Ben Rothwell and the Fear of Being Yourself

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterJanuary 26, 2016

BETTENDORF, IA - JULY 18: Fighter Ben 'The North Star' Rothwell poses for photos at Militech Fighting Systems on July 18, 2007 in Bettendorf, Iowa. Rothwell who fights in the International Fight League on the Quad-Cities Silverbacks team . The team is the defending International Fight League World Champions. (photo by David S. Holloway/Getty Images)
David S. Holloway/Getty Images

It was a couple of days after Christmas when Ben Rothwell was six years old that he woke up in the morning and couldn't see anything at all. He'd gone suddenly and terrifyingly blind.

He woke up his brother and told him he couldn't see anything. His brother took him into the bathroom, sat Ben down on the toilet and called their mother. She was on her way to work but turned around immediately and headed back to the house.

Ben was scared. His mother rushed into the house and down the hall into the bathroom and was horrified at what she saw.

"She said I looked like I was dying, right there in front of her," Ben says, and he didn't just look like it, because he actually was.

That's when the fear first came.

HOLLYWOOD, FL - AUGUST 23:  (EXCLUSIVE ACCESS)  In preparation for his upcoming match IFL Champion Ben Rothwell poses at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on  August 23, 2007 in Hollywood, Florida.  (Photo by Larry Marano/Getty Images)
Larry Marano/Getty Images

They rushed to the hospital. Ben had spinal meningitis. He slipped into a coma that lasted 11 days. His doctor cautioned his family that the survival rate for spinal meningitis was not very high; there was a better chance of holding the winning lottery ticket in those days.

Ben stayed in that hospital bed, his body eating itself from the inside, while the medical staff did everything they could to save him, and his parents wondered: Was this it? Was their young son destined to die in this hospital bed?

But Ben got his winning lottery ticket. He slowly recovered from the illness, but it took a toll. He kept losing weight after leaving the hospital, and his worried grandmother compensated by overfeeding him. He couldn't do the kinds of athletic things he'd done before the illness, and that inability made him lazy.

Before long, Ben was obese. Other kids made fun of him. He stopped participating in athletics and withdrew into himself, letting the fear hover over him like a black cloud.

The fear became his constant companion. He was a teenager before he started losing the weight and started doing athletic things again.

By that point, the damage was done. Rothwell's attitude had soured. People noticed all the weight he'd lost and stopped making fun of him, started giving him the props he deserved. But instead of being grateful, he became arrogant and spiteful.

"I didn't handle it well," he says. "I acted like an assh--e. I was a bully."

And then the fear choked out the sun.

In 1999, when Rothwell was 17 years old, he was driving home from a church function with his friend Gerald. By his recollection, it was a beautiful day. The church was just two miles from his home, a nice, easy and peaceful drive with the windows down and the fresh air blowing against his face. Not a care in the world. Three weeks earlier, he'd scored a win in his first amateur MMA tournament. He'd discovered that mixed martial arts was what he wanted to do with his life.

Ben and Gerald made it to his parents' house, and Ben turned left to ease his Hyundai Elantra into his parents' driveway. And then, in Ben's memory, he is waking up in the hospital.

Gerald is dying in the next room, they tell him.

A drunk driver in a Ford F-250 had smashed into Ben and Gerald as they made that left turn. The truck was traveling in excess of 110 mph, according to the police report, and knocked over a tree in Ben's front yard before fleeing the scene. Ben was knocked into a coma by the accident. There was a Life Flight ride to the hospital that he has no recollection of. Four hours are missing, much like the 11 days the spinal meningitis took from him.

BETTENDORF, IA - JULY 18: Fighter Ben 'The North Star' Rothwell poses for photos at Militech Fighting Systems on July 18, 2007 in Bettendorf, Iowa. Rothwell who fights in the International Fight League on the Quad-Cities Silverbacks team . The team is the
David S. Holloway/Getty Images

They let Ben out of the hospital after a couple of days. He had awful contusions on his head and 11 broken ribs. Things would be painful for a while, but he would make it.

Gerald did not make it.

The death of a friend is the thing that can change a person for the worse. And at first, Ben had a difficult time. He was in a daze of sorts, walking around like a zombie as he returned to school. He smiled and laughed at things that weren't at all funny. It took six months before he began to feel somewhat normal again.

Nine months after the crash, with the court case stemming from the accident now resolved, Ben asked to see the destroyed car. He just had to see it. He was taken to the junkyard. It was there, seeing what had become of the vehicle that he was traveling in before everything went dark, that something changed inside him.

"That moment when I saw the car, my life changed," he says. "There is no reason I should be alive. I started appreciating that I could walk around, that I had fingers and toes. I realized how lucky I was."

He'd survived and knew there had to be a reason why. He was determined to discover exactly what that reason was. It was a moment of clarity, a time where everything changed for him and set him on a new path. Friends and family could see the difference; they could see he was still on this earth for a purpose.

It was time for him to discover exactly what that purpose was.

Rothwell renewed his dedication to MMA and began to fight professionally. He was still a teenager, often competing against grown men a decade or more older, and he was beating them. He'd grown to a large stature—6'4" and 280 pounds—and he was incredibly quick for his size.

But a pattern began to develop. He'd win a bunch of fights in a row, climb up whatever rankings there were to climb and earn fights against tougher opponents, like the future UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. It was in those moments, with big opportunities on the line, that Rothwell would retreat into himself. He would give in to the fear and lose the fight.

He had a mental block somewhere in there. Maybe it went back to his days as an obese kid who was constantly made fun of in elementary school. Maybe it was the car wreck. Whatever the reason, the fear was there, lodging itself deeper into Rothwell's spirit like an unwanted friend.

"I've always been afraid of being successful," he says. "For some reason, I like to shoot myself in the foot. I held myself back. I've always been my own worst enemy."

The pattern continued throughout his career, even as it took him into the UFC, where he alternated wins and losses from the moment he stepped in the Octagon.

"When I got to the higher end, in the IFL (International Fight League) or the [Andrei] Arlovski fight in Affliction, it was just like I was being held back. I can't even explain it," he says. "There could be a lot to it. Every fighter struggles with it, with being as good as they are in the training room."

And then came a fight against Brandon Vera on August 31, 2013.

Critics will remember that Rothwell was flagged for elevated testosterone levels after the fight. What they don't know is that his endocrinologist told him after the car wreck that his body's natural ability to produce testosterone was "destroyed."

Ben had been cleared to undergo testosterone replacement therapy and was one of the very few active fighters with a real need for it, but the UFC decided to put him on the sidelines for nine months after his levels were higher than they should've been.

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 31:  (R-L) Ben Rothwell celebrates after defeating Brandon Vera by TKO in their UFC heavyweight bout at BMO Harris Bradley Center on August 31, 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Image
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

But what Rothwell remembers—and this seems far more important than the price he paid for failing the drug test—was a moment in the third round when he finally came to grips with the fear that had trailed him since childhood.

"Something inside of me opened up in that round, the first minute," he says. "You can see it."

And sure enough, you can see it, if you watch the tape with an idea of what you are looking for. It looks as though a weight has been lifted from Rothwell's shoulders, which makes sense, because that is exactly what happened.

The fear that took root deep down inside him when he was six years old, lying in the hospital, afraid that he was going to die there and never have the chance to leave that white room and white bed with the clicking and whirring machinery pumping all manner of God knows what into him. The fear that turned him mean. The fear that turned a gorgeous sunny drive down a country road into a hell that stole the life of his best friend.

The fear was gone.

It was a realization on multiple levels: that he could be successful, and that it was OK for him to do so. That he didn't have to fit into the mold others tried to squeeze him into. That he was free to be himself, no matter what everyone else thought, and that he could compete with the best in the world.

"I've never been the same since," he says.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JUNE 06:   Ben Rothwell celebrates his submission victory over Matt Mitrione in their heavyweight bout during the UFC event at the Smoothie King Center on June 6, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

After that came Rothwell's most famous victory, a knockout of the hulking striker Alistair Overeem. After that, he submitted Matt Mitrione and then gave a now-famous post-fight interview to Jon Anik. You know the one. Rothwell assumed something that resembled the spirit of a long-ago professional wrestler mixed with a stereotypical movie villain, emitting a "muah ha ha" laugh that immediately morphed him from a fighter on the fringe into someone fans were genuinely interested in.

It was no gimmick, he says. He was just being himself.

Sure, it looked and sounded pretty weird, but it was real, and it all went back to that moment in the third round of the Vera fight when the dual fear of success and failure was banished to the sidelines and Rothwell became, finally, at peace with himself.

"I realized I can be who I am. I don't have to be afraid anymore," he says. "That's why you heard the laugh and saw me with the cloak. People were like, what is this? But it's real. I've decided that I can be as badass as I want to be."

Ben Rothwell faces Josh Barnett this Saturday at UFC on Fox 18. Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter


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