Bellator 181 middleweight Mike Rhodes was the last man prior to UFC 213 this past weekend to go the distance with new interim middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. Friday night in Thackerville, Oklahoma, Rhodes squares off against undefeated Jiu-jitsu ace Rafael Lovato Jr. The submission specialist is a stiff test, but speaking to Cageside Press in advance of the fight, Rhodes made it clear that the challenge is all part of the learning experience.
After all, in his UFC run, Rhodes was thrown to some real killers: George Sullivan, Erick Silva, and of course Whittaker. In hindsight, was that too much too soon?
“Not at all” Rhodes told us. “Without the opportunity or without the struggles, you don’t get the man or the person that you are. If you didn’t go through the things that you’ve been through in your life, you won’t be in the same position that you’re in now. You gotta look at it that way.”
Expanding on what turned out to be the longest losing streak of his career, Rhodes explained that “I felt like those opportunities were things that were put in front of me at that time of my life, and I felt like I needed to go through those, and I feel like they made me a better person and a better fighter today.” Still, he said, “if you look back at those fights though, I feel you gotta put an asterisk by some of them. George Sullivan has two USADA violations back-to-back, he’s been suspended for how many years now, he hasn’t had a fight due to that. I mean look at Erick Silva post-USADA.”
The one fight that doesn’t carry that asterisk is the Whittaker fight, from back in 2014. “I think the only fight you really look at and I regard myself well with is the Robert Whittaker fight” Rhodes told us. “I mean look at the guy now, fighting for the UFC interim middleweight title. I’m the last person to last three rounds with the guy. So it just gives me a little bit of a boost of confidence in my skill set. I feel like I’ve made the jump, leaps and bounds. I’m coming into my own as a man and as a fighter.”
What takeaways were there from that earlier stage of his career? “I was a young kid, who thought he was ready, stepped into opportunities that he thought he could take advantage of, and I got humbled” he admitted. “It’s just a part of life. Sometimes you think you can walk with the big dogs until they start playing around, and you find yourself in the corner wondering what happened. I found myself deep down in that corner and did what I knew I had to do, what I’ve done my whole life, dusting myself off, and getting back to work. Putting my head down, get to the grind and get better. I’ve done that my whole life.”
A positive statement from a fighter who says you’ll “never see me down in the dumps for too long.” Plus, he learned a few simple things about what he needed to make it at a high level. “I just learned that I needed to get bigger, stronger, faster. My mentality needed to get strong. I needed to be more well-rounded in my skill set, and I just needed to be more confident in myself.” That’s something, Rhodes feels, that was better to learn early in his career.
Friday, Rhodes is making his Bellator MMA debut at Bellator 181. So how has the experience been with his new promotion, and is there any desire to go back to the UFC and make a statement? Rhodes is, after all, a perfect 4-0 since parting ways with the company.
“Bellator is my home. I’m happy with Bellator, they’ve treated me nice, I’ve got a good contract with Bellator right now” he told us. “This is just a new chapter in my life. I need to grab this opportunity with both hands, and ride it out and make the best of it.”
“As far as do I want to avenge some of my losses? Hell yeah. I mean who wouldn’t? I’m a fighter, and that’s what we’re about. I would love to fight Robert Whittaker again. He’s a great fighter, a great martial artist, we talk back and forth on Twitter and Instagram and stuff like that, we’re really friendly with one another, but I’m sure he wants to fight anybody who has beaten him as well. It’s just in our DNA as fighters. I’m happy with the situation that I have, and the opportunities that I have in front of me.”
Speaking of opportunities, Rhodes’ fight against Rafael Lovato Jr. is not technically his first booking for the company. He’d previously accepted a bout against Kendall Grove at Bellator 174 on all of three days notice, but the fight was pulled from the card when he couldn’t make weight. The Grove fight was a challenge Rhodes was down for, but ultimately, this may be the better option.
“I think so. I think this is the best opportunity for me, because three days notice versus someone like Kendall would have been a little rough” the fighter explained. “This opportunity with a full camp will be better for me.”
That’s not to say that losing a payday against Grove didn’t hurt. “I hadn’t fought in over a year, so obviously that was a lot of money I missed out on, but it was a really hard weight cut and a really bad situation, as far as cutting that much weight and trying to fight someone of that caliber” he continued. Still, “I have a lot of confidence in myself and in my skill set, that I could have took advantage of it and won that fight as well, but I feel like with a camp it’s just better for me, better for my debut, it’s just a better overall situation.”
On page two, we discuss trash talkers who don’t back it up, Rhodes’ Bellator 181 fight with Rafael Lovato Jr, and CM Punk.