I beat Ben in front of his hometown crowd, but my youth team is going to win most weights at the AWA Winter Classic,” Poeta continued. “Illinois kids are better than Wisconsin kids anyway you cut it."

Ben Askren didn’t completely abandon his traditional pre-event tough talk. However, this time, he directed it not at his next opponent, Mike Poeta, but the man he wanted to wrestle at Agon III, four-time NCAA champ for Cornell University, Kyle Dake.

"The plan was for me to originally wrestle Kyle Dake in #AGON3 in NY in his back yard but he was not up for the challenge," Askren Tweeted at @bensaskren.

“I am a person that loves challenges,” continued Askren, a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time champ. “I would even say I am the underdog going in to a match w/@kyledake444. I don’t know why he won’t wrestle me."

A Ben Askren-Kyle Dake match has been a major talking point with Agon officials since the venture was first revealed last summer. In fact, when Agon put out its schedule of events after its premiere in October – where Askren easily handled two-time NCAA champ Quentin Wright of Penn State -- it had announced that Agon III would take place in Ithaca, N.Y., home to Cornell… and five miles from Lansing, where Dake wrestled in high school.

Beyond Ben Askren

Ben Askren isn’t the only competitor with that last name who will be stepping onto the trademark hexagon-shaped mat at Agon III in Wisconsin. The other main event will feature his younger brother Max, who will be taking on Central Michigan mat alum Ben Bennett in what could be described as a battle between Wisconsin and Michigan.

Max, a three-time Wisconsin state place winner, was a three-time NCAA All-American and 2010 NCAA champion for the Missouri Tigers. Bennett, a three-time Michigan state champion, went on to become a four-time NCAA All-American for the CMU Chippewas. Both wrestlers participated at last month’s Agon II in Flint, Mich., where Max Askren outscored Sam Wendland, while Bennett fell to former Cornell mat champ Cam Simaz.

“Ben (Bennett) is a great wrestler,” said the younger Askren. “He isn’t afraid to mix things up to try to score some points and neither am I. You put us on the mat together and I know we can put on a great show for the fans.”

In a third match, Craig Becker, a 2010 NCAA Division II 149-pound champ for University of Wisconsin-Parkside, will go up against John Mesenbrink, a former wrestler at St. Louis Community College and Drake University who went on to coach the Askrens in high school, and is now a coach at the Wisconsin-based Askren Wrestling Academy.

Completing the card will be a match between assistant college coaches: Luke Smith, an NCAA qualifier at Central Michigan who is now on the staff at Eastern Michigan, will take on former Cornell College of Iowa wrestler Chris Heilman, now an assistant at UW-Whitewater.

Fans not able to make it to Whitewater, Wis. may follow the action at home online, thanks to live streaming at the official Agon Wrestling Championships website.

Agon 101

Previous Agon Wrestling Championships events had the look and feel of big-time MMA events, from the promotional posters to weigh-ins to pre-event interviews, some which had the trash-talk elements of MMA pre-match interviews, and, yes, ring girls. One departure from MMA: all wrestlers at both events wore custom singlets, not MMA-style fight shorts sans shirts.

At the two earlier Agon events, matches were wrestled following unique rules that drew heavily from collegiate folkstyle. One significant difference: the Agon bouts were nine minutes (three equal three-minute periods) instead of seven minutes in college.

Agon has more events planned for 2014, including Columbus, Ohio (February), Clovis, Calif. (March), Indiana, Pa. (April), and a return to Las Vegas – site of Agon I – in July.

“Agon” comes from Greek word describing a one-on-one, no-holds-barred contest where human nature was tested to the limits. “Agon” is the root of English words “antagonist” and “agony.”

Agon is one of at least three new ventures that offer prize money to post-collegiate wrestlers competing in amateur-style wrestling events. Tour ACW (Association of Career Wrestlers) had a test event in Pittsburgh in August, while Victory Wrestling Challenge – a product of Victory Fighting Championships, an Omaha-based MMA promotion – put on its inaugural event in its hometown in November. Each venture has its own rules and distinctive format; however, all provide wrestlers with an income alternative to entering MMA, professional wrestling or football.

About the photo: The poster for the Agon Wrestling III: Festival of Funk is flanked by the Funk Brothers at the top of the card: Max Askren (left) and older brother Ben.

Want to know more about Agon Wrestling Championships? Listen to the audio of the Agon III press conference online. Readers may follow Agon on Twitter... Facebook... and visit their official website.

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