If you walked into the post-fight press conference for UFC 115 in June of 2010 and asked who lost that night, your eyes would have instantly gravitated to heavyweight Ben Rothwell. In fact, the Kenosha, Wisconsin native looked so dejected that guessing that he lost, got knocked out, and got his dog taken away from him at the same time was a pretty accurate description.
Funny thing is, Rothwell won that night, scoring a unanimous decision over veteran striker Gilbert Yvel. It wasn’t a Fight of the Year or even Fight of the Night candidate, but after nearly a decade as a mixed martial artist and waiting for this moment, you figured a smile would cross his lips, if only for a second.
But it didn’t. Ask him why, and he doesn’t talk about the torn ACL he suffered in the bout. That healed with surgery and time. No, for Rothwell, his reaction to the fight goes deeper than that.
“31 wins and 28 of them are finishes,” he said. “I have three decisions and I’m not happy about any of them, especially with one of them being in the UFC. If it (the Yvel fight) was a rock ‘em sock ‘em war where it was just crazy and the crowd was going nuts the whole three rounds and my opponent was just that tough, I could have accepted that a little better. But the fact that in the third round I heard a few boos, that just ends it for me.”
A lot of fighters say that they always look for the finish, but how many feel so bad when it doesn’t happen? Not too many. Maybe no one but Rothwell.
“My entire goal at all times is that I want to hear the crowd roar,” he said. “That means that they’re excited and that they’re into the fight, and that means everything to me. I’m also a fan, and when I watch boring fights, I get pissed off too, so I can only imagine watching my own fight. It really upsets me. I’m known to be an exciting fighter, I have a lot of knockout wins, I have a lot of submission wins also; I finish fights, and I try to uphold to that. It didn’t happen that night. Obviously we know that I had some issues in that fight, but even with one leg, I still could have got a submission and I still could have ended the fight.”
If that attitude doesn’t make you a Ben Rothwell fan, nothing will. But before Rothwell could get back to work in the Octagon to follow up his first UFC win with his first UFC finish, there was the pesky problem of that torn ACL, which has kept him sidelined since the Yvel fight.
“I missed not being in there,” said the 31-7 Rothwell. “There are a lot of these guys that already picked up a couple fights and got their names bigger, and I just had to sit on the sidelines, going ‘I know I would smash these guys.’ They’re getting wins, they’re getting exposure, they’re getting fans, getting more Twitter hits, and I’m biding my time. But I used it as fuel and I was definitely in the gym more than I’ve ever been. So it’s a good thing.”
Part of that good thing was reuniting with longtime coach Duke Roufus after they spent the Yvel fight apart. For Rothwell, the renowned former kickboxer is more than a trainer, he’s a friend, so getting back on the same page was important.
“I’ve been with Duke for eight years, he spoke at my wedding, he’s my friend as well as my coach,” he said. “We got to sit down and talk back at the beginning of the year, we got everything straightened out, and I’m in a good place with him right now, we’ve got a really good thing going and I’m just happy to be his heavyweight. Along with him came Ben Askren, my wrestling coach, and I’ve also acquired an outstanding jiu-jitsu coach in Luiz Claudio. So I’ve got a great, well-rounded camp, and I feel it’s the best scenario for me.”
He’s also got some of the best young guns in the game in the gym, including rising UFC stars Anthony Pettis, Erik Koch, and Danny Downes. That kind of youthful energy can definitely keep a 29-year old vet from getting bored.
“For their age, they’re maturing very quick,” said Rothwell. “Duke has been involved in the fight game for well over 30 years, traveling all over the world, and that gives him a great deal of experience that he’s pushed to all his guys. And his biggest thing is to say that my goal is to help all of you not make the mistakes I made. Basically the sky’s the limit for our whole gym. Our team is like a family, and that makes a big difference.”
And with the exception of talking about the Yvel fight, Rothwell sounds as upbeat and positive as he ever has about his career as he gets ready for a UFC 135 bout with Mark Hunt. But don’t call this a comeback. The way he sees it, this is a debut.
“After the surgery, I went through like a resurrection type of period where I’m coming into this fight 0-0 and that’s just how I feel about it,” he said. “I’m coming to get my first real win in the UFC in this next fight, for sure. I feel like I’ve made a lot of major changes, I’ve got a lot of good coaches around me, I made a lot of good changes in my body and my conditioning, and I’m a new man. I’m very confident in putting in a win and letting everybody in the division know that you might have fought me before, but you haven’t fought this Ben Rothwell.”
Having Roufus on your side is also a big plus when taking on a striker like Hunt, who first made his name on the K-1 kickboxing circuit. So if anyone can break down a kickboxer, it’s a former kickboxer. That doesn’t mean Rothwell is going to stand there and get into a slugfest with the New Zealander.
“I hated that people found out that I have a tough chin,” said Rothwell. “They’re like ‘why?’ That means I got hit, and my whole goal is to use my defense and not get hit at all, and that stands true for every fight. The guy’s got power, and the best thing to do is avoid that power.”
“Gilbert Yvel, with little gloves on, is very dangerous on the feet, but Gilbert never won a K-1 Grand Prix (like Hunt did),” he continues. “That’s an outstanding achievement in the striking world and you gotta respect that. But the difference is, he’s a little bit shorter, I don’t think he’s as fast (as Yvel). Positively, he’s got great striking, but he also has big holes in his game, obviously with his wrestling and his ground. But little gloves change everything too. He did K-1 with 10 ounce gloves on, and in MMA, these are four ounce gloves.”
That doesn’t bother Rothwell because that always present danger Hunt provides means that there’s going to be a fight on Saturday, one that he can be satisfied with and use to make a statement to a division he says is “the strongest that it’s ever been in my whole career.”
And if he needs an extra push, there’s always the Yvel fight to watch. So…has he…watched it?
How many times?
An uncomfortable pause.
“I didn’t watch it happily. I just sat there and had to take it.”
He finally laughs.
“It’s good motivation for this next fight.”
A New Beginning for Ben Rothwell
“My entire goal at all times is that I want to hear the crowd roar,” he said. “That means that they’re excited and that they’re into the fight, and that means everything to me." - Ben Rothwell