It's quite unusual that the elements of size and strength versus speed and agility hold sway over a fight's outcome, but those variables will inevitably preside over the Brandon Vera vs. Ben Rothwell match up on the main card of Saturday's UFC 164: Henderson vs. Pettis event. The heavyweights square off in one of five of the pay-per-view's featured contests, which begin at 10:00 p.m. ET after the preliminary card bouts cycle through on Fox Sports 1 (8:00 p.m. ET) and Facebook (est. 6:30 p.m. ET).
There was a time when Brandon "The Truth" Vera (12-6), emboldened after a series of explosive stoppages, got on the mic and brazenly announced his intentions to hold UFC gold in both the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions. The grandiose declaration is mostly so due to the luxury of hindsight as, though a ballsy goal by any standards, the electric performances that punctuated Vera's initial UFC stint lent the vibe that it just might be possible.
But, regardless of how stylishly definitive Vera's stoppages over Fabiano Scherner (2nd-round TKO via knees), the late Justin Eilers (1st-round head-kick KO) and Assuerio Silva (1st-round guillotine) were, the charismatic phenom lacked a big-name win to make his prophecy seem at least vaguely conceivable. And then he got one -- former champion Frank Mir, though outfitted in a red-faced, pot-bellied disguise upon returning from a near career-ending motorcycle injury, crumpled under a hail of Vera's scorching strikes in just over a minute of the first stanza.
The resounding surge rocketed Vera's stock to new heights and another former heavyweight champion, Tim Sylvia, likely stood as the only roadblock between the young (then in his late 20's) prospect's dream of a heavyweight title shot. Unfortunately, that particular point in time represents the apex of Vera's career, as things went downhill from there.
Vera's success was largely attributed to capitalizing on the monumental speed and agility advantage he enjoyed over his lumbering counterparts, but his long and lean physique subsequently became his undoing. Sylvia, a 6'8", 265-pound leviathan, dwarfed the 6'2" tall Vera, who typically weighed in at less than 230-pounds, and plastered him against the fence for a unanimous decision via superior girth. Elite heavyweight Fabricio Werdum followed closely behind but dominated Vera with a takedown and flurry of leather from the mount for a 1st-round stoppage.
Perhaps congruent with the benefits of his smaller frame at heavyweight, Vera's drop to light-heavyweight was ultimately pedestrian against competition of like size and athleticism. Vera posted a 5-4 clip at 205 pounds (though the one-sided drubbing dealt by Thiago Silva, who failed a post-fight drug test, was later rendered a No Contest) that was even more disappointing considering that he'd fallen to every upper-echelon opponent he encountered. If there was any saving grace to his cloyed light-heavyweight tenure, it was a surprisingly game showing in defeat against former champ Mauricio Rua in his last outing.
While I'm of the opinion that Vera's best qualities shine brighter as a heavyweight, his UFC 164 opponent, "Big" Ben Rothwell (32-9), embodies the same sort of immense Goliath that cast him out of the weight class in the first place.
Rothwell was a member of the prestigious Miletich Fighting Systems clique who accrued a respectable 16-5 surge to launch his career. The 13-fight win streak that he went on to mount, much of which transpired in the IFL wherein Rothwell picked off Roy Nelson, Krzysztof Soszynski (twice) and former UFC champ Ricco Rodriguez, elevated his status from a promising heavyweight to one that was clearly destined for the Octagon.
While undoubtedly a UFC-caliber heavyweight, Rothwell's resume on the big stage has been less than flattering. His debut was as perilous as it gets, so "Big Ben" was granted some lenience for the semi-controversial stoppage loss to current champion Cain Velasquez, but not in the even 2-2 stint that followed. While his decision over Gilbert Yvel got him back on track, the balance was temporary -- not only did he go on to drop a decision against Mark Hunt, the oxygen-deprived elevation of the Denver venue cursed all endeavors toward cardio and endurance, and the defeat was additionally marred by the painfully sluggish showing.
The noticeably chiseled physique and psychotic stare worn by Rothwell before his rousing destruction of Brendan Schaub was an encouraging change, but ultimately a mere respite from his slide as Gabriel Gonzaga tapped him out with a 2nd-round guillotine in his last turn.
If a trimmed, refocused and otherwise rejuvenated Ben Rothwell does exist, he best show up in the Octagon against Vera on Saturday night. Rothwell in his best form is perfectly tailored to replicate the challenges Vera was unable to withstand in the heavyweight class ... but the so-so Rothwell is, in turn, an ideal target for Vera to tee off on.
Rothwell is a capable striker -- before his UFC tour, he was amongst the dangerous heavyweight strikers -- but his tangible advantage here lies in his size and strength. Vera not only wields an electric Muay Thai arsenal but unfurls his diverse offense with uncanny quickness, excellent timing and graceful footwork. Vera quite simply cannot compete with Rothwell physically just like Rothwell can't compete with Vera's speed and athleticism.
That means location and range will dictate the fight's complexion, and footwork and motion will be the tools that influence those variables. For Vera, his footwork and motion must be vigilantly elusive and defensive while Rothwell is tasked with getting his massive paws on Vera in order to impose his greater stature -- but doing so without absorbing too many of Vera's explosive outbursts.
Vera's key weapons on the feet are his blistering kicks -- which can sail either high to the head or low to the legs with fight-finishing heft -- and his tightly unwound combinations of straight and long punches. Those two weapons basically account for his tools based on distance: his kicks sweep out like a sharpened scythe at range while his hands, and perhaps his knees if a clinch is initiated, make up his close-quarters offense.
The catch is that Vera has to unhinge significant strikes without becoming engulfed in Rothwell's vice-like bear hug, so he must maintain a semblance of balance and poise in order to react defensively with evasive movement. And those two variables stand in contrast: momentous strikes are achieved by planting your feet and torquing your hips, which results in a form and stance that are far from conducive to defending takedowns or clinch entries.
I don't think anyone would argue the notion that Rothwell just doesn't have the explosiveness to drop levels and fire off a takedown from outside against Vera, so it's extremely likely that he'll settle for the middle ground of locking horns in the clinch and gaining ground from there.Though undersized in standing entanglements, Vera's not stunted with the recourse of desperate escape -- his Muay Thai venom extends to the clinch and his counter-striking in that position is not to be overlooked.
If Rothwell is able to force him to the ground, Vera's feisty and technical off his back with the ability to stay in position and threaten with submissions or create enough space to scoot out and stand back up. Of course, Rothwell's a big puncher and weighing down on Vera from the top position makes his ground and pound the perfect instrument to punish his smaller opponent. Since scrambles are likely to ensue in this chess match, Vera's sprightly athleticism and quickness will be just as much as a factor and Rothwell will have to consistently prioritize control over offense to maintain his position.
For a big ol' heavyweight like Rothwell -- who's 6'4" and 265 pounds --chasing the fleet-footed Vera around, judiciously awaiting the right time and location to smash him into the fence, hurling him to the canvas and then implementing his striking offense is a complex and laborious task. Even then, he must complete each of those steps without tasting the thunder of Vera's crisp counter-striking.
The odds of that happening once or even a few times are not insurmountable for Rothwell. However, the odds of him doing it consistently enough to win each round or exact a stoppage are even more futile. Should Rothwell not opt for the clinch-attack strategy, his chances basically rest on touching Vera's chin with punches in open space. Despite the three TKO losses on his record, Vera is not easy to put away with strikes, and a commandingly dominant position (Werdum), an unending succession of heavy strikes (Shogun) or orbital-shattering elbows (Jon Jones) are what's been required.
Rothwell has the capability to do those things, as well as to mirror the traits that Vera's struggled with at heavyweight. But the work he'll have to put in achieve them emphasizes his cardio, motion and Fight I.Q. -- which are areas in which Rothwell hasn't really excelled.
My Prediction: Brandon Vera by decision.