January 17, 2014

Rockhold Rising: The Strikeforce Star Finally Takes His Place Among the UFC's Middleweight Elite

By Roy Billington

In the fight game, you’re only ever as good as your last performance. Fight fans by nature are fickle, and fight media are worse. Going into Wednesday night’s UFC Fight Night 35 main event, Luke Rockhold had it all to prove. He had tasted defeat for the first time in almost 6 years when his ever-growing hype train was abruptly derailed courtesy of a Vitor Belfort spinning heel kick, and Rockhold was left with two remaining options: go the way of many derailed prospects and continue to lose, or evolve. He chose the latter.



For Luke Rockhold, martial arts have been a way of life since he was a child. At the age of six, the California native Rockhold first stepped foot into a martial arts school. His martial art of choice was judo, and while it would be a love of grappling arts that would take Rockhold in the world of MMA, after winning a few judo tournaments, he realised the sport wasn’t for him. Luke’s next excursion into the world of grappling would come in 7th grade. Rockhold, already an avid skater and surfer, decided to try out for his school’s wrestling team, a decision that would ultimately bode well for the young Californian, as he became naturally adept in the sport, eventually competing at the California State Championships before realising once more that a sport wasn’t for him.

Rockhold, the relentless grappler, became disillusioned with wrestling in high school, as he felt that the lack of finishing maneuvers in the sport was frustrating. But luckily for Luke, jiu jitsu was on his horizon. For, Luke, the key point in his journey to the cage came when his sister and brother-in-law began taking jiu jitsu classes. He was, like many, enamoured by the gi game, and his love for the sport culminated with him winning the purple belt world championship in 2007.

Next for Rockhold was MMA, and for a grappler from California looking to fight, there’s one place to go: the American Kickboxing Academy. From the off, Rockhold saw mixed martial arts as a career, not a hobby, and his natural athleticism immediately intrigued Javier Mendez, while Crazy Bob Cook noticed Rockhold’s natural flair for fighting.

Rockhold’s MMA career began in a whirlwind of violence. His first 8 fights didn’t make it out of the first round, and this included 6 first-round victories under the Strikeforce banner, which earnt him a shot at the promotional title against feared jiu jitsu phenom “Jacare” Souza.

Prior to his 2011 fight with Jacare, Rockhold had been on the end of some unfortunate luck, as the previous year had been littered with injuries, and many expected Jacare to run through Rockhold, but they were wrong. What transpired that autumn night in Cincinnati was scintillating, as the underdog came out bullish and put the champion’s title reign to bed with superior striking, landing almost twice as many strikes as his more experienced adversary.

Once you become a champion, people begin to take notice, and this was the case for Rockhold. Rockhold, an intelligent, charismatic Californian with a jawline reminiscent of Johnny Cage, became an immediate magnet for sponsors. His skills in the cage were backed up by his skills on the microphone, and his performances in the cage continued to eclipse those of his contemporaries until he ran into The Phenom at UFC on FX 8.

Vitor Belfort, like Rockhold, came to the UFC with a lot of hype behind him, fighting under the moniker of “Victor Gracie.” Belfort knocked out all comers with ease until he ran into the older and wiser Randy Couture, who managed to outsmart the youngster with guile. Mixed martial arts seems cyclical by nature, as when Rockhold met Belfort the roles reversed -- Rockhold was the young gun and Vitor was the wily veteran. On that night, Vitor coaxed Rockhold into trying to force the knockout against him, and capitalised on Rockhold’s eagerness by landing a concussive blow himself, rendering the prospect unconscious.

For Rockhold, defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. He still aches for another go at Vitor, recently telling USA Today that:

“The Vitor loss was tough – it’s a tough one to suck up, I’ve somewhat moved on, and I’m focused on what’s ahead of me, but it’s definitely still something (I think about)…I think I can definitely rewrite that story a little better, and I’d like a rematch somewhere down the line. Obviously I’m tired of people talking about that kick.”

After the Vitor fight, Rockhold’s stock amongst fight fans foolishly dwindled, as some doubted the former champion’s ability to bounce back. But on Wednesday night, he quashed that notion in style. Costas Philippou is a legitimate threat to any 185-pounder in the world, but on Wednesday night Rockhold made him look like an amateur; his stellar striking was confounded when Luke landed a liver kick that I’m sure made Bas Rutten’s twitter interactions quadruple. The former Strikeforce middleweight king made a successful return, but what is next for Rockhold on his quest to be re-coronated in the UFC?

The middleweight division is truly in flux right now. Anderson Silva’s era of dominance is finally over, and new champion Chris Weidman is being stalked from afar by a trio of Brazilians in Belfort, Lyoto Machida, and Jacare. At best, Rockhold is one fight away from a title shot, but most likely he will have to fight twice more before he gets a shot at gold. But this is good, as Rockhold’s fame will be written in the long run. He has already proven by his performance at UFC Fight Night 35 that he isn’t just a flash in the pan, he’s proven he can face an adversary head on and succeed.

In Rockhold’s future I see a great rivalry, and it’s not the one many expect. After Weidman works his way through the trio of Brazilians -- which I expect him to -- I believe he and Rockhold will fight a vacillating battle for supremacy in the middleweight division.

2013 was a bad year in terms of pay-per-view buys, and don’t expect this trend to buck in a hurry with stars like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva on their way out of the sport, but in the long run I believe the future stars of the UFC’s pay-per-view market will be Rockhold and Weidman. These two Americans are just what the UFC needed in terms of marketability; both are charismatic and accessible to everyday Americans. And seeing as it’s been 9 years since two Americans fought for the UFC middleweight title, it would be interesting to see what would happen.

UFC Fight Night 35
Luke Rockhold vs. Costas Philippou: Luke Rockhold def. Constantinos Philippou via TKO (body kick) at 2:31 of Round 1.

Click the stars to rate this fight.


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UFC Fight Night 35: Rockhold vs. Philippou took place on January 15, 2014 at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia.

Click the stars to rate how good you think UFC Fight Night 35 was.




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