History in the making: Luke Rockhold upsets 'Jacare' Souza to win Strikeforce middleweight title

Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

With but few exceptions, it is always the underdog who wins through sheer willpower. --Johnny Weissmuller

Luke Rockhold, at times slangily referred to as "Rocky," knows a thing or two about underdogs, much like his silver-screen namesake.

After all, the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) prodcut was still wet behind the ears in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), itself young, but comprised of hard-bitten veterans and international submission machines like Ronaldo Souza.

"Jacare," in fact, ruled the middleweight roost under the Strikeforce banner, capturing the title with a unanimous decision win over rugged super-soldier Tim Kennedy in August 2010, before defending it against Robbie Lawler just a few months later.

His submission over "Ruthless" marked his tenth win by way of tap, nap or snap.

That was the kind of performance you could expect from a man who dominated the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), placing first in 2005 and defeating Robert Drysdale in 2009 to win the ADCC Superfight Championship. Unsatisfied with his one-dimensional handle, Souza also worked tirelessly to improve his striking under Josuel Distak, among others.

Souza was the champion and with a win over Paul Bradley, Rockhold became the number one contender.

Beating "The Gentleman" would not ordinarily elevate one into title contention, but this was standard operating procedure under the Strikeforce banner, who had not yet succumbed to the global might of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The roster, as far as talent was concerned, had no middle class.

Rockhold's scheduled appearance on the "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" fight card, which took place on Sept. 10, 2011 at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, was just the second time in his career that he was not relegated to the "Challengers" event, the promotion's proving ground for up-and-coming hopefuls.

A place he came into fights against Corey Devela and Jesse Taylor at +135 and +160, respectively.

It came as no surprise then, to see Rockhold walk into the Hexagon as a +400 underdog. Souza, who ballooned up to as high as -600, was expected to dispatch the young buck with relative ease, likely by submission at some point early in the fight.

I guess "Rocky" didn't get the memo.

Incredibly, Rockhold had never left the first round through eight professional fights, but somehow not only had the stamina to go 25 minutes against the more experienced fighter, but also beat him in every exchange. It was a close fight, but a clear-cut decision.

One judge had it 50-45, while two others scored it 48-47.

In addition to making a few people rich, Rocky's upset win over the famed Brazilian catapulted him into the limelight. True, it was not as bright as the one shone on his UFC brethren, but holding a belt for Strikeforce was widely-considered the next best thing.

A star was born. Well, kinda.

Rockhold would compete twice more for Scott Coker and Co., stopping UFC castaway Keith Jardine before decisioning the aforementioned Kennedy after their five-rounder last July. Following the promotion's untimely demise, he was scooped up by ZUFFA and airlifted to Brazil.

There would be no immediate title shot, like the ones afforded to fellow Strikeforce champions Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez.

He doesn't get a "gimmie," either.

"Rocky" will face the stiffest test of his career against the legendary Vitor Belfort, a two-time champion and vicious striker, fresh off his attempted murder over Michael Bisping back in January. "The Phenom" has wavered back and forth with his opponent in a razor-thin betting line.

At the time of this writing, they're dead even at -105.

Rockhold has already overcome the tenacity of one legendary Brazilian, and at UFC on FX 8 on May 18, 2013 from the Arena Jaragua in Santa Catarina, Brazil, he'll try to overcome another.

The winner of Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman will be waiting.

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