History in the Making: Luke Rockhold defies the odds to become the Strikeforce middleweight champion

Photo by Esther Lin for SBNation

When Strikeforce signed the Brazilian submission artist Ronaldo Souza, it was thought "Jacaré" would quickly become a big fish in a small pond.

This was a fighter who had only lost twice before -- in his debut and in the finals of the DREAM middleweight tournament against Gegard Mousasi -- and had half a dozen submission wins under his belt. His other victories usually came by way of ground and pound.

He was considered a top 185-pounder and it was felt his talents were seemingly wasted on the lower tier Strikeforce promotion when he could be collecting arms in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Luke Rockhold didn't care about any of that.

Fighting for Strikeforce for nearly four years, the American Kickboxing Academy product was as homegrown a talent as the promotion had. He also had six straight victories inside the Strikeforce cage which prompted the company to give him a crack at Souza's middleweight championship.

Rockhold made the most of it.

Tonight (July 14) at Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy, he defends his crown against Tim Kennedy, the man who Souza defeated for the vacant belt when Jake Shields jumped ship to the UFC. Both men have title fight experience and both men are eager to prove the 185-pounders in Strikeforce are every bit as good as those inside the Octagon.

Before their five-round clash in Portland tonight, let's take a look back at how Rockhold became a champion.

Let's go.

The challenger starts the fight by attacking Souza's lead leg with kicks, hoping to take some spring out of the Brazilian's takedown step. "Jacaré" eats a few leg kicks and finally shoots in but Rockhold just about flies backwards as he sprawls out of the attempt.

They get back to their feet and the champion unloads with a huge overhand right which clips his opponent. Stunned, Rockhold retreats against the cage and narrowly misses a flying knee attempt from Souza. The Brazilian clinches his opponent up against the cage and works towards a takedown.

He eventually grinds the American onto the mat. As good as Rockhold's takedown defense may be, "Jacaré's" bread and butter is grappling and if he wants the fight on the mat, it won't take him long to get it there. As they jockey for position, the champion is able to crack his opponent with a right hand several times over.

Rockhold is finally able to get back to his feet but is planted right back down almost immediately and must begin the struggle all over again.

With a little over a minute remaining in the opening stanza, both fighters return to their feet. Rockhold attempts to land body kicks but Souza counters perfectly each time with a right hook. It's not until the challenger lands a nice switch kick that he begins to score offensively.

A spinning back kick connects to Souza's body and he immediately dives in for a takedown. It's stuffed and Rockhold immediately begins attacking with right hands as his opponent keeps hold of a leg.

The second round opens with a second spinning back kick to the body from Rockhold. But just as the American is beginning to build some momentum, he gets caught with a stiff straight from "Jacaré" which causes his knees to give out momentarily.

The Brazilian goes in for the kill, landing a flurry of punches before clinching up. As they break, Souza delivers a nice elbow. He continues to score with his right until Rockhold presses the champion against the cage. They grind and jockey for position along the chain-link, each hoping to wear their opponent down.

Going into the third round, it seems like Rockhold is down zero to "Jacaré's" two.

Possibly with the same mindset, the challenger opens the third with a bit more fire. His striking is more crisp and despite getting taken down at one point, he quickly regains a vertical position. Souza seems to be slowing down and Rockhold is helping the process along with constant body kicks.

The first championship round plays out a lot like the previous did with Rockhold's superior conditioning being the difference. He pressures the champion in the stand-up and avoids all of Souza's takedown attempts. If the first two rounds were the champion's, the next two belonged to his opponent.

The fifth and final round will determine Strikeforce's middleweight kingpin.

The two warriors meet in the center of the cage and begin trading strikes. Eventually, Rockhold begins to pull away as "Jacaré" is content to land one punch at a time while the challenger puts together combinations over and over.

A flurry from Souza backs his opponent up against the cage and soon after, he dumps Rockhold onto his back. But as he has done throughout the past 23 or so minutes, the California native quickly gets back to his feet.

A combination from Rockhold staggers the champion and the crowd begins to voice their pleasure. The challenger, feeding off their energy, pours it on and looks like a renewed fighter.

After five rounds and 25 minutes, the judges awarded Rockhold the decision and he became the third middleweight champion in Strikeforce's history.

His first defense came against Keith Jardine, a fight he won in the first round via TKO.

Can the champ make it two successful defenses in a row?

Or will Kennedy put an end to Rockhold's run?

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