UFC on FX 7 goes down this Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and features a 4-fight main card on the FX channel that starts at 9:00 p.m. ET. The lone heavyweight tilt of the show consists of hometown Brazilian Gabriel Gonzaga colliding with a rejuvenated Ben Rothwell, while the main attraction is a middleweight affair between Vitor Belfort and Michael Bisping.
Gabriel "Napao" (directly translating to "Big Nose") Gonzaga (13-6) will forever be remembered for decapitating the heavily hyped Mirko Filipovic, vanquishing the Croatian by brutal knockout with his own signature high kick. Before the earth-shattering upset over CroCop, Gonzaga had plowed through a trio of UFC heavyweights, finishing each one and looking damn good in the process (Kevin Jordan and Fabiano Scherner via strikes, Carmelo Marrero by submission).
Post CroCop, however, things changed. Gonzaga was elevated to a title shot against then-champ Randy Couture, and was beaten up and finished by Couture's classic ensemble of nasty, short-range boxing and dominant clinch control. The opportunity avenge his first career loss then presented itself, but Fabricio Werdum surpassed his 2003 decision win in the Jungle Fight promotion by handing Gonzaga another definitive TKO loss.
The Team Link BJJ black belt capitalized on a pair of tune-up fights, scoring wins over Justin McCully (keylock) and Josh Hendricks (TKO), before the then-undefeated Shane Carwin recovered from being rocked early and lamped Gonzaga with the canned ham he calls a fist, adding another blemish by TKO to his record. After venting his animosity toward Chris Tuchscherer's genitals in a ghastly spectacle that haunts male parts around the world to this day, Gonzaga bowed out on the heels of another pair of defeats (Junior dos Santos by KO, Brendan Schaub by decision), but his vow to compete only in submission grappling was broken when he returned successfully last year against debutante Ednaldo Oliveira (1st-round rear-naked choke).
Along with polarizing Russian juggernaut Fedor Emelianenko, for years, "Big" Ben Rothwell (32-8) was unanimously considered the best heavyweight outside the UFC. Rothwell, then part of the vaunted Miletich Fighting Systems team, set up shop in the IFL and ravaged all comers en route to a 9-0 pace in the now-defunct fight league.
There were a few things that distinguished Rothwell's indelible tour in the IFL: while most non-UFC prospects are relegated to tackling diluted competition, UFC-caliber names like Krzysztof Soszynski (1st-round TKO, twice), Roy Nelson (split decision) and former UFC heavyweight champ Ricco Rodriguez (unanimous decision) dotted his resume. Additionally, for a gargantuan heavyweight standing 6'5" tall and barely sneaking in under the 265-pound weight limit, Rothwell was shockingly graceful and agile for his size, as evinced in his cracking high kicks and artful ring generalship.
After sustaining a ridiculously busy schedule in the IFL, competing 5 times in 2005 and 6 times (that's once every two months) in 2006, Rothwell appeared just twice in 2008, one of which was a losing effort (TKO) to another former UFC heavyweight champion in Andrei Arlovski. If you factor in Rothwell's first career defeat to Tim Sylvia way back in 2001 as well as the contentious stoppage in his Octagon debut against current monarch Cain Velasquez, that translates to one-time UFC heavyweight champions being responsible for half (4 of 8) of Rothwell's career losses.
Starting with Velasquez, Rothwell would alternate losses and wins throughout the remainder of his UFC tenure. He scored a decision over Gilbert Yvel next -- but did not emerge unscathed, as he suffered a torn ACL and deviated septum during the melee -- then affirmed that hulking heavyweights were not conducive to the oxygen-starved elevation in Denver in a stamina-less snoozer with Mark Hunt (decision loss).
Rothwell's latest turn seemed to mark a key evolution: he showed up to the Brendan Schaub soiree looking more trim and cut than ever before, also wearing an unsettling thousand-yard-stare of palpable determination that foreshadowed the 1st-round clobbering that ensued shortly after.
Though his pace has slowed to a crawl by competing just once per year since 2009, much of which can be attributed to a smattering of ongoing injuries, it's interesting to note that Rothwell is just 31-years-old; an age that belies his high mileage and exemplary 12-year track record in MMA.
Size-wise, Gonzaga will be faced with a 2" disadvantage in height and double that in reach. That factor could be emphasized by the critical importance of Gonzaga's ability to shrink the gap and attack Rothwell with takedowns in order to impose his edge in submission grappling, which stands as his best path to victory. Gonzaga is not a poor striker but, if you removed the CroCop win, he might be categorized as such. Barring Werdum, one of the few heavyweights with superior submission savvy, each of Gonzaga's UFC losses were directly related to his unfavorable striking tendencies.
Rothwell is a stellar kickboxer yet, for some reason, he's gone away from using kicks entirely in the Octagon. A likely explanation is the way kicking would leave him susceptible to counter-wrestling, and this match up with Gonzaga is sensible justification for that decision. Regardless, Rothwell's boxing is still quite formidable, and somehow got even scarier for the Schaub fight, in which his hands seemed a full level faster while still packing obscene power. "MMA Math" alert here, but if you compare the way Velasquez, an elite heavyweight wrestler, struggled to get Rothwell down and also contain him there, even when prioritizing control, that doesn't leave me with much confidence for "Napao" to put him on his back.
Of course, Gonzaga is a submission wizard and presents much more of a threat to catch Rothwell during grappling transitions or scrambles. And, if Gonzaga were to win this fight, that's how I see it happening. Even though Gonzaga is tricky with the ploy of launching a few heaters and then following right behind them to drop levels and hit takedowns or clinch up, I find it more likely that Rothwell will get the better end of that scenario with vicious counter punching or effective sprawling.
To maximize his striking advantage, Rothwell will have to be vigilant with his footwork and movement to avoid becoming trapped in corners or smashed against the fence. Gonzaga might be a tad more fleet afoot and should have a decent chance of doing just that, but I'm more inclined to predict that Rothwell will shuck off the first few attempts or negate them by standing back up, and will eventually plant some leather on Gonzaga while he's coming in aggressively. If, by chance, Gonzaga can get Rothwell down and contain him there, his submission grappling acumen is voracious enough to quickly turn the fight's momentum, or even facilitate a finish.
My Prediction: Ben Rothwell by TKO.