Yesterday I learned that due to a biceps injury to Tom Sauer, former UFC heavyweight champ Ricco Rodriguez has been named as a replacement opponent for Ben Rothwell in the IFL Finals this Thursday. At first I was very excited, but now I’m just very nervous.
Having gotten to know Rothwell on a personal basis this past year, it’s often hard for me to set aside my personal feelings about the guy like a good sports writer ought to be able to do. But since this is my blog and not the IFL site, I’m just going to admit it: I like Ben Rothwell.
He’s a good fighter who doesn’t get the respect he deserves from a lot of hardcore MMA fans who feel he’s somehow being propped up by the IFL. He trains hard, he puts everything he has into his fights, and he wants to entertain the crowd rather than win a boring fight at any cost.
But beyond his abilities in the ring, I think Rothwell is a very genuine and good person. If I were forced to level one criticism against him, it’s that he’s a bit too sensitive.
The first time I realized this was soon after the Roy Nelson fight, which Rothwell won via a very close decision. I called him the following week for something pretty innocuous, probably to get a quick quote from him on an unrelated topic, and the next thing I knew we were talking for an hour.
At first he was almost hostile, as many of the Miletich fighters can be with the media, complaining about something I’d written. When I pointed out that I was just quoting Ken Shamrock, who had made a disparaging remark about the decision, his tone became suddenly vulnerable, like a hurt child.
“Why does he have to talk about people like that?” he said. “Why does one person have to get disrespected in order for someone else to get respect?”
Here I tried to explain what I took to be the Ken Shamrock world view, wherein every day is a constant battle for respect, but I don’t know how effective I was at communicating this. We kept talking and I began to see Rothwell as a regular guy under a lot of pressure, wondering if he was as good as people (like me) said he was, wondering if he could shoulder the weight he was being asked to carry.
I found this very refreshing. Most fighters want you to think that they believe themselves to be indestructible. They never seem to even consider the possibility of defeat. But Rothwell was more honest than that. If anything, he was a little too concerned about his own image, not wanting to seem overly confident.
Now when I write about Ben, it’s extremely difficult. In a way I consider us friends, as much as two people in our respective positions can ever be friends, and I know that he reads everything I write and probably over-analyzes it if it’s about him.
When we didn’t get a chance to talk much at the IFL Semifinals (which were in New Jersey and thus allowed me to spend more time at home in Queens instead of hanging around the hotel lobby for three days like at away events), he called me up the following weekend to make sure we were still on good terms. I told him we were, and I was glad to be able to say so.
This is one of the more surprising side effects of my job with the IFL. It’s hard not to like certain fighters and become emotionally involved with their careers and the outcomes of their fights.
For instance, I have a great deal of respect and affection for Bryan Vetell. I remember sitting ringside in Connecticut the night he got knocked out by Devin Cole, and seeing him lying there unconscious, his mouth piece on the mat next to his head, I got a sad, sinking feeling in my stomach.
That’s why I’m somewhat conflicted about Ben’s fight with Ricco Rodriguez, who is a very capable and dangerous fighter when he wants to be. I’m trying to be impartial, telling myself that I just want to see a good fight, but that’s not true.
I want Ben to win. I want him to win big. And I feel bad about feeling this way, about rooting for one guy over another just because I like him as a person. But I can’t help it. So I might as well own up to it.