Rothwell versus Dos Santos: The Craft of Fighting Ugly and the Flaws of 'Perfect' Boxing

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Ben Rothwell's career turnaround has been every bit as impressive as Mark Hunt's. In fact, when you consider just how he has gone about winning fights lately it might be even more so. In September of 2014 Rothwell effortlessly knocked out the last man to win a K-1 Grand Prix that mattered, Alistair Overeem. In June of 2015 he raised some brows by introducing his ten-finger guillotine or 'gogo choke' on the windpipe of the respectable Matt Mitrione. And in January of this year, Rothwell shocked every pundit and fan in the game by repeating the exact same finish against Metamoris heavyweight champion, catch wrestling wizard and previously unsubmitted in MMA, Josh Barnett.

What surprises me is how willingly Rothwell has jumped into a fight with Junior dos Santos when at this stage—and this is a phrase I never thought I would be uttering two years ago—Dos Santos is a large step back. While Rothwell has put together a streak of four victories, three against very respectable heavyweights, Dos Santos is on a 2-3 skid. If the judges had been a little more impressed by the shellacking that Stipe Miocic put on Dos Santos for the best part of three rounds, he could have just a sole victory to his name since December 2012. Dos Santos has fallen a long way for a man who until recently fans were convinced couldn't lose to anyone not named Cain Velasquez. But he's still as dangerous as they come: having one puff stuff in both hands and better boxing set ups than the vast majority of fighters in most divisions, let alone amid the clumsy giants who make up most of the heavyweight class.

What's more, Dos Santos is fresh off of a shocking knockout loss at the hands of Alistair Overeem, when Overeem himself was flat out starched by Rothwell just a year earlier. When you factor in that Stipe Miocic pulled out of his fight for the position of number one contender against Ben Rothwell (a terrific match up which we can only hope happens at some point down the road) and was rewarded with a title shot while Rothwell—the man who stayed healthy and was ready to fight—got stuck with this, it's maddening.

If you have read anything I have written about Big Ben in the past you will know that I grow increasingly fond of him with each bout and that I appreciate how he has developed over recent years. I don't think Rothwell's own family would take offence at me calling his style ugly but the truth is that not everyone can come out and be a crisp, straight punching technician and some guys are far more suited to different games. Rothwell hits exceptionally hard from in close and so his game has built up around that.

He had trouble when he was getting lanced by straight blows, so he brought his hands out in front of him and made the 'window' or the 'mummy guard' to put some obstructions between the opponent and himself, utilizing his elbows and forearms to parry and guard effectively from there.

If the opponent hangs about trying to swing around his arms, he has a much easier time getting in range to start throwing his big bombs. You can see that in the Mitrione fight—popular opinion is that Rothwell was getting lit up. While it wasn't at all pretty, you can count the decent blows landed by Mitrione on one hand, the sole successful flurry of the bout came from Rothwell.

The other problem with being a guy who likes to brawl in close is that you are prone to having men grab a hold of you or duck in on your hips. Rothwell loves the uppercut so a panicked duck at his hips is a dangerous proposition anyway, but in his development of the wicked windpipe choke that he calls the 'gogo choke', Rothwell has made trying to take him down much more dangerous. Gogo apparently refers to the Adam's apple and the choke is reportedly applied directly on that, explaining why it is so unpleasant for even a savvy veteran like Josh Barnett.

Junior dos Santos, well he's as good a boxer as any in MMA if you only look at his hands. He'll set up his distance and he'll dart in with heavy jabs and right straights to the midsection, before suddenly swinging that overhand across the top. Or he'll show the left hook a couple of times and then fire the right uppercut as the opponent braces for the hook. He's a man of set ups and of level changes. That is the problem, Dos Santos works almost entirely in two dimensions—vertically and in and out. He fights a fencing match style of fight wherein he works opponents up and down beautifully and can move forward and back with tremendous rapidity, but his grasp of lateral movement has shown to be pretty poor unless he is specifically using it in an attack he has planned.

And that's the reason that Dos Santos struggles so much with pressure. He gets to his perfect distance from where he can slam in long straight pot shots at the body or the overhand, and then the opponent steps in. He has to re-establish the distance to he steps back. It is very rare that he remembers to break off the same line before he ploughs straight into the fence. There he can be hit almost at will and his feet can be pushed together to reduce his hitting power—which stems from lightning fast transfers of weight from one foot to the other far more than it does any magical strength in his muscles.

Regarding the specifics of this match up the interesting pairing for me is the overhand and the uppercut. Rothwell loves his uppercut, but Dos Santos is a very upright fighter within his lengthy stance, meaning the uppercut is not the ideal weapon and when thrown it has to travel further. However, Dos Santos does indulge in a deep lean down to his left side whenever he throws that overhand. The uppercut forms part of a circle between the bodies of two men. The other half of that circle is overhand. When a man throws an uppercut and his opponent throws the overhand, it can end horribly for either man.

Because Rothwell is so tall, and his stance is so short and squared, he can be seen as something of an ideal target for the overhand.Alistair Overeem hit Rothwell with a good few overhands over Rothwell's uppercut, but he was also badly hurt by the uppercut when it did connect. You will remember that Frankie Edgar's uppercut in turn was used as an excellent counter to Urijah Faber's overhand because he threw it with such a lean. Of course the uppercut is an invaluable punch in clinches along the fence because power can still be generated upwards when the feet are level, where it is difficult to create force on straight or hooking blows without some sort of stance to transfer the weight between feet.

For Rothwell you would think that he must steer clear of the straight power on the outside and avoid eating the overhand, avoiding the temptation to reach down to deal with Dos Santos' vexxing straights to the body and instead focusing on closing the distance. His powerful low kicks are an under-rated facet of his game, and the one which lifted Matt Mitrione's lead leg and held him in place for a flurry was a perfect example. The inside low kick is always an interesting tool against a fighter in as long and narrow a stance as Dos Santos favous. Putting Dos Santos under pressure almost always sees him go to the fence, rather than be forced to it, such is his tendency to forget lateral movement altogether so it shouldn't be too difficult a task. What Rothwell can do there will be interesting to see.

A lovely inside low kick against the southpaw Matt Mitrione leaves him anchored on one foot, with nowhere to go.

The fence is undoubtedly where Rothwell does his best work.

For Dos Santos, maybe he will finally show the breaking of the line of attack that his game has been so desperately needing since Cain Velasquez had so little trouble moving him to the fence all the way back in their second bout. I am also interested to see how Dos Santos' jab can be utilized in this bout. Rothwell had tremendous trouble with the straight left of Brandon Vera when he was fighting southpaw, and tightened it up a bit against the southpaw Matt Mitrione, and didn't so much have to worry about straight blows as Overeem tentatively sprinted in and out with wild swings. It is quite feasible that the orthodox Dos Santos, whose lead hand has proven wickedly fast in the past, could perform as he did against Shane Carwin and focus on milling or swaying the lead hand back and forwards to disguise quick stabs in with the jab, pairing it or alternating it with a long, slapping left hook when appropriate. Rothwell's active guard, wherein his hands and gloves are always moving to deal with blows and rarely is it his feet or head movement getting him out of the way, might make him a perfect mark for Dos Santos who lives and dies by one or two punch set ups. Punch A, punch A, punch A, punch B is basically Dos Santos' boxing in a nutshell, but if punch B sails through a hole created by the opponent making adjustments to deal with those irritating, winding body jabs or flicking leads to the head, that's all he needs.

The simple act of the level change can be enough to loosen the opponent's guard.

Finally, there is the playoff between counter puncher and granite chinned brawler. Rothwell wants trades and counts on winning them. Dos Santos has knocked out or knocked down a fair few guys on the counter. It might be in Dos Santos' interest to put the jab on hold at the beginning of the bout and just hit Rothwell as hard as he can at the earliest possible opportunity—it's unlikely to deliver him an easy knockout (Rothwell has taken flush counters from Mark Hunt and kept plodding forwards), but often pressure based fighters can be made to think twice if the first time they step in they eat heavy leather.

One of my favourite examples is Robbie Lawler versus Matt Brown. The first time Brown stepped in, Lawler swung for the fences. Obviously Lawler couldn't do that every time Brown stepped in through a five round fight, he'd give himself a hernia and tire himself out inside a round, but he convinced Brown. Suddenly the terrifying pressure fighter was darting in and out in a kickboxing match which was much more to Lawler's liking, and the kind of bout which would certainly be much more in Dos Santos' interest. On the flip side of course, a counter puncher can often get quickly discouraged if he is loading up on his counters and eating two or three scrappy punches after he has already connected what he feels should have been a knockout shot. 

This bout could turn out to be the one which kills Ben Rothwell's incredible streak in the heavyweight division, it could even be the one which propels Junior Dos Santos back into contention despite his lackluster performances in recent years. Alternatively, it could be the bout which puts the small portion of the fight world not yet paying attention to Rothwell on blast, and to force the UFC's hand into giving him a title fight. It might be a beautiful boxing clinic, or an ugly brawl. A single punch knockout, a drawn out slog, or maybe even a gogo choke submission... Whatever the case, get back here Monday and we'll talk about how it went down. 


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