Commentary

Rothwell fight a blessing for Velasquez

Updated: October 22, 2009, 6:30 PM ET
By Franklin McNeil | Special to ESPN.com

In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, there is no such thing as a title eliminator. When two top contenders square off, there is no guarantee the victor will be awarded a shot at the champion.

There was a fight scheduled a few months ago that might have bucked that theory. Highly rated heavyweights Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez were originally slated to meet Saturday night at UFC 104 (pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET) in Los Angeles.

It was reasonably believed by most mixed martial arts fans that the winner would get a date with titleholder Brock Lesnar. The champion, however, had no desire to wait around while potential opponents duked it out for the right to face him. Lesnar asked to fight sooner rather than later.

He got his wish. Lesnar will face Carwin at UFC 106 on Nov. 14.

With Carwin no longer on his immediate to-do list, Velasquez was given another man to face at Staples Center this weekend: Ben Rothwell. The former International Fight League champ is no pushover, but he isn't considered in the same class as Carwin.

At 6-foot-4 and more than 265 pounds, Rothwell is a big man. He has a professional mixed martial arts record of 30-6-0.

That record, however, was compiled against midlevel MMA competition. He will now test his skills against some of the world's best fighters, starting with Velasquez. This will be Rothwell's UFC debut.

Though Rothwell is a respected fighter, defeating him won't guarantee Velasquez a bout against the Lesnar-Carwin winner. He will most likely be forced to wait a bit longer for a date with destiny, but Velasquez isn't complaining.

"That's for the UFC to decide," Velasquez said during a recent conference call. "Whatever they decided, I feel it is right. I do believe I will get my chance sooner or later.

"When they gave me the Carwin fight … I thought it was a great opportunity. Then they gave me Ben Rothwell," Velasquez said. "I've got to fight Ben Rothwell now. I've got to get ready for him, and that's my mentality."

Taking on Rothwell rather than Carwin might be a blessing. Velasquez needs to correct a flaw in his game -- weak stand-up -- that was exposed in June.

At UFC 99, Velasquez was staggered a few times by right hands from Cheick Kongo. Whenever a right landed, Velasquez appeared ready to go to sleep. He survived by grabbing Kongo and taking him down.

Once on the ground, Velasquez used his superior wrestling skills to control Kongo. It was enough to earn him a unanimous decision -- the first time in his UFC career that Velasquez would go three rounds.

The victory was bittersweet, however. Though he remained unbeaten, improving to 6-0-0, Velasquez looked nothing like the fighter who had crushed his previous three UFC opponents.

Too often he was vulnerable to Kongo's punching power. If Kongo possessed just minimal ground-fighting skills, Velasquez likely would have lost.

Instead, he dodged a bullet against Kongo. Velasquez probably dodged a second bullet when Carwin was offered the fight with Lesnar.

Carwin is a more advanced stand-up fighter than Velasquez and has enough wrestling talent to make it competitive on the ground. If their fight had not been interrupted, Velasquez would have been an underdog.

When Velasquez steps in the cage Saturday night, he will be favored. Rothwell isn't paying attention to the odds; his focus is squarely on Velasquez's improving skill set.

"Everybody knows [Velasquez] has a strong wrestling background. His stand-up is always improving," Rothwell said. "He is on his way to becoming just as well-rounded as any of the top fighters."

Velasquez's ground game should serve him well against Rothwell, but it won't help if he's staggered by a big punch. Rothwell is a solid striker. He has the strength and skills to finish an opponent with a punch or kick.

There is another element to Rothwell's game that makes him a threat to put a blemish on Velasquez's UFC mark: He is comfortable on the ground. Rothwell doesn't possess Velasquez's wrestling pedigree, but he knows how to get back to his feet.

"He's extremely well-rounded," the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Velasquez said of Rothwell. "He has great hands; he has great kicks. He has everything to offer when he fights."

This could be a very difficult fight for Velasquez, and that is what he expects. Velasquez has been working diligently on improving his stand-up game.

He wants to be UFC heavyweight champion one day. Rothwell will let him know just how far that dream is from being realized.

Franklin McNeil is an analyst on ESPN.com's "MMA Live."