Can 'Big Ben' raise Cain in the UFC?

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Before Cain Velasquez had ever competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was hailed as a Peyton Manning-John Elway type of uber-prospect. He was a can't-miss guy, a slam dunk future Hall of Famer.

In 2008, after he'd had one UFC bout, his coach, the highly regarded Javier Mendez of the American Kickboxing Academy, said he felt Velasquez could have at that time beaten Randy Couture, the legendary UFC champion.

Nothing he's done in the 15 months or so since Mendez made that assessment has caused anyone to rethink his potential.

Ben Rothwell, though, says they will, and soon. The former International Fight League heavyweight standout will make his UFC debut in Los Angeles on Oct. 24 in the co-main event of UFC 104 at the Staples Center when he fights Velasquez.

Rothwell will be fighting a week after his 28th birthday and plans to use the occasion to introduce himself to the UFC's legion of fans.

UFC president Dana White speaks all the time about fighters having what he calls "the UFC jitters," but Rothwell expects no such thing. He's 30-6 and has been in with every type of opponent imaginable.

He's a member of the Miletich Fighting Systems camp and had a close-up view of the mistake Georges St. Pierre made when he fought Matt Hughes for the vacant UFC welterweight title at UFC 50 in 2004 in what would be the first of three fights between them.

Rothwell paid keen attention and won't allow himself to be in the same position that St. Pierre was in when he submitted to an arm bar for his first professional loss.

He's already made that mistake before. He fought former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski on the first Affliction card and was far too respectful of Arlovski. Arlovski knocked Rothwell out in the third round.

"Affliction was the biggest show I'd fought in to that point, but the way I see it, it wasn't the show but the opponent," Rothwell said. "To me, it was like the first time GSP fought Matt Hughes. He gave him far too much respect. That's what happened to me with Andrei. I gave him too much respect.

"Well, with Cain, it's very hard for me. As tough as he is, I can't give him those kinds of, respect, props, whatever you want to say. I feel I'm coming into this fight confident in who I am. He's the one (who should be) scared."

Rothwell is a difficult guy to pigeonhole. He's not the game's most fearsome striker, though he has 17 victories by KO or TKO. To put that into perspective, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the No. 1-ranked fighter in the Yahoo! Sports ratings, has 15 in 29 pro fights.

Rothwell isn't the sport's most dangerous grappler, though he has 11 wins by submission. B.J. Penn, the UFC's lightweight champion and perhaps the game's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert, has six.

But the bottom line is if you drop your hands, Rothwell can knock you out. If you surrender your back, he'll choke you out.

It's a pick-your-poison type of thing.

His manager, Monte Cox, is convinced jaws will drop when they see Rothwell. Not only will those who have never seen him be impressed by the way he performs, but those who have will be stunned by his physique.

Rothwell was 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds by the time he was 18 years old. He was never a weight lifter and used his mass and natural strength to help him in the early days.

But Rothwell hired a nutritionist several months ago and has been strength training seriously for the first time in his life. He said Rothwell has been at or under the heavyweight division's 265-pound limit for more than a month.

"When you see him at the weigh-in, you're not going to believe it's the same Ben Rothwell," Cox said. "He's always been a little pudgy and carried extra weight around his midsection. Everybody says that before a fight, but all you have to do is look at Ben and you'll see what I'm talking about. He's changed his diet, he's gotten seriously into lifting and I think it's going to mean a totally different Ben."

Rothwell has been training with Mike Whitehead and preparing to defend against what he expects to be numerous takedown attempts by Velasquez, an All-American wrestler at Arizona State.

Velasquez is coming off a victory over Cheick Kongo at UFC 99 in which he impressed most observers by repeatedly taking Kongo down and pummeling him on the ground en route to a clear unanimous decision.

That "most observers," though, clearly doesn't include Rothwell. He noted that Kongo was able to knock Velasquez down multiple times and wasn't particularly impressed by the way he worked on the ground.

"(Cain's) had six fights, but I look at it and I say, 'Yeah, he's got these wins, but I know what I would do to those six guys,' " Rothwell said. "If I'd have put Cheick in the positions that he put him in, I would have finished Cheick. No doubt in my mind about that. Velasquez had a hard time. He controlled (Kongo), but he couldn't finish him. And that really doesn't make for a very good fight, either, when the guy is just controlling a guy. If you want to make a name in the UFC, you have to finish people and get knockouts or submissions. That's pretty much what I've been known to do.

"He was getting hit by a 230-pound guy going backwards. Watching the fight, Cheick didn't have his feet planted and was moving backwards and they were kind of arm punches. And he dropped him. I'll say this to you, if he gets hit by me, and I'm going to hit him, he'll be hit harder than he's ever been hit before. I believe you'll see a totally different Cain. If (those punches) don't knock him out, I've gone through all this and I've been hit all sorts of ways. I know, the first time, it's a hard thing to deal with. It's going to be a big shock for him and it will be interesting to see how he deals with it."

Cox said the most significant thing Rothwell needs to deal with is confidence.

"Ben's been around and he's seen a lot and experienced a lot and I don’t think he's going to be intimidated by the crowd or the atmosphere or any of that," Cox said. "What Ben needs is to get more confident in himself and he gets that by performing. If he comes out and things work and he lands a few shots and stops a couple of takedowns, his confidence is going to grow and he'll have a chance for a big win.

"If things don't go his way early, it's going to be more of a test of how he can handle that. But the thing is, Ben is a guy who belongs here. He's not coming in as a sacrificial lamb or anything. He's a quality fighter who is ready to compete at this level and who is very capable of winning this fight. If someone hadn't heard of him before, I believe they will after 104."