If health and opportunity were able to line up, it’s easy to see Ben Rothwell being open to becoming a Donald Cerrone-esque “anytime, anywhere, on a moment’s notice” kind of fighter.
See, the longtime heavyweight contender loves fighting. Always has, always will. The stuff that comes with it, well, he could do without that part.
“Your best is that street fight,” said the 48-fight veteran who returns on December 7 to face Stefan Struve. “Someone pushes your wife down in front of you and that person's in a lot of trouble. You don't have time to think about it, it's pure reaction.”
That’s not the case in a sanctioned sporting event.
“Professional fighting, people have no idea that you have months to battle mentally,” Rothwell explains. “You've got to fight this guy, you know about this guy, there's the build-up, and then the week of the fight people ask you questions and you think about it more and more. And then the night of the fight you're in the back room and you're thinking about it and thinking about it. You march out to the cage and look at the guy and there’s all this stuff. It's unlike anything, and it's really hard, but at the same time I'm addicted to it because of that challenge. And every fight, I'm not just trying to overcome, but conquer this aspect.”
Rothwell has done a pretty impressive job to this point in his career, winning 36 of those 48 fights, many against the best big men in the game. But as he approaches the bout with Struve on a three-fight losing streak, he knows that what he does on fight night is more important than what he says about it.
“I'm fighting to get my energy back and my performances this year have not made me happy,” said Rothwell. “I had fun with interviews and stuff once I got some momentum and I'm fighting the way that I know I can. Even during the IFL, when I'm rocking and things are good, I'll do interviews and they're fun and I have a good time. But right now, I'm just trying to keep my mouth shut. During the four-fight winning streak (from 2013 to 2016), towards the end of it I got a little too overzealous and started saying some crazy s**t and you kinda lose track, so it was a learning experience. But I'm ready to get back there and I think I know how to handle it this time around because the more you win, the more they're gonna want you to talk, so I'm prepared for that. I just gotta keep things in perspective and stay focused.”
When Rothwell was firing on all cylinders, finishing Brandon Vera, Alistair Overeem, Matt Mitrione and Josh Barnett in succession, he became a cult hero to fight fans who filled his bandwagon to the breaking point. Then came a loss to Junior Dos Santos, nearly three years away from the sport due to a USADA suspension, and when he returned, a controversial decision defeat to Blagoy Ivanov and a more clear-cut loss at the hands of Andrei Arlovski, one that saw him battling a lung infection that took him out of the fight almost as soon as it started.
“People were saying, ‘This guy talks about three-round cardio and he gasses in the first minute,’” recalls Rothwell, clearly frustrated by the whole situation. “I was really upset with my performance and I fought that fight not feeling well. I was a mess and I think the fight performance showed it. I couldn't not fight, though. That's just how I am.”
There was a silver lining, though, and it came when he got a call from an old friend offering a helping hand.
“Around the Andrei Arlovski fight, Duke (Roufus) was the one who reached out,” recalled Rothwell. “He said, 'Listen, I want to help you.' And even after the Arlovski fight, he continued to do that and that really meant something to me.”
So as he prepares for Struve, Kenosha’s Rothwell is making appearances in the Instagram feed of Milwaukee’s Roufus, a welcome sight for those who know the pair and what they’ve meant to each other.
“You gotta remember, Duke and I were together ten years ago,” said Rothwell. “One day, (Former UFC lightweight champion) Jens Pulver walked in and it was kind of like history again and Duke made a post saying, thank you Jens Pulver and Ben Rothwell; it's because of you that I got into this. I was Duke's first mixed martial artist, the first one who walked into his gym. He never even really thought about it or looked at it, and I was the very first guy that kind of brought it into his gym and the rest is history.
“It's been eight years because of outside things and it's really unfortunate, and I look back on it and it really sucks that I let other people interfere with things,” he continues. “And other people's actions cost me time with Duke and luckily I live in a world where there's forgiveness and there's learning and growing and those things have all taken place. Through the eight years I always respected Duke and never forgot what we had done together. And even though I was upset about other things that had happened, Duke and I still kept a good relationship and every week, we get closer and closer again.”
I note that it sounds like Rothwell got a positive spark to his career.
“I don't want to just say it's a spark; it's more than that,” he said. “I feel like I got my friend back and it's good to be in there and see Anthony Pettis and all the guys are excited to see me and I'm excited to see them. It's helped my team as well because now my team is training with his team and it's really brought the Wisconsin MMA scene together. My team's gone 6-0 in the last two months with fights, so it's really had a strong impact and I'm excited.”
When talking about his own resume in the fight game, Rothwell isn’t exactly filling up notebooks with quotes. But ask about the people he coaches and his teammates, and that’s a whole different story. It’s another example of what this sport means to him.
“In my heart, since I can first remember, I've been fighting,” he said. “It's a part of who I am, it's in my soul, and even after I'm done competing, I'll still be in the gym, I'll still be instructing, it's just a part of my existence. I don't know how else to say it.”
He said it perfectly. And it’s really all that needs to be said, though I can’t help asking that if he gets through December 7th without any injuries and he gets a call for a short-notice fight, will he take it?
“On a week's notice, I'm coming,” he said. “With Father Time against me, I don't have much time. But I really hope you see (on December 7) what I've been doing. Actions speak louder than words.”