Ben Rothwell had a feeling his run with the UFC was possibly coming to an end even before he was released from the promotion.
After he was offered a fight against Alexander Gustafsson in May, which would serve as the last bout on his current contract, the 40-year-old heavyweight reached out to discuss a potential extension. It became clear in those conversations that Rothwell wasn’t guaranteed a future with the UFC beyond that fight even if he earned an impressive win.
“Me and my management sat back and it’s the last fight on my deal, what comes next?” Rothwell said on The MMA Hour. “What are we going to do? So we went to the UFC and said are we going to sign something? Are we going to get something done ahead for this fight? Cause in my mind, I’ve been kind of seeing the landscape of what’s going on and the timing and where I’m at in the picture. They let go some of the big heavyweights and stuff and I’m like even if I go in and perform well, knockout Gustafsson in the first round, look great, what’s going to happen next?
“We asked them ‘are we going to sign a deal?’ and they’re like ‘let us get back to you.’ They came back and said let’s see what happens after this fight. We talked about it and kind of suspected that was the answer, which kind of left the door open to go out and win and do great and that’s it, we’re going to let you go anyways.”
According to Rothwell, he didn’t like the uncertainty looming over his career, especially as he acknowledged that he only had limited time left in the sport.
That led to an entirely different talk with the UFC where Rothwell asked for his release from the promotion after 13 years on the roster.
“We asked for our release in February,” Rothwell revealed. “I said I’ve only got so many fights and this fight was just a fight to make money. What is it really going to do if I fight Gustafsson, who is a name but he’s 0-3 [in his last three fights] and the fight is just a fight. It’s a fight to make money and I’ve only got so many fights left in me to make money.
“We just asked for our release and they said there was a period going back and forth, I think it caught them off surprise if anything. I’ve been with them for 13 years. So they granted it to us and they didn’t have to. So I have nothing bad to say. I’ve had a good 13 years being a professional fighter, making my living off of fighting, getting to do something I love and they granted it to us.”
While Rothwell has no bad blood with the UFC whatsoever, he admits that his last few years there were difficult as he struggled to maintain his own personality after a uniform policy was instituted in the wake of a multi-year deal signed with Reebok.
Under new guidelines, fighters were required to wear specific outfits, which also meant Rothwell wasn’t allowed to express himself through walkouts or the weigh-ins because he had to dress like every other athlete in the UFC. At one point, Rothwell says he even got threatened with fines after he attempted — as a noted Star Wars fan — to wear a cloak out to one of his fights before UFC officials intervened.
“Not fighting in front of people and not being able to be myself, it’s been crippling for me the last five years,” Rothwell said. “Yeah, they threw a uniform on us and I feel like my hands have been chained.
“I just feel like there’s so much more to me and so much more to show and that’s what’s got me so excited. I get to be me again. I get to come out and entertain and become the animal I know I can be.”
Add to that, Rothwell saw a number of other high profile heavyweights get released from the UFC over the past year, which only exacerbated the doubts he had about receiving another long term deal even with a win over Gustafsson in May.
“I came to them originally [wanting to re-sign],” Rothwell said. “I’ve been with them for 13 years and I want to know that I’m going to go through another one of these training camps, just let me know if I go through this and do well, am I going to have another fight after? It’s just business, I get it. When they let go of Junior [Dos Santos] and [Alistair] Overeem, it was a big flag for me that they were making some big changes in the company.
“Junior especially wanted to be there, they didn’t want him. I knew he was on a bad streak, I get it. You can’t just lose four fights and think it’s normal. Obviously there’s things at play but Overeem’s always been an anchor at heavyweight. That was kind of surprising and I knew the writing on the wall. They’re getting rid of the older guys.”
Even asking for the release was stressful because Rothwell understood the uncertainty that awaited him after finding a lot of job security in the UFC since first signing there in 2009.
Thankfully, Rothwell found out his worth on the open market rather quickly after he received offers from “pretty much everybody” in combat sports before eventually reaching an agreement to crossover to bare-knuckle fighting with a contract offer from BKFC.
“BKFC came with the best offer,” Rothwell said. “Made me very excited. I believe that it’s a place for me because I was doing BKFC long before MMA. It’s something that I’m a part of in my life. Something my grandfather was doing, probably not legally, but he had a history of it and it’s in my blood. I’m really excited to be with them.
“It’s a very good deal for me. In short term, yes, it’s a better deal [than the UFC]. I can’t really get into numbers but let’s just say I’m a six-figure fighter and I win my next three fights, I’ll make seven figures. It’s a very good deal.”
Beyond his three-fight deal with BKFC, Rothwell can’t predict the future just yet.
He won’t say with absolute certainty that he’ll never compete in mixed martial arts again because there’s always a chance another organization will come calling with an offer he can’t refuse.
That said, Rothwell appears ready to make his BKFC debut this summer and he’s putting his full attention towards bare-knuckle competition for the time being.
“I think it’s best to always keep doors open,” Rothwell said. “Because I kind of get myself going, get my name back in there going again and I show the kind of entertainer that I know that I am and I get people excited again, anything is possible. I’ve only got so many more years to do it. The door’s open for anything. Never say never.”