The name may not ring any bells for most UFC fans. Fair enough. Rothwell is making his debut inside the Octagon against heavyweight prospect-turned-contender Cain Velazquez at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California on October 24, so his lack of mainstream recognition isn’t surprising.
Keep in mind, however, that name recognition and experience don’t always go hand in hand, and that is certainly the case with Rothwell. This guy is one of the more experienced heavyweights in the game, though most of that experience was accumulated in the relative anonymity of mid-major promotions.
He will finally get his opportunity to prove that he belongs among the game’s greatest heavyweights by taking on Velasquez, an uber prospect standing on the doorsteps of superstardom.
A win by Rothwell will serve as a shot of adrenalin for his career, instantly leapfrogging the big fella into the heavyweight mix. A win by Velazquez will add to his meteoric rise through the heavyweight ranks, possibly securing a title shot for him.
What will happen once the cage door locks behind them on October 24th? Velazquez is the rightful betting favorite, but as we have learned again and again over the years, anything can, and often does, happen inside the Octagon. Can Rothwell shock the world?
Let’s take a look behind the numbers and break down this exciting heavyweight matchup.
There is no need to beat around the bush with this one. Rothwell is nicknamed “Big Ben” for a reason. The guy is the bigger man in virtually all of his fights—this one included. Standing 6’4, he is three inches taller than Velasquez. Similarly, although Velasquez is a powerfully built 240 lbs, Rothwell typically weighs in at least 20 lbs heavier, often having to cut calories to get his physique under the 265-lb weight limit.
Physical size certainly makes a difference in many matchups. This isn’t one of those matchups because wrestling skills are the great equalizer for size.
Velasquez is one of the best wrestlers in the heavyweight division, second only to reigning king Brock Lesnar. His wrestling base and tremendously powerful core allow him to throw around bigger men without much trouble, particularly when those men don’t have a similar amateur wrestling pedigree. And once one of those big fellas finds himself on his back, all the advantages that go along with superior height and weight quickly turn into detriments.
Rothwell does not have an amateur wrestling background. He did not spend his childhood and early adult years perfecting the ability to execute and stuff takedowns. He did not spend thousands of hours learning how to keep a man on his back. He cannot compete with Velasquez in those areas. Thus, his significant size advantage will be nullified unless he can keep the fight standing, and I’m not sure that trading punches with Velasquez is the best game plan for the Kenosha, Wisconsin native.
Advantage Rothwell, though it won’t impact the outcome of the fight.
We’ll deal with this one in four sentences. Rothwell will turn 28 on October 17. Velasquez turned 27 back in July. Both are just now entering the prime of their respective fighting careers, though Rothwell does it with lots of accumulated mileage. I’m not sure how any of that will impact the outcome, but it’s been a traditional category in our breakdowns, so there you have it.
Rothwell might only be nine months older than his foe, but he made his professional mixed martial arts debut the same year that Velazquez won his second amateur wrestling championship—in high school.
Yes, you read that correctly. Rothwell has been competing as a pro since 2001. In that same calendar year, Velazquez successfully defended his Arizona wrestling state championship as a member of the Kofa High School wrestling team. Velazquez did not make the transition to mixed martial arts for almost five years.
The result of their vastly different start dates are what one would expect. Rothwell has three dozen professional fights under his belt, including more than a dozen bouts against UFC and PRIDE veterans. Velasquez, by contrast, has competed as a professional only six times, though four of those occurred in the UFC. That tends to even out things a bit, since UFC 104 will be just another day at the office for Velazquez, whereas it will be Rothwell’s UFC debut, raising questions how he will handle distracting media obligations, Octagon jitters, cardio-sapping adrenalin spikes and other difficulties that are part and parcel with being a UFC debutant.
Velasquez’s prior Octagon experience will benefit him early, allowing him to remain relatively calm as the fight approaches and enabling him to control his emotions and adrenalin in the opening round. But those advantages will fall away if the fight lasts beyond the first round. That is where Rothwell will be able to draw upon his deeper fighting experience to deal with whatever adversity arises.
This is the first category where one man actually has a significant advantage that may, indeed, impact the outcome of the fight.
Rothwell has competed 15 times in the last four years, losing only once--a second round TKO at the hands against former UFC Heavyweight Champion Andrei Arlovski on July 19, 2008, in the Affliction fight promotion. He rebounded from that loss with a win over Chris Guillen, a non-descript opponent riding a four-fight losing streak heading into that bout. The win was little more than a confidence builder for Rothwell, a way to cleanse the sour taste of defeat from his palette. Still, winning 14 out of 15 is quite impressive, and it is even more impressive when one considers that more than a handful of the wins came against current or former UFC and/or PRIDE fighters—add one more if one wants to count Roy Nelson as a UFC guy, since he currently competes on TUF.
Velasquez trends don’t take much effort to analyze. The guy is undefeated through six professional fights. The first five ended by punches inside the distance. The last was a gut-check win over kickboxer Cheick Kongo that lasted the distance, a notable accomplishment because Kongo rocked him more than once with explosive punches.
The most significant trend, though, is Velasquez’s progression of opponents. Each time he has competed, he has passed progressively more difficult tests, culminating with his solid win over perennial contender Kongo. Rothwell might be the most well rounded opponent that Velasquez has faced to date, but his management team and trainers at the American Kickboxing Academy have prepared him perfectly for this moment.
Rothwell’s stretch of wins deserves a nod of the cap for its volume, but it does not match Velasquez’s undefeated start to his career or his four impressive UFC efforts.
Rothwell hasn’t competed since his win over Guillen on December 11, 2008. That means he will end his current 314-day layoff when he clashes with Velasquez. He had a similar layoff prior to the Arlovski fight, and that was not a memorable fight for him.
Velasquez, on the other hand, will end a 113-day layoff at UFC 104. It will be his third fight of 2009, making this year the most active of his career.
Suffice to say, cage rust may be a problem for Rothwell, whereas Velasquez should be at the top of his game.
The keys to victory for Rothwell are simple: snap the jab, attack with controlled combinations, always remain conscious of defending the takedown, and, if he is fortunate enough to end up on top of Velasquez, keep busy to avoid a standup.
Rothwell has a bad habit of pawing with his jab. He holds his left hand too far from his chin, making it largely useless as a defense against the right hand, and he jabs from his elbow, rather than his shoulder. He was guilty of those mistakes for most of the fight against Arlovski, and he paid dearly for them, as the former champ landed several big right hands to the head. Rothwell has a great chin, so he can get away with that mistake for awhile. Sooner or later, though, that misdeed will come back to haunt him.
If Rothwell snaps the jab, he can create openings for his right cross, which is important because he is largely a one-two puncher. The big guy can generate good power with his right crosses, but they are a bit slow, so he needs the aid of a good jab to increase their efficacy.
Once he lands a good shot, Rothwell needs to remain patient and close the distance while keeping his feet in good position to fire shots. Rothwell, like so many other MMA fighters, has the terrible habit of running in with his head down behind arm punches. That technique creates too many opportunities for easy counterstrikes, sort of like shooting fish in a barrel.
If he remains in good punching position, he can protect against Velasquez’s vaunted left hook as he closes the distance while still firing meaningful shots of his own. Rothwell’s punches, while not singularly devastating, will certainly wear down Velasquez over time, opening the door for takedowns and ground and pound or even a stoppage on the feet.
It goes without saying that if Rothwell wants to win the fight, he needs to keep the fight standing. His guard game doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of UFC heavyweights—it shouldn’t, at least. Although he is good at scrambling back to his feet, Velasquez has the skills to keep him on the ground as long as he wants.
As a result, Rothwell cannot overextend himself on his punches. He should completely forget about kicks and knees, since both can be caught and transitioned into takedowns. And he should certainly avoid the clinch, unless he uses it to avoid getting pinned against the cage.
Lastly, if Rothwell is fortunate enough to find himself fighting in the top position on the ground, whether following a takedown or a sweep, he absolutely must unleash a constant, aggressive ground-and-pound campaign. Anyone who watched the Arlovski fight knows that Rothwell fumbled a golden opportunity late in the second round when he was able to scramble to the top position when Arlovski dropped for a leg lock. Rothwell should have attacked aggressively with his ground and pound, because that was the only position in the fight where he had an advantage. Instead, he did a lot of lay and pray, burying his head in Arlovski’s chest and throwing the occasional elbow and punch. The lack of action resulted in a referee-induced standup, and the TKO followed.
Opportunities to attack Velasquez’s guard don’t come around often. Rothwell cannot waste such an opportunity because it is unlikely to arise more than once or twice during the fight, if at all. And, just like with the Arlovski fight, fighting inside Velasquez’s guard is probably the only position where Rothwell holds the advantage.
If Velasquez wants to keep his undefeated streak alive, he needs to relax, let his punches and kicks go without searching for the knockout, and don’t forget his wrestling skills.
Velasquez, like many young fighters, tends to get a bit amped up early in a fight. Adrenalin is a fighter’s friend only to a point. If it causes tension, then crisp, powerful punches thrown from the legs turn into telegraphed arm punches thrown from New Mexico. The same thing happens when a fighter is overly concerned with a knockout.
Velasquez is the better kickboxer, and he knows it. He should just relax and fight his fight, which means throwing quick, powerful combinations and mixing in the occasional leg kick. He isn’t a one-punch knockout guy, so he should not worry about scoring a one-punch knockout. The key for him scoring a knockout is to think about fast punches, not hard ones. If he repeatedly touches Rothwell on the chin with fast punches, the knockout will take care of itself.
If he mixes in enough leg kicks to keep Rothwell off balance, then his jab and power leads will be that much more effective. He must be careful, however, not to telegraph his kicks or fall into a predictable pattern, because that opens the door for Rothwell to catch the kick and take him down. Velasquez is good on the ground, but he definitely does not want to spend much time with a big guy like Rothwell on top of him.
Finally, Velasquez needs to remember that few heavyweights in the world can handle him from their guard, and Rothwell is not one of them. Takedowns are a great way to keep an opponent off balance, sap him of his strength and cardio, and otherwise take his spirit. If he takes Rothwell down at least once per round, he will win this fight going away because it will force Rothwell to either become wholly defensive or desperately. Either way, it makes the fight an easy night for Velasquez.
On paper, at least, this seems like a very even bout. It can be characterized as the experienced veteran hoping to transition his career into the limelight against the rising superstar looking to continue to build his brief, albeit perfect to date, career. What the immediately preceding sentence and all of the other analysis above doesn’t take into account is that Velasquez is a very special combat athlete. Not only is he gifted with tremendous natural athleticism, but he also has that same warrior spirit that Mexican-American fighters are known for.
I believe that this is Velasquez’s fight to lose. If he remains relaxed and fights his fight, he will win, barring walking into a knockout punch, which is a possibility in any fight.