by Steven Marrocco – MMAWeekly.com
Had it not been for therapy, Ben Rothwell might never have found MMA.
He fought plenty outside the ring, lashing out at a suddenly uncertain world as a 17-year-old in Kenosha, Wis. In a short period, he had lost his grandmother on his mom’s side, his grandfather on his father’s side, and his best friend. His grades started to slip. His parents were going to kick him out of the house.
“I got real violent and real destructive,” said Rothwell.
It was at that breaking point he found himself on a therapist’s couch, talking about his rage. Somehow, the counselor drew out of him an unfulfilled passion for martial arts lived through kung fu movies and what he called “kicking the air’s ass.”
The counselor pushed Rothwell to pursue his passion, where he could learn discipline and respect for the world around him. He went searching for a local dojo – there weren’t many – and came across an ad for a jiu-jitsu school. Within a month and a half, his life had turned around and laid the foundation for a long, winding road to the UFC.
“I became a believer in the art of MMA and I wanted to test it,” said Rothwell.
Now 27, he sits in the Milwaukee apartment of heavyweight Pat Barry, a New Orleans resident who’s come north to hone his MMA game for a bout with former training partner Antoni Hardonk. Strikeforce fighter Mike Whitehead is there too, talking loudly in the background. Twice a day, they train at Duke Roufus’ gym in the southwest part of the city. Before Rothwell, Roufus was pure kickboxing; he had little interest in the sport. Now, it’s Duke Roufus MMA Academy, where Rothwell came in 2003 after being knocked out by a head kick in Brazil. Through Rothwell, the gym is allied with Miletich Martial Arts in Davenport, Iowa.
Rothwell has fought all over the world – Hawaii, Russia, Brazil – and through much of the country in his path to the UFC. He was a star in the ill-conceived International Fight League before burning out on the promotion’s packed calendar. He’s fought three former UFC champions: Tim Sylvia, who decisioned him early in his career; Ricco Rodriguez, who he outpointed in 2007; and Andrei Arlovski, who savagely knocked him out this year in the now defunct Affliction.
On Oct. 24 in Los Angeles, Rothwell, a veteran of 42 professional MMA fights (and probably more that aren’t on his record), faces Cain Velasquez, a 6-0 hot prospect who fell to earth a bit after a near-knockout at the hands of striker Cheick Kongo. Rothwell is not one who measures his words much; he came up in the days of two and three fights a night and says he’s seen a lot of fighters come and go in the UFC. When it comes to Velasquez, he gives the conversational equivalent to a shrug (“He’s made a name for himself, so there’s nothing really you can do about that”). What he’s sure of is his place on the world’s biggest stage.
“I’m 100 percent confident that I deserve to be here, and I’ve paid my dues,” said Rothwell. “My experience is something that these guys just don’t understand.”
Velasquez has two things he doesn’t have – a collegiate wrestling pedigree and a name in the UFC. The first, Rothwell counters with his time at Miletich, a place steeped in Midwest wrestling tradition. The second he aims to change quickly, and with a co-main event fight at UFC 104, it could happen fast. He’s proud that he’s on the event poster, validation for years of hard work in the trenches. On the weekends, he unwinds in Kenosha with his seven-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
At 22, Rothwell hit that familiar wall for dream chasers: real world bills. There was no money to be made on the small-circuit shows. His parents wanted him to get a career. Until two years before, they had been in the dark about his fighting, and weren’t too thrilled to find out their son was going off and risking life and limb for a few hundred dollars. To appease and make ends meet, he went to work at their restaurant, Victoria’s Nautical Inn, as a cook, bartender, caterer; whatever they needed. He got a degree in collision technology and worked in a body shop. When he tired of that, he went to Chicago and worked in union construction. That broke his back, so he went back to the restaurant as a manager. Meanwhile, he fought.
“I grew up quick,” he said. “I knew what I had to do. I see some of these prima donnas nowadays, that want everything handed to them on a silver platter, and I don’t have any sympathy.”
After his brother told him he was half-assing his dream, Rothwell called Miletich, who invited him to try out the gym. He survived the requisite beating given to newcomers, and was told in no uncertain terms by Miletich to relocate. With a new lease on fighting, he went 5-1 before getting the call to fight in the International Fight League. He had made it, sort of. The promotion provided a $2,000 monthly stipend to pay his bills while he fought. But they were a young organization, and in an effort to make a big splash, they pushed their roster to the limit, giving only weeks between fights to recover. By late 2007, Rothwell had had enough; he asked for a more money and better terms, and the promotion released him. Back to square one.
He waited 10 months for his next fight, but luckily, he had saved well and didn’t have to go back to work. He was a full time fighter.
With savings and his show money for UFC 104, Rothwell has purchased a house in Kenosha with his wife and hopes to get joint custody of his daughter soon. He talks of winning a world title for Wisconsin and retiring to Hawaii, where his daughter wants to live when she grows up. He urges her to follow her dreams as much as possible. He only needs a look at the poster to remind him of that.
Back at the apartment, Rothwell is amped up and wants to keep talking. He misses home, but realizes this is the best place for him to be right now. He has a big right hand and believes if he can land it, Velasquez will fall. The title may not be in the picture at the moment, but that could change, quickly. His dream is close.