The Ultimate Fighter
Generally speaking, Ben Rothwell doesn’t have many complaints about the recently released UFC: A Visual History book. With one exception.
“I want more pages,” the heavyweight contender, who returns to the Octagon this Saturday to face Josh Barnett, said. “I want more Ben Rothwell in it, and it has to be earned. I’m very big on dues paid. Am I mad? No. I need to go win a title, I need to show everyone how good I really am, and then those pages will appear. I want to put my place in history.”
Rothwell, 44 fights into a career that began in 2001, is one of the most seasoned veterans in the sport, yet at 34, he’s showing his best form yet, with three consecutive finishes of Brandon Vera, Alistair Overeem and Matt Mitrione as proof. If he adds the name of Barnett to his victory list, he will place himself smack dab in the title picture, and that history he’s looking to make will be within grasp.
Yet if he does get there and puts championship gold around his waist, it won’t be a trigger for him to become a social media maven, spend frivolous amounts of money or become someone he’s not. In short, a title won’t change Ben Rothwell. He already went through those changes a long time ago. Now, the only change he hopes to make will be in the lives of others.
“I made this statement that I’m fighting for something more than myself,” he said. “It’s something that really means a lot to me, something no dollar amount can pay for and it’s something very powerful and I know it’s a hundred percent behind my win streak right now and it’s carrying me into these future wins that I’m gonna have.”
Owner of Rothwell Mixed Martial Arts in his native Kenosha, Wisconsin, the man who blew up Twitter with his sinister laugh after defeating Mitrione in less than two minutes last June is finally coming into his own in and out of the Octagon. He’s no longer worried about what people think, and he’s being himself. That wasn’t always the easiest thing to do.
More on Fight Night New Jersey: Watch it on FOX this Saturday | Reasons to watch | Bader focused on fights, not chasing title | Sage Northcutt's secret to success | Barberena happy to derail Super Sage's rise | Ortiz ready to cement comeback in Newark | Watch: Under-the-radar fights this weekend | Watch: Rothwell's rise | Watch free fight: Ryan Bader vs. Keith Jardine | Watch free fight: Anthony Johnson vs. Yoshiyuki Yoshida | Watch Road to the Octagon: Alcantara vs. Rivera, Barnett vs. Rothwell, Johnson vs. Bader
“I think if you look at my social media and my presence that way, it doesn’t seem like I do good interviews,” he laughs, despite being one of the best folks to talk to in the game. “I’m not very popular that way. I get popular the night of the fight. People watch me and then they remember – ‘oh, this is the guy that finishes fights.’ And maybe I laugh, maybe I dance, who knows, and I get people to talk, and it’s just being me finally, and I think more of that’s coming out and people are starting to see it.”
It’s especially notable at his gym, where his audience isn’t a legion of MMA fans, but children and adults who have found peace in learning the art of hand-to-hand combat, something Rothwell knows better than most.
“I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for this sport,” he admits. “I can say it with that utmost confidence that I’d be dead or in prison, but probably dead. This sport saved my life, so I owe my life to it.”
That’s a stark admission from someone who is one of the most affable people in the sport. But during some rough teenage years, he was far from the man he was going to become.
“I was very lonely and broken, and very destructive and violent,” Rothwell explains. “I think a lot of those things stemmed from the loneliness. I wasn’t in any gang or anything; I didn’t have to be. I think I was far more destructive and violent than any gang. I was in a real bad place, and martial arts saved me from that. You want to talk about a 180, I went from destruction on the outside to finding peace by creating violence inside of a cage. And all of a sudden the violence and destruction stopped.”
A career was born and a life changed. Today, he’s a successful fighter, a family man and a business owner. Yet there are always reminders of the past hurts in the eyes of some of his students, and Rothwell’s mission is to steer them clear of what he once went through.
“I created my own gym and watching that gym change people’s lives is something no dollar amount can pay for,” he said. “I’ve seen a kid go from being bullied and getting low grades to his parents crying that he’s getting straight A’s now and he’s not being bullied and he’s doing other sports. There are adults that were so lonely and miserable that have now lost 50 pounds or lost 70 pounds and have all these friends. I can’t tell you what that’s like. That’s really what this is about now. It’s about so much more than winning a fight and buying a new car. I feel my calling, my purpose.”
And while he may be Big Ben Rothwell, MMA star, on fight night, when it comes to his gym, that isn’t who shows up every day.
“Honestly, I don’t talk about my actual fights too much,” he said. “I try to talk about when I was a kid and how after my spinal meningitis I went from being the best athlete in the school to this obese kid that got made fun of and picked on and was miserable. And I tell them how I started to get in shape and it changed my life. The kids don’t know anything but what they see right now, so they just see Ben Rothwell and all this going on. And I’m like, I was in a dark place and things were hard for me, but look what I’ve done now. I try to paint a picture without freaking them out. Some of the teenagers you can talk a little bit more about it, but some of the younger kids, I try to show them that I was down and out too and tell them about perseverance and that you’ve got to believe in yourself because no one else is going to do it for you. And if you really want it, you can have it.”
Ben Rothwell may have it all right now, and he would probably agree – again, with one exception.
“I’m 34, and time goes so fast, so I’m starting to realize that I have to take everything that I have and that I’m blessed with, and I have to do something with it,” he said. “It can’t stop now. It’s the tip of the iceberg right now, and I want to break the iceberg in half. I want to be a trailblazer. I want to show something that I have not seen yet from any champion. I’m going to be one of a kind.”