At first glance, the UFC's late-night booking of Ben Rothwell vs. Junior dos Santos didn't make much sense. Rothwell is the division's hottest fighter, a bruising top heavyweight contender who just submitted the unsubmittable Josh Barnett, while dos Santos is a struggling former champion who got knocked out in two of his last three outings. Rothwell has a legitimately strong case for a title shot, and instead he's facing a man who is stuck outside the title picture looking in.
So believe Rothwell when he says that he understands the confusion. But in the hazy world of the UFC heavyweight division, things aren't always as simple as they seem, and Rothwell stopped by The MMA Hour on Monday to explain why his April 10 main event at UFC Fight Night 86 is actually the best possible outcome considering his present circumstances.
"Look at it this way: waiting 10 months is really the [other] option," Rothwell revealed. "No. Because, Alistair Overeem, even though we already fought, is a top guy. Top guys are top guys, and he's injured or he's dealing with things. He says it's a shoulder. Andrei Arlovski, same thing. He said it's a shoulder. Cain Velasquez, everybody knows. It's documented. Cain, back injury.
"Travis Browne was, I guess from everything I'm hearing, supposed to take this fight (against dos Santos). It was a lock. Then things were said, or something happened, and he said that his foot was too injured. So all four of the top guys [are out], and then the other two (Stipe Miocic and Fabricio Werdum), obviously common sense will say something is happening there. So, that leaves Junior.
"Now, Junior dos Santos might be coming off a loss, but he also beat Stipe, he beat Cain, he beat Werdum, and he's a former UFC heavyweight champion. So that is what it is. He has a lot of people who believe in him still. They think it's a great fight. A lot of people are picking him still, so that means it's a great fight for the fans. I know that I have a legion of fans now who wholeheartedly don't just think I'm going to win this fight, they think I'm going to go on to win the title and defend it. I believe that I'm going to make all of them right, but it starts here with Junior dos Santos. And I believe this one definitely makes me the No. 1 contender, so I accept this challenge."
While UFC Fight Night 86 is slated to air on FOX Sports 1, the event itself marks the UFC's first foray into Zagreb, Croatia, meaning both Rothwell and dos Santos will be a long way from home on fight night. The situation is far from ideal, especially for someone like Rothwell whose road to contendership has already been paved with misfortune, but Rothwell never hesitated when asked if he wanted the opportunity.
"It's part of being a professional and to prove that you can be a main event fighter," Rothwell said. "These are things that have to go with it, and I can do all of these things. I know that I can, and I can go out and perform even better than my last time.
"Who knows? In 10 months a lot of things cans happen. So if I have a fight ready now and I'm healthy now, alright, it makes sense. And like I said, it's still a big name."
Rothwell's current win streak is already the second most impressive in the division, behind only the champion Fabricio Werdum.
The 34-year-old Rothwell has come into his own during that stretch, both as a character and a fighter, knocking out Brandon Vera and Alistair Overeem, then submitting Matt Mitrione and Barnett with back-to-back gogo chokes.
So if any doubt still exists about his résumé, "Big Ben" is looking to put it to rest against dos Santos.
"I think a five-fight win streak in the heavyweight division, winning the way that I am against the competition that I'm winning against ... the wealth of fans saying they want this, we know that does affect the UFC," Rothwell said.
"I believe the way the fans will [push for it] with a fifth a victory at heavyweight. And I feel that [push] now, it's already there, but I feel like a fifth win is going to put it over the top. No one on this planet, except for of course a few critics, and they're always going to be there, but I feel like 90-plus-percent of everyone will say, I'm the No. 1 contender. And that's the way I want it."
In dos Santos, Rothwell now meets a man who for years was believed to be one of the unquestioned top-two heavyweight fighters in the world. The Brazilian's commanding run of success crested in 2011-2012, when dos Santos knocked out Velasquez to seize the UFC heavyweight title, then defended the belt with a two-round rout of Frank Mir.
It is not lost on Rothwell that dos Santos has looked like a changed fighter in the years since. However Rothwell also vowed not to make the mistake of underestimating an opponent who was once one of the most feared challengers in the division.
"I don't judge my opponents and I don't look at what they're doing," Rothwell said, "because when they do it to me, it doesn't turn out well for them. I'm not about to do it to them. But this is just the way it is.
"Any fight for them puts them on a downswing when they take me. If you're going to fight me, then that's kind of the way it is. That's the way I have to handle it, because I'm here to beat anybody. It's not about one guy. It's about all of them. All of them matter to me."