Ben Rothwell, having undergone reconstructive knee surgery, has not fought in more than a year.
A 15-month sabbatical at one point would have seemed unthinkable for UFC heavyweight behemoth Ben Rothwell.
From September 2005 to September 2007, Rothwell fought a whopping 13 times and won every fight. While it is not an unusual for young fighters to compete at an active pace as they work towards bigger paydays and more high-profile bouts, Rothwell had an unusually frenetic two-year run. His tear through the International Fight League earned him a spot on the biggest stages of the sport, as he later co-headlined Affliction and UFC shows. However, his body would not cooperate like it once did. Rothwell fought only four times in the following four years, culminating in the most serious injury of his life -- an anterior-cruciate ligament tear during his last fight with Dutch kickboxer Gilbert Yvel In June 2010. He went from six fights in a year to none.
Time off proved to be a blessing in the disguise for the Wisconsin native. As Rothwell took time to heal from knee surgery in July, he rethought his approach to fighting and what he wanted to accomplish in the sport. With his 30th birthday around the corner, Rothwell stepped up his training with a particular focus on conditioning.
“I’m not 22 anymore,” Rothwell tells Sherdog.com. “I’m going to be 30 in October. My coaches and older teammates have gone through it, and it’s something you have to work through. You’ve got to be smarter about training. Resting, recovering and how you eat become far more important. It’s a triangle, just like standup, wrestling and the ground game. If you neglect one of those things, you fall apart. When you’re younger, you can eat worse or not sleep as much. Now, all day long you have to be perfect and make good choices.”
To encourage himself to spend even more time training, Rothwell opened up his own gym. However, while the facility is close to Rothwell’s home, it is still quite a distance from the other top training centers in Wisconsin. As such, Rothwell developed a rigorous travel schedule to improve various aspects of his game.
Rothwell continues to work with former world kickboxing champion Duke Roufus, as he has since 2004. It is a partnership that has paid dividends for Rothwell, and Roufus’ reputation as a striking coach has skyrocketed in the ensuing years. Rothwell also makes trips to train with Luiz Claudio in jiu-jitsu and travels to Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight titleholder Ben Askren’s gym to work on wrestling. With 90-minute drives to and from each school twice a week, it is a taxing grind. However, it has resulted in a major transformation in Rothwell’s body and, he hopes, his fighting ability.
“Last year, I really saw him tap into focusing on being in great shape,” Roufus says. “Fans are going to see it when he walks out at the weigh-in. That’s a big thing he did in his off time: work on his strength and conditioning. He has become a lot more explosive. He always had the strength and size. Marry that with the power, and that goes a long way.”
Rothwell’s UFC 115 decision victory over Yvel seems a turning point.
“After the Yvel fight, I was really disappointed with how I looked,” he says. “I’m at the biggest stage of the sport. I need to tighten myself up. So when I could do more with my knee, I started going nuts with training. It’s the best shape I’ve been in, and by the next fight, I want to be in even better shape. I’m partially happy but by no means where I want to be. I’ve got to keep going. It’s going to take some time. I want to make a permanent change in myself.”
While Rothwell has concentrated on reshaping his body, he remains a large heavyweight. He wants to continue to utilize the size and strength advantage he has over most opponents.
“I really haven’t lost weight so much as added more muscle and subtracted fat,” Rothwell says. “I’m still going to be 265 [pounds] for the fight. I’m still 6-foot-4. I’m still a bigger guy, but I want to be the right size. It’s funny; one of the guys with the UFC saw me recently and said, ‘Oh, Ben, going to 205?’ No, for sure. You’ll never, ever see me at 205, unless I have a leg amputated.”
An added motivating force for Rothwell is the affinity he feels for MMA fans. An athlete expressing his or her admiration for the buying public is a clichéd sentiment, but the calm demeanor of Rothwell switches and the passion rises in his voice when discussing his feeling on the subject. It is clearly something to which he has given a lot of thought. When Rothwell was recovering from ACL surgery, he started regularly traveling to UFC events. The enthusiasm of fans drove him to work his way back, but he was equally struck by how certain other fighters interacted with them. Little slights like a refusal to sign autographs or pretending not to speak English angered Rothwell, but he was particularly struck by an experience at a UFC Fan Expo.
“There was a line of people waiting for autographs,” Rothwell recounts. “Four guys were waiting an hour and a half to meet this guy. He signed two autographs. The guy said, ‘Time’s up.’ The other two guys begged him to sign two more autographs because they’d waited 90 minutes, and he just walked away. Those fans said they wanted me to beat his ass. That really pisses me off. In 2000 and 2001, I didn’t have anything. I wouldn’t have my life if not for the fans. I would be in prison or worse. That’s what MMA means for me.”
Before Rothwell has the ability to target specific opponents, he needs to reestablish himself as a player in a thin heavyweight division. His return opponent at UFC 135 on Saturday in Denver carries a name well-known to hardcore fans of the sport: Pride Fighting Championships veteran Mark Hunt.
The hard-headed American Top Team representative and former K-1 Grand Prix winner had lost six MMA fights in a row dating back to 2006 when he took on Chris Tuchscherer in February. In that bout, Hunt showed himself to still be dangerous with a knockout victory. Hunt’s striking has always been his strength, but his ground game still has holes and he is now 37 years old.
“He’s someone I always looked up to in K-1,” Rothwell says. “It’s a great fight to test my skills, and the whole reason I’m in this is to test my skills against a world-class competitor like him. He’s fearless and dangerous, but I’m more well-rounded and that’s what I’m going to prove.”
Roufus is very familiar with Hunt and brings that knowledge to Rothwell in preparation for the bout. Roufus and Hunt competed in K-1 during the same period and Roufus even commentated on Hunt’s fights for ESPN2. Roufus remains confident Rothwell can present problems for the New Zealander in the standup, beyond his clear ground advantage.
“Mark’s a very dangerous striker,” Roufus says. “He’s working with a good team at ATT, and he’s a very cagey fighter with success in K-1 and Pride. He’s a fighter’s fighter. Everyone who fights him knows he’s a real fighter. Hell of a guy, too. Scary guy because he’d be sleeping, you shake him, he wakes up and knocks someone out. You can’t get caught up in the fact he’s Mark Hunt. You just go out and kick his ass. Mark is a really good striker in MMA, but if you pressure Mark he doesn’t have the time to do what he wants to do.”
Trading blows with a heavy-handed monster may not seem like a fun time for most, but for Rothwell, it has been a long time coming.