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Bill Connelly | July 22, 2015

Ben Askren

Mizzou's Greatest

We could have gone with Norm Stewart, who impacted the culture of the state as much as any athletic figure ever has here (and, oh yeah, won eight conference titles and made two Elite Eights). We could have gone with the 1954 Baseball team that won the College World Series, an actual team title for a school that has only two of them. We could have gone with one of the oh-so-close football seasons, or Dan Devine, or Don Faurot.

Really, though, there was only one choice for Mizzou's Greatest. Ben Askren is a two-time national wrestling champion and one of only three NCAA wrestlers (along with Iowa State's Cael Sanderson and Penn State's David Taylor) to win the award more than once. He was a national runner-up during his first two years and an undefeated national champion for his last two. He dominated for a program that was beginning to get its sea legs. If Brian Smith put up the building known as Mizzou Wrestling, Ben Askren's name is still on the marquee.

Bill Connelly: Congrats, Ben.

Ben Askren: Thanks, I appreciate it. I was following the list myself. I am definitely a Mizzou Tiger fan, have been since I decided to go to Mizzou in the fall of 2001. Still am today. I think in reading the list, it had a lot of people from my era, a lot of kids I went to school with, so it was really fun to follow.

I like to think of my era as a golden era of Mizzou athletics. It has continued past when I was there, but when I was there the football team was picking up momentum, the volleyball team had a good run, the baseball team was getting better, the softball team was getting better, gymnastics was getting better. The whole athletic department was making this surge, this push.

A lot of this was due to Mike Alden bringing in new coaches with a fresh attitude, and it was really fun to be a part of this success and be around a lot of like-minded athletes who were trying to do the same thing we were doing in wrestling.

Askren-MUtigers (MUtigers.com)

Yeah, for a couple of years there, it was really wrestling and volleyball carrying everything. That 2004-05 range was pretty dicey for basketball and football, and then everything started to click after that.

So you grew up in Big Ten country, and so it was a pretty big deal that a top-30 wrestler in high school, a guy like that from outside the Big 12 region, would sign for Missouri. Mizzou was starting to improve under Brian Smith, but it hadn't gone that far yet when you signed on. What led to you choosing Mizzou?

I didn't follow college wrestling very much when I was growing up. There weren't the avenues, the internet and everything else, for you to follow sports like you can today, past the major sports -- football, basketball. So when I went to take all my visits, it was kind of a fresh slate for me. I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions of all the programs.

I think there was a handful of things that sold me about Mizzou. The No. 1 thing was that Coach Smith brought me in with a couple of guys who I'm still best friends with to this day, who I talk to on a regular basis. Maybe it was a little bit of luck, or maybe Coach Smith saw that I was gonna click with these guys, but I went on an unofficial visit in the end of August or beginning of September, right around the beginning of the school year, and I just had a fantastic time.

When I was coming down to making my final decision, there were a few offers on the table, and my main thing was, I thought, where can I spend the next five years of my life and be super happy doing it? And I'm like, "Dude, these guys at Mizzou, I loved the team, I loved the coaches, I loved the campus feel." I just got a great vibe from Mizzou, and I knew I was going to be happy there. And obviously it turned out to be a really good decision. And beyond the wrestling program and the athletics, I love Columbia and what Mizzou has to offer. I really look forward to it every time I get to go back.

Askren officially signed his letter of intent on November 15, 2001, nearly 14 years ago. He was a top-20 overall wrestler according to Intermat, and in the official MUtigers.com press release, Brian Smith said, "He is the total package."

So Brian Smith redshirts you that first year. Was that part of the original plan? Was that something you discussed in recruiting? Or was that something that came up once you got to campus?

I think that was part of the plan. I was one of those kids who didn't physically blossom until a little later. I wasn't super mature or super strong going into college. I said, "Hey, I'll wrestle if you want me to wrestle," and I did have some good wins my redshirt year, but I had some bad losses, too. It was a year where 174 [weight class] wasn't a strong spot for Mizzou, and there weren't guys to fill that hole. We had some good other wins, and the team was pretty solid, so I know a lot of the older guys wanted me to step into that spot.

But my redshirt year was so important to me. I made such huge gains physically, and just being in the room with a lot of other high-level athletes was big for me. Tyron Woodley was in the room at that time. Scott Barker, who was eventually kicked off the team because he was a knucklehead but was a national finalist that year. Kenny Burleson and Jeremy Speights, who were All-Americans. I was surrounded by a lot of really good guys, and I made a huge amount of progress in that year. That was instrumental for me.

And I guess wrestling is nice because you can still wrestle in a lot of those open tournaments and get experience, not just in the gym in Columbia. You went 24-8 during that redshirt year, and that certainly wasn't too bad, but I know that probably wasn't good enough for you. And I know you've talked a lot about the things that you changed during that year to kind of move forward.

Besides just maturing physically, from a tactical point of view, what were the biggest changes you made at that point?

I had some really nice wins early. The way that wrestling is, early in open season a lot of varsity guys would wrestle in those tournaments. And I would have good wins, but I would always suffer a couple of losses in every single tournament.

But I think I won every tournament in that second semester, which was three or four tournaments. I was showing a lot of progress. A lot of it was building strength, but a lot was ... wrestling in the neutral position was my strength in high school, and it started to seem like wrestling on the mat was my strength that year in college. I was developing a whole new set of tactics to win matches beause I wasn't having as much success in the neutral position. I was creating new areas for winning matches, and then both of those areas started coming up.

I didn't really have the scrambling fully figured out until after my sophomore year in college. But that was where I really started to pick up bits and pieces and implement them into my arsenal to a point where it could have a real effect.

So then in 2003-04, your redshirt freshman season, that was the first year where Mizzou as a team seemed to really draw attention. MU beat Oklahoma State really early in the season, spent a good portion of the year ranked second or third. Toward the end of the year, the team starts to fall off a little bit and finishes fourth in the Big 12s, but you beat Chris Pendleton there and get runner-up at nationals. And of course, you get Pendleton again there.

What was different about that Big 12 match against Pendleton than other ones you had?

That year, I wrestled him five times. The first match of my college career was Chris Pendleton, and I got up 7-1 and ended up losing the match in overtime. It's something I've learned as I've gotten older, but I was just go-go-go all the time, and I should have slowed it down when I was up 7-1. If I hadn't been so aggressive, I would have won the match easily.

But then I lost to him a couple of times after that, both of which were really close. In the Big 12s, I actually put him on his back twice in the first period -- the first time, the ref, who was a complete homer, called it out of bounds. But the second time, there was nothing he could do. It was in bounds, and I got that five-point lead. I was up big early, and I won the match.

I think in the first match I caught him off-guard, but after that he thought, "Oh, I've gotta be cautious." I don't care who you are -- if you wrestle me carelessly, I'm going to put you on your back. But then I think he got cocky after he beat me a couple more times, and maybe he was a little over-aggressive, and I was able to capitalize on that. And then, he realized again that he needed to keep his guard up and couldn't mess around.

So obviously from that point forward I came up short against him every single time, which ... man, I can't tell you how frustrating that was, having eight losses in college and having seven be to one person. Super frustrating.

So obviously he was very good, but you beat a lot of really good guys. What was Pendleton able to do that so many others weren't?

There were a couple of things. Obviously he was good, and I don't think he gets enough credit. He hates that I get so much credit for being successful -- I know he's told people that. But he only lost one match in his junior year and one in his senior year. The one in his junior year was to me, and in his senior year, it was to guy he had beaten all the time, so I don't know if he was sick that day or what the deal was. But he lost twice in his last two years in college, which is fantastic. Even really good guys don't do that.

He had great movement, and he would change his strategy. Sometimes he would come up fast, and then I would do well against that. And then I remember one time at Oklahoma State, I lost 4-3 on a riding time point. He never tried to ride me, ever, before that match. And that was our sixth match or something. It caught me off guard, and he had racked up a lot of riding time before I was able to adjust to that. And I wasn't able to make up that difference. So I felt like he really changed up the strategy a lot, and especially in my younger years, that caught me off guard. And he was just so good with his movement.

So in 2005-06, Missouri didn't have an incredible finish -- top 15 -- but it solidified the program's status in a lot of ways. And there were a lot of young guys on that team. In terms of the team overall, were you thinking that, by 2007 or so, there's a chance for the team to do some serious damage, that a national title was possible?

The national title was definitely the goal. One of the things Coach Smith had to deal with early on (and it's gotten easier for him now) was ... it was super hard for him to recruit. He wasn't a big-name, famous wrestler, and Mizzou wasn't a big-name program.

So the way the national tournament scoring works is, a guy who's ranked 16th in the country is not going to score you a lot of points at nationals. That's just the way it is. You've gotta have those top 1s, 2s, 3s, the guys who are going to score you big points.

I don't care who you are -- if you wrestle me carelessly, I'm going to put you on your back. askren(MUtigers.com)

So Oklahoma State or Iowa, teams getting the big recruits, they were always going to have guys placing super high. If they're not developing their other guys, Mizzou can beat them in a dual pretty easily. But at the national tournament, it's going to be difficult to do that.

So now, you fast forward 10 years or so, and Mizzou is getting better recruits on a more regular basis. You can see them creeping up. They're more able to beat these teams on that level. But in those days, we would have good teams, top to bottom, but we would have guys in that 10 to 15 to 20 range nationally. They were good guys, and they did well in duals, but it was hard for us to score a lot of points at nationals.

So going into '07, we knew we had kind of a special team. My brother was coming out of a redshirt year where he had been really successful, Matt Pell was an All-American, Raymond Jordan and Michael Chandler were coming into their own after good freshman years, Tyler McCormick was an All-American. We knew Mark Ellis was going to be pretty good coming out. So we knew we had something that we could put together there. And the push was for a national title.

There aren't a lot of teams that have won national titles in wrestling. I want to say Ohio State was No. 12 in the HISTORY of the sport. We had our eyes fixed on that. The national title has been hoarded by Oklahoma State and Iowa and a couple other programs. So in '07, we thought we had a special team, and we proved it, going right out and winning Vegas, and we got to the finals of the National Duals.

Minnesota was the other really good team that year, and it ended up coming down to heavyweight, and we had our backup in because Ellis was hurt, and their national champion ended up pinning at heavyweight. But it was really close, 20-16. We were right there.

And at the national tournament that year, we just had a few guys come up short. We got good performances out of myself, Matt Pell, Tyler McCormick, and we ended up taking third, which ... at that point, Mizzou's highest finish was 10th.

Looking back, even the next year, I thought wow, this was a really good accomplishment for the Mizzou program. But at that time, it was like, shit, this was our chance. This was the year, and we didn't quite get there.

But now, going forward, Mizzou's placed in the top 10 nationally five times, I think, in the last eight years. So to be never ever in the top 10, and then to do it five times, that shows a lot of consistency out of Coach Smith. They were fourth this year, and they would have been third without that headbutt, and obviously that sucked, but ... it shouldn't have been a DQ! You see things like that in wrestling all the time.

But looking forward to next year, they've got three All-Americans returning -- Mayes, Eblen, and J'den, of course. And they have some really tough young guys -- Lavallee -- and they've got a really good transfer. So ... I definitely don't think it's out of the question that they could be top five or top three again next year. That's awesome, knowing where Mizzou came from ... you know, mid-90s, just terrible, Big 12 doormat, to a program that's top 10 hopefully six, seven times in 10 years? That's outstanding.

Yeah, finishing fourth this year and having it feel like a crippling disappointment, that says a good amount right there. This was the first year where we started to realize ... there were certain weight classes where Mizzou wasn't at nearly as high a level, and then you realize, wow, No. 3 guy here, No. 4 guy over there. The depth seems to have really broken through.

And that's one thing Coach Smith has been historically good at. Oklahoma State, as great as John Smith is as a coach, if you look at their lineup, they always have a hole or two where you're like, "This guy sucks! How is he on Oklahoma State's team?" Even Iowa has a weight or two like that.

Mizzou, across the board, they're gonna have a good guy at every single weight. But 10 years ago, that guy may have been 18th and wasn't gonna place nationally -- even though he was a really tough guy -- and now they're starting to creep up and get better and better recruits, to the point where ... I think at some point earlier this year, every guy was ranked in the top 12 or 13. All 10 guys! That's freaking outstanding.

Some people hate the pressure of the spotlight, but those quarterfinal and semifinal bouts, where they cut the mats down and turn the TV cameras on ... I love that shit. MUtigers.comAskren at Mizzou's 2006 Media Day. (MUtigers.com)

So, your tournament in 2006, junior year. Your first day at nationals, you won a couple of decisions. It wasn't a disappointment, but the standard was high enough that it was noticeable that you weren't hitting that standard.

The funny thing about that is this: I only had four decisions my junior year, and three of them were to Wes Roberts. For whatever reason, I just could not kick Wes Roberts' ass. I could beat him every time, but he was gonna stall and keep it close. So that was one.

But actually, that morning, Mike Chandler forgot to pack his breakfast, and he was freaking out at the weigh-ins. So I said, Mike, here's my breakfast. I'm gonna kick this guy's ass, so it doesn't matter. And I got out on the mat, and after a while I couldn't feel my damn legs. They were numb because I had cut weight that morning, and I'd only had water and Gatorade afterward.

So I was feeling it, man. I won 9-2, but obviously I wanted to pin him, and then I had Wes Roberts, the one guy who was a thorn in my side that year. He never threatened to beat me, but I beat him by 4, 3, and 3 or something like that.

And then the next day, against the guys ranked No. 8, No. 5, and No. 2 ... you win going away. I guess you got breakfast that morning.

Yeah, everything just started falling into place after that. I had [Lehigh's] Travis Frick, and for whatever reason I had his number. I tech fall'd him. And everything after that was ... some people hate the pressure of the spotlight, but those quarterfinal and semifinal bouts, where they cut the mats down and turn the TV cameras on ... I love that shit. That's what I work all year for. I loved those moments, and I enjoy 'em. I usually give my best performances at those points in time.

So yeah, I was ready to go, and obviously I was disappointed by how the first day went, so I cranked it up in the quarters and semis. And then I had Jake Herbert in the finals. And everybody was looking forward to that match; he was undefeated also. He took third as a freshman and only lost two or three times that year. He's a good friend now. But he played right into my style. If there was a way you shouldn't wrestle me, that was exactly what he did. So I was able to rack up some points and beat him 14-2. Those last few matches were awesome for me, and it capped a great season.

Herbert and Keith Gavin, your opponent the next year in the finals ... you beat them a combined 22-4. And then Gavin wins the title the next year, and Herbert wins everything a couple of years later.

Those guys actually just wrestled in the U.S. Open finals at the World Team Cup. I think that speaks a lot about how successful those guys were. I think people forget about that. But neither of those guys lost another college match after I beat 'em in the finals. And they're still No. 1 and No. 2 in the United States now, nearly a decade later. I think that speaks volumes for good those opponents were. Herbert was given a lot of credit at the time, but I don't think Keith was given credit for how good he was at that point in time.

Yeah, the hype for the Herbert was really big, but the Gavin match, it seemed like everybody was treating it like a foregone conclusion.

From my junior year, the top 4 were me, Herbert, Mark Perry [from Iowa] and Mike Patrovich [from Hofstra], and 2, 3, and 4 all left my weight class. Herbert went up, and Perry and Patrovich went down. Perry won 165, and Herbert won 184. So the top three from my junior year all won national titles the following year. So my weight class had cleared out at that point, and everybody had just kind of written it off that I was going to win.

And Gavin turned out to be pretty good.

Yep.

Following the completion of his eligibility in 2007, Askren won the U.S. Olympic Trials in Las Vegas in 2008, qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. He pinned Hungary's István Veréb in his first match but lost to Cuba's Ivan Fundora and was eventually eliminated from the competition.

One of the things that might be hard to grasp for someone trying to get into wrestling is the difference between folkstyle wrestling and the type that you would face in the Olympics.

For you, you go to the Olympics the very next year, but it is a different style. Was it ever completely intuitive for you? Was there more of a thought process involved -- I've got to do this, then I've got to do this? Did it ever become completely natural.

Well I wrestled freestyle growing up, but it's a two-month season as opposed to 10 months for folkstyle. But right after my senior year, I had been so dominant the last two years, and I was really expecting to make the world team in 2007. And I came up short, I only finished fifth, which was super disappointing to me at that time.

Between then and when I made the team in '08, I made some huge adjustments. Really big adjustments. I was going through a big learning curve, and I was getting a lot better. And then obviously the Olympics was a big disappointment.

But when I looked at those 19 other competitors [at the Olympics], styles-wise, the worst possible matchup for me was Fundora of Cuba. That was No. 1 -- I was thinking I could beat him, but I didn't want to draw him. Sure enough, second round, really early, I've gotta wrestle him. "Shit, really?" And I lost to him.

I was still making huge improvements at that point, but the unfortunate part about wrestling is there's not a lot of money if you continue to compete on the senior level. People who do it, they do it because they're passionate about it. They love it. But for me, I had been watching Mixed Martial Arts for a few years, and it was like, if I spend another four years wrestling, it's 2012, I'll be starting my MMA career when I'm 28, realistically 29 by the time I get a fight. That's just too late.

So I made the decision to compete in Mixed Martial Arts, and it was a good decision, it was the right one for me.

I wish wrestlers made a lot of money! I saw Max Scherzer in a restaurant in Phoenix, and you know, we were in the same era, and he had just signed a freakin' contract for, I can't even remember, $100 million or something. It was like, DAMMIT! I was No. 1 ranked, too! If I could sign a contract for that much to wrestle, oh my God, I would be so pumped. But that's not the reality of the situation, unfortunately. So in '08, I made that decision to change over even though I think I still had a lot of improving to do in wrestling. But I'm okay with it. I like the decision I made.

Our thought process at the time was, well, he lost, but he's still young! He'll get 'em in 2012! But you forget about that whole "money" thing.

Yeah, there's a lot of romanticism around the Olympics, but I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I didn't want to go through life poor. I'm 24 years old in '08. I wanted to have a family by the time I was 28, and I ended up having a wife and kid by then. I didn't want her to have to support my wrestling habit.

At the end of the day, I still get to use my body and the skills I developed in wrestling to compete at a high level. That's something I enjoy a lot. It's unfortunate I had to make that decision, but ... sometimes you have to make tough decisions.

Askren-Getty (Getty Images)

A brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Askren made his professional Mixed Martial Arts debut in February 2009 at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia.

He competed in the World Grappling Championship in September 2009, but his professional MMA breakthrough came in June 2010, when he won the Bellator Season 2 Welterweight Tournament. That October, he beat Lyman Good to become Bellator's Welterweight champion. He remained champion until his Bellator contract ran out in November 2013. He signed a two-year contract with ONE Championship a month later and won the welterweight title the following August.

Shifting to MMA -- when you're training, how much wrestling are you practicing versus everything else at this point? Is that something that's always going to be natural and will allow you to focus your time elsewhere?

I don't do very much wrestling. I coach wrestling in Mixed Martial Arts at our gym on Wednesdays, and every once in a while I'll wrestle with my brother, who's right in the area. Or I've got a couple of kids that I do private lessons with who are getting a lot better. So I don't compete at a high level, but I keep it sharp enough. And really, now that I've been in MMA so long, I realize that there's enough differences that I use my wrestling skill in a different way than I would if I were actually wrestling. And I've kind of honed it for that specific purpose.

So are you working on the most when it comes to honing your MMA talent?

Really, everything. Once you get far enough into it, you realize you've gotta be well-rounded to be any good. Now that I've been doing everything a while, I'm comfortable everywhere, and I'm just trying to make small adjustments in every single place.

Plans change, but what is your thought regarding an end game?

So I don't have a lot of time left in my Mixed Martial Arts career, maybe a year or two. If I was still competing three years from now, I'd be pretty surprised. I don't think I've got that much left in me.

Max and I are building these wrestling academies and camps here in Wisconsin, where we grew up. I'm really enjoying it. About the only thing that would bring me out of this is if Mack Rhoades called me and said, "Hey, do you want to be the head coach at the University of Missouri?" And with me being out of the college scene, I don't think that's likely. But that would be the one scenario that would make me say, "Hey Max, I've gotta go to Missouri and take care of this Mizzou thing."

Yeah, we're hoping about 30 years from now is when Mizzou's looking for a new wrestling coach!

You know what? Coach Smith got his degree in sports administration, and ... man, he's just so good at that side of things. I could see Brian Smith being a highly successful athletic director at a major university.

I don't know if that's what he wants to do, I haven't had that conversation with him. But I don't know that he plans on competing for that much longer. He's had a lot of success, and maybe he'll end up looking for new avenues to use his talents within, say, five or 10 years. Not next year, obviously. And obviously now there's been a handful of people who graduated from Mizzou that have been successful and would make suitable head coaches for the team.

I will say he's one of the more thoughtful coaches you'll ever hear. He doesn't deliver coachspeak. He always seems to put a lot of thought into his answers.

And especially for a wrestling coach!

I think Coach Smith thinks of the wrestling program as a small business, which it is. And a lot of wrestling coaches just kinda see the technique and the competitive side of it. And I think that's one of the things that has hurt wrestling in the past 20 years -- obviously along with Title IX and some other things. Wrestling coaches have got to do the fundraising, and they've got to put butts in the seats, and all these other things that help their program in addition to just making their guys good. They've got to do things that make the athletic director say, wow, this program's really worth keeping around.

That's something Coach Smith has done. And I think he can lay the blueprint for coaches at other programs to build the same kind of infrastructure.

The long game he's played over the past nearly 20 years has been impressive. And apparently he creates very good MMA prospects too! First of all, is there anything specific about his coaching style that has helped to produce you, Tyron Woodley, Mike Chandler, etc., that has helped them blossom? Or is it just that he's recruited really talented guys who go on to do good things?

I don't really think he's a big MMA fan. I know he watches my matches and Tyron's and Mike's, but he's never said that to me at least. I think it's just that wrestling is the best background for Mixed Martial Arts by a long shot.

Tyron was kind of the first one to start getting into it; obviously he's older than both of us. But before professional fighting was legal in Missouri, he did a bunch of amateur fights. So his career's been even longer than what his pro record shows. I don't think there was an influence like that before Tyron.

But as long as Coach Smith continues to recruit high-level athletes, there will be some high-level fighters coming out of the program.

When Max won the title in 2010 ... he had obviously already had a tremendous four years, but there was always one more hurdle to go, and he finally took the title his senior year. And of course, the camera follows him over, and you guys hug. It was a really cool thing. This is kind of a sappy question, but where do you rank that as compared to your own accomplishments?

I always tell people that I've never felt the same feeling when I won and when Max won, whether it was his first state title, first national title. They were incredible feelings, but Max's was just different. It was just as good, but it was different.

"I think wrestling's success helped to show a lot of athletes that, yeah, there's really no reason Mizzou can't be successful on a national level. I think Coach Smith was one of the ones who led that charge." Brian Smith(Bill Carter)

I had been a big part of his wrestling career for right around a decade at that point, but to see him just keep coming up short and coming up short ... he wanted to act like it didn't affect him, but I could tell it did. So when he finally got that title, it was a big pressure off of him. For me to see him get that after all those years -- and I would say he had more hardships and tribulations than I did -- it was great.

So you're No. 1 on this Greatest list, and each summer we're going to look back at the previous year and add things to the list wherever necessary. So when Brian Smith retires, whether it's five years from now or 30 years, where does he end up on this list? Top 5? Top 10?

Wow. I'd have to go back and look at the list, but ... my career was four years. Obviously I had a lot of success, but his impact on this program has stretched much wider than that. He started in 1998, I think? Mizzou wrestling and volleyball were a couple of those first teams leading the charge that, hey, Missouri teams can be successful at the Big 12 and national level in all sports. And all the athletes do hang out together -- eat together, do study hall together. I think wrestling's success helped to show a lot of athletes that, yeah, there's really no reason Mizzou can't be successful on a national level.

I think Coach Smith was one of the ones who led that charge. And I think that helped to lead the charge for the rest of the athletic department.

I have to think he ends up pretty high, especially if he ends up winning a national title.

I'd have to say so.

So being that this is Rock M Nation, this comment-heavy community that doesn't really get into a fight about Mizzou and really only fights about food, I have to ask: when you come back to Columbia, where do you have to eat?

Shakespeares, for one. [we chat about current renovations going on at Shakespeares] Downtown is really giving Columbia a different feel. It might be better, but it's definitely different. But Shakespeares is a staple, best pizza on the planet. El Rancho is a staple for me; I don't know how far that one goes back. I like Cafe Berlin -- just some of those things that are unique to Columbia that I can't get in Wisconsin. Those are the best to me.

MU crowd (The Beef)

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