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Gracie black belt helps spur Rothwell's surge

It’s good to be Ben Rothwell these days. He’s ranked fourth in the world in the heavyweight division, winner of four straight fights, and headlining this Sunday’s UFC Fight Night event in Zagreb against Junior Dos Santos. And those are just three reasons why seemingly everybody loves Kenosha’s Big Ben.

“You think so?” he asks with a chuckle. “It’s not my social media presence, I’ll tell you that.”
 


So what is it that has made the veteran standout one of the most popular heavyweights in the world?

“I’m going to say that it has something to do with continuing to defeat the odds and basically do what some people view as the impossible,” Rothwell said. “Starting with (Alistair) Overeem, I was a 5 to 1 underdog. People didn’t think I had a chance against (Matt) Mitrione. No way was I gonna beat (Josh) Barnett, let alone submit him.”

But he knocked out Overeem and submitted Mitrione and Barnett, with only Barnett making it into the second round. And while he slowly allowed his personality to seep into the world’s consciousness while letting that world in to hear his story, he puts his appeal all down to what he has done in the Octagon.

“Let’s be honest, it doesn’t mean anything unless you’ve got something to back it up, and I think my performances are showing people that I’m an elite heavyweight.”

MORE ON FIGHT NIGHT ZAGREB: Free fights: JDS vs. Frank Mir, Rothwell vs. Matt Mitrione | UFC FIGHT PASS Spotlight - Zagreb | Fight Card | Tickets

He is, and while Rothwell has always been on the verge of that lofty status, he wasn’t able to take that next step until the last few years, something he owes a lot to his relationship with his jiu-jitsu coach, Luiz Claudio. Claudio, a black belt under Rickson Gracie, may have been an unlikely ally for the Midwest heavyweight, but the Brazilian earned Rothwell’s trust at a time when he was disillusioned with the fight game and wondering if he was ever going to succeed in the UFC.

“I was at a point in my career where there could be no mistakes made,” Rothwell said. “My back couldn’t be any more against the wall than it was then. I was on the chopping block of being cut, I was going through probably the toughest time of my career, and Luiz showed me with facts and with his actions why I needed to trust him, and I was able to trust him without a single doubt. And on top of having that, his belief and positive energy, he gave that to me. I was a very, very negative person. I was angry and I was upset before I met him.”

Rothwell laughs.

“He (Claudio) even says, for the first year, ‘Ben, you were a f***ing a**hole.’ And I was. I was so protective, I had been stepped on and backstabbed and screwed over. I was very blocked and I put a wall around me and I was very angry. And all that does is cause more cancer and it causes more negativity. You don’t act negative and then great things happen. I don’t believe that. And Luiz really taught me how to get rid of that wall and get good people around me and get the bad people away from me, and through that process, it has a lot to do with what’s gotten me to where I’m at right now.”
 


Where he’s at is perhaps a win or two away from a world title shot. But that’s only part of the big picture for Big Ben, and he’s not afraid to tell everyone about it. Could that be the secret of Rothwell’s appeal?

“I keep saying I’m fighting for more than myself, and once I have the title I’m gonna show everyone,” he said. “I think maybe the curiosity triggers people too. ‘Let’s see this guy win the title, let’s see what he’s talking about,’ and if that’s the case, then it’s going exactly as planned.”

That’s exciting stuff, even if Rothwell usually has a very serious tone attached to everything he says. But the 34-year-old insists that he’s enjoying everything that’s going on in his life and career, and a lot of that has to do with finally being in a place where his impact can go beyond what happens on fight night.

“I’m more excited than I’ve ever been in my entire life,” he said. “But there’s an important message too. Arrogance is the belief that you are better than other people. I despise that thought; I despise people that act that way. But confidence is the belief that no one is better than you. I am very confident. At no time do I ever believe I’m better than someone. There’s an Army vet that trains at my gym that I think is ten times the man I am because he’s missing a hand and part of his leg from a landmine. There’s an older man in a wheelchair who is ten times the man I’ll ever be because of what he’s done for this country and the things he’s given back to this place. So I have some very strong motivators around me, and they teach me the difference between arrogance and confidence, and I have to make sure I give that message out the right way. This sport saved my life and I owe it my life, and that statement is everything when it comes to why I’m doing what I’m doing. I owe this sport what I have, so I have to do something, and I have to show the world how great this sport really is.”

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