Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Breakout star Rothwell keeps on winning

By Ben Fowlkes

The International Fight League is without official individual division title-holders at the moment, but there's at least one consensus champion in the organization, even if he doesn't have a belt around his waist.

Quad City Silverback heavyweight Ben Rothwell hasn't lost a fight since joining the company in 2006, and has yet to look the least bit vulnerable in the ring.

But not only has Rothwell beaten every other heavyweight the IFL has thrown at him, he's done so in devastating fashion. Only one of his five fights in the IFL has gone out of the first round, and two have ended with single-blow knockouts.

Between Rothwell's highlight-reel finishes and his easy-going Midwestern farmer persona, it's not hard to see why he's been the organization's poster boy . Silverbacks coach Pat Miletich has said repeatedly that he thinks Rothwell is a top heavyweight in any MMA organization, and Miletich is a man who should know.

Until recently, the Miletich camp had the UFC heavyweight champion in their stable with Tim Sylvia, as well as the UFC welterweight champion in Matt Hughes. Though some claim Rothwell has yet to be tested a top-tier opponent, it's worth remembering that he's likely been trading blows with Sylvia on a day-to-day basis.

But now it seems as though the IFL's increased exposure has put Rothwell on the cusp of real fame. MMA fans on a national level are starting to take notice of Big Ben, and with a pro record of 21-5, including the nine-fight win streak he's currently riding, he seems to have the skills to be a legitimate contender.

That's why this weekend's bout will be such a crucial one for this rising star. When Rothwell's Silverbacks take to the ring in Moline, Illinois, his opponent will be vaunted grappler Roy Nelson.

Nelson was a late addition to Ken Shamrock's Nevada Lions, but his resume pegs him as a ground fighter with a notable pedigree. Nelson was undefeated until his recent decision loss to Josh Curran in Bodog Fight, though he has yet to face a fighter with Rothwell's range and experience.

"Everyone knows my strengths," Rothwell has said of his plan for the fight. "I'm out to get the knockout. If I don't have to go to the ground, I won't."

It's probable that the ground is exactly where Nelson will look to take this fight, as well he should. Rothwell's striking is highly technical for a heavyweight, and his footwork keeps him out of range of his opponents' takedowns most of the time.

But this fight may be the first time fans get to see Rothwell's grappling ability truly tested. Nelson will look to put him on his back and keep him there, and if Rothwell can withstand that he may silence some of the doubters that criticize him as a one-dimensional fighter.

However, this match will have more than just personal significance attached to it. Rothwell's Silverbacks desperately need a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive. After their close loss to the Anacondas in February, they can't afford even one more defeat.

According to Rothwell, coach Miletich has been making that point abundantly clear in the team workout sessions.

"Everything completely changed," Rothwell said. "This has been the hardest training I've ever been through in my life."

That may be exactly what Rothwell needs to maintain his current position at the top of the heavyweight heap. As Miletich is fond of telling his fighters, holding on to title is much harder than winning it.

If Rothwell keeps up his current pace, don't be surprised to see him hold on to his top spot all the way through the year-end tournament the IFL is planning in order to crown a champion for each weight class.

Barring injury, Big Ben should have heavyweight gold around his waist this time next year.


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