Gabriel Gonzaga is good at proving two things in MMA right now: how good you can be and how good your sparring partners are. He’s a Top 10 talent for the most part, pretty much only losing to guys in the Top 10, and he mercks training partners to the stars. Rothwell spent a lot of time on the disabled list before roaring back to better times healthwise, recording a couple of solid wins and an ugly loss where Mark Hunt outlasted him.
Fight Breakdown – Gonzaga is MMA’s strangest case of a heavyweight, I think. He’s just underneath Big Nog in terms of BJJ ability, a high level black belt dangerous in every area on the mat, but his hands do the talking. Gonzaga has one of the best head kick KO’s in UFC history to his credit, laying out Mirko Cro-Cop when that still meant something, and can strike with the best of them. He rarely goes to the ground, mainly because a lot of heavyweights don’t want to deal with his ability there, but he’s no slouch standing either. Gonzaga is a guy who’s incredibly comfortable standing; only guys with first rate power have put him down. It’d be one thing if he was like Andre Arlovski and got knocked out by a stiff breeze; when you’re getting planked by Junior Dos Santos and Shane Carwin it’s not a big deal because those two tend to do that to guys. Outside of a loss to Brendan Schaub (which went to decision) Gonzaga’s losses are fairly stellar: Carwin, JDS, Randy Couture and twice to Fabricio Werdum. In heavyweight MMA that’s not bad as he has good losses to quality competition.
Rothwell is a guy who couldn’t catch a break for a while because of injuries. He’s been in the UFC since 2009 and only fought once a year because of how much he’s gotten hurt. He and Mike Russow have length in their UFC stays but they’ve also fought rarely; Russow because of professional obligations and Rothwell because he’s had major injuries all in a row. Rothwell has been a guy that was signed from the IFL because he looked like he could be a title contender; so far he hasn’t looked it in part because he keeps getting hurt. His last fight, against Schaub, is the first time he’s really looked like the big Kenosha, WI, badass killer type he was projected to be when he was signed.
He’s Luke Rockhold of the heavyweight division in that regard: when he’s healthy he’s dangerous but he’s rarely healthy. And when he gets hurt he usually tears something major. It’s not like he pulls a hamstring or strains something; he tears up major things.
In a lot of ways mirrors Gonzaga. He’s got heavy hands but not nearly as pronounced a ground game, thus most of his wins (and finishes) coming via strikes. Rothwell is good on the ground but not a world beater; he doesn’t have the submission pedigree Gonzaga does but he’s competent for the most part. His skills diminish as he gets tired; Mark Hunt took him down and tooled him on the ground in part because he gassed badly. In what world would you have thought that Mark Hunt, who at one point made Pat Barry look something like a BJJ whiz on the ground, would outclass anyone on the ground? Against a tired Rothwell Hunt nearly pulled it off; Gonzaga will take that arm with him back to Brazil if Rothwell gives him the opportunity.
If Gonzaga game planned he’d go for the takedown, grab a limb and try to break it. His strength is his ground game; Hunt nearly finished an armbar on Rothwell, who has good takedown defense for the first round (which is usually as long as his gas tank goes). If Gonzaga got any sort of position on Rothwell the fight is over; watch him in BJJ competitions and you’ll see an absolute killer on the ground. He has such an advantage on the ground I’d like to see him go after a takedown repeatedly, wear him down, get the fight to the ground and pull something slick off. But he won’t.
Gonzaga doesn’t really display an urgency to take the fight where he’s best at; it’s odd to think that a guy with such a pedigree in the BJJ world would want to be a kick-boxer but Gonzaga’s power is something he’s fallen in love with. It’s such a good tool that he ignores the one area he’s best at because heavyweight MMA is oftentimes a striker’s paradise. Anytime you merck Cro-Cop like how he did you can think of that aspect of your game as something to be feared. That’s something that’s still on the UFC’s “Baba O’Reilly” video package.
Rothwell needs to keep it standing and use that big power to take the fight. Gonzaga likely isn’t taking this to the ground but he needs to get up off his back as soon as he can if taken down, set up scrambles and spend as little time down there as possible. He has big enough power to end the fight but he can’t use it if he’s got a big BJJ black belt like Gonzaga on top of him. He needs to sprawl, brawl and brawl some more. He probably won’t have to, as this has the appearance of a big heavyweight slugfest, but he needs to be weary of the ground game.
Why It Matters – Once upon a time Gonzaga fought for the heavyweight title and got schooled by Randy Couture. That was a long time ago but Gonzaga still potentially has a run towards the top still in him. It’s still now or never for Rothwell. He has such great promise that at some point his potential has to become actuality. Knocking out Schaub was the first step; if that was a fluke it’ll show up in this fight.
Prediction - Rothwell