Long-time (and the last) Strikeforce Middleweight Champion, Luke Rockhold, takes on former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tournament winner and Light Heavyweight champion, Vitor Belfort, this Saturday (May 18. 2013) in the UFC on FX 8 main event, which takes place from Arena Jaragua in Santa Catarina, Brazil.
Rockhold began his mixed martial arts (MMA) career the hard way. After a pedestrian (1-1) opening to his career, Rockhold joined the now-defunct Strikeforce organization, becoming a staple on its "Challengers" series, where the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA)-trained standout finished his first six opponents in the first round.
For reasons unknown, the still unheralded Rockhold was matched up with champion "Jacare" Ronaldo Souza, a powerful submission specialist who had dominated the rest of the Middleweight division. Coming off a series of injuries that took him out of the sport for more than 1.5 years, Rockhold was a serious underdog.
In what was expected to be a quick loss for the Californian, Rockhold dethroned the kingpin, winning a five round decision. He followed this win with a violent knockout of Keith Jardine and a second decision victory over Tim Kennedy. Despite these key victories, Rockhold is still rather unknown and underestimated.
Against Belfort, Rockhold will look to prove he is one of the best middleweights in the world and a threat to the throne of divisional kingpin Anderson Silva.
Does he have the MMA skills to take another step toward his goal of becoming a UFC champion? Let's take a closer look:
While Rockhold originally began as a grappler, he has evolved into one of the most unorthodox kickboxers in the middleweight division. Despite only two (technical) knockout finishes in his career, this southpaw has showed some serious power for such a lengthy striker.
Rockhold's jab is developing quite well. In his fight with "Jacare," he pumped his jab ineffectively and occasionally landed a solid one. Ten months later, he fought Kennedy and showcased his improvements. His jab snapped, landed consistently and mixed into his combinations well. In addition, he began throwing a jab to the body, thickening his already substantial arsenal of body attacks.
One of Rockhold's better punching techniques is his straight left hand. Rather than throwing it behind his jab, he likes to use it as a lead. In addition to using this punch to counter his opponent's kicks, Rockhold will stand just outside of his opponents' ranges and blast them with it as they attempt to charge him with strikes.
Rockhold's most powerful strike is his lead right hook. While he can land it with power when he attacks, it is especially dynamic when he uses it as a counter. Aided by his 6' 3" frame, Rockhold will come in over his opponents' punches with a hook, clipping their temples.
Rockhold's kicks are the true gems of his stand up. He likes to begin with quick leg kicks and teeps before transitioning to heavier strikes. Rockhold frequently throws head kicks with little to no movement prior to the strike, making them difficult to predict.
While he does significant damage with his leg and head kicks, Rockhold's most effective kicks are his shots to the body. Rockhold drills his shin into his opponents' torsos, sapping their energy and weakening future attacks. He will also switch stances and throw a kick to the liver -- or spin -- before throwing for even more momentum.
Some of Rockhold's more unorthodox kicks include the spinning back kick and the jumping switch kick. Both are excellent long range attacks, used to both keep his opponents away from him and disguise his other attacks. In particular, the spinning back quick packs decent power and further aids his efforts to destroy his opponents' bodies.
One of Rockhold's best combinations is his body kick to left straight. Rockhold will step to his left and throw the kick, effectively cutting an angle. As his opponent recovers from the kick, Rockhold will step in with a sharp left hand.
While Rockhold obviously excels at picking apart his opponent from range, he's also very dangerous from the clinch. Rockhold loves to get double underhooks and land knee strikes. Instead of attacking the stomach, a technique many fighters love, Rockhold delivers crushing knees to both the ribs and the liver. Rockhold's clinch assault was on display against Kennedy, Jardine and in his finish of Paul Bradley.
One aspect of MMA that Rockhold has clearly devoted himself to is rib roasting. Rockhold constantly attacks the body, an especially useful tool for someone fighting five round championship fights and main events. Whether it be with punches, kicks or knees, Rockhold never stops wearing out his opponent.
Perhaps the most important development in Rockhold's game is his use of feints. When he won the championship belt, Rockhold was throwing single kicks and punches with little to no set up. Fast forward 10 months, and he has Kennedy responding to his every action, masterfully forcing him into oncoming strikes.
Rockhold's defense can occasionally be porous. His shoulder roll compensates for his low hand position, but he still keeps his chin a bit too high and doesn't always move his head. Additionally, if his opponent sees through his feints, then his kicks can be countered with big punches.
A wrestler throughout middle and high school, Rockhold has demonstrated his wrestling prowess mostly through his defense. Of course, training with incredible wrestlers like Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier in San Jose, Calif., can only help him in this area.
Throughout his entire Strikeforce career, I've seen Rockhold complete a single takedown. Oddly enough, all of those first round rear naked choke finishes came from him either dropping his opponent, reversing their takedown attempts, or his opponent dropping for a guillotine choke.
After a scramble in the fifth round of his fight with Kennedy, Rockhold dove forward and pushed Kennedy into the fence. As the former Army Ranger fished for a guillotine, Rockhold whipped his legs out from under him and momentarily settled in his guard. Outside of this double leg, Rockhold has attempted clinch trips and judo throws. While his attempts seemed technically sound, "Jacare" and Kennedy are very tough to takedown.
More important to the kickboxer is his ability to stay vertical. In this area, he is spectacular. None of his opponents -- from accomplished wrestlers like Bradley and Jesse Taylor, to skilled submission specialists like Souza and Kennedy -- have been able to keep Rockhold pinned to the mat.
The first key to Rockhold's takedown defense is his ability to keep a wide base. Equipped with powerful hips, Rockhold is easily able to shrug off most attempts, but if he can't, he'll retreat to the fence. While leaning against the cage, Rockhold spreads his long legs out wide, meaning his opponent cannot lock his hands for a double.
Another of Rockhold's best takedown defense tricks is his use of the switch. A switch is when the fighter being double legged reaches over his opponents' arm between their legs. The person doing the switch can than scoot out and turn it into a takedown of his own. Instead of finishing with a takedown, Rockhold escapes back to his feet.
Similar to the switch, one of Rockhold's most effective takedown reversals is to lock his hands over his opponents' backs and around their torsos. Unlike the switch, Rockhold must still have his base under him when he does this move. Once he looks his hands, Rockhold will lift up his opponents, stack them and wind up on top.
Even if his opponent does take him down, Rockhold is very good at wall walking. Immediately after he touches the mat, Rockhold will begin to scoot toward the cage. Then, he'll push his opponents' face toward the mat or use an over hook while basing out with his other hand and attempt to stand back up.
Rockhold started training in jiu-jitsu around the same time he began wrestling and has earned a brown belt. In 2007, Rockhold won the Gi Worlds at blue belt and the No-Gi Worlds at purple belt.
Of Rockhold's five submission finishes in Strikeforce, four came via rear naked choke. The rear naked choke is not a complex move, so it's how the fighter manages to get the back that shows how good his jiu-jitsu really is.
When his opponent shoots in for a takedown, Rockhold is excellent at stuffing it and immediately spinning around for back control. From there, he will quickly get both of his hooks in. Then, he'll throw a few punches and capitalize on any openings his opponents leave him.
Another of Rockhold's favorite jiu-jitsu techniques is the kimura. Rockhold uses it effectively both from his back and to deter single leg takedowns. Against Kennedy, Rockhold managed to use a kimura from half guard to start a scramble and get back to his feet. This is quite impressive, considering Kennedy's tenacity when it comes to maintaining top position.
As for his jiu-jitsu defense, Rockhold has proven himself tremendously. Despite "Jacare's" takedowns, the Brazilian was not once able to achieve a dominant position. Souza has a legitimate claim to be the best grappler in the world, yet Rockhold was able to shut down his offense. Additionally, he quickly shook off Kennedy the one time Kennedy managed to find his back in a scramble.
Rockhold is a complete fighter. Skilled on the feet, the mat and in transitions, Rockhold is more than comfortable wherever the fight goes. However, his balanced nature goes beyond just his skill set.
Rockhold has almost all of the attributes one looks for in a fighter. He's aggressive, able to control range and a gifted athlete. While he's the best in none of these categories, he's formidable in all of them. Together, these factors change him from a good fighter to an elite one.
Complementing his skills even further is his deep gas tank. Rockhold has fought two five round battles against elite opposition and didn't slow in the slightest. In fact, before his fight with Souza, Rockhold had never left the first round. To display such cardio in his first attempt is a testament to his hard work.
Best chance for success
Rockhold's game plan for this fight should be quite simple: Kick Belfort until he quits. Belfort has historically had trouble with fighters who can keep him on the end of their kicks. Even fighters who aren't known as kickers such as Kazushi Sakuraba were able to severely damage Belfort with kicks.
Belfort is easily frustrated. As Rockhold damages his body with an array of kicks and occasional punches, Belfort will make a decision. He'll either quit or he'll get over aggressive. Getting aggressive won't help him, as Belfort's game has never been to chase down his opponent, so Rockhold can easily make him pay for moving forward with push kicks, straight punches and takedowns.
Despite his athleticism, Belfort is still a 36-year-old who has been fighting since the mid 1990s. He has been in the game for too long to keep up with a prime athlete in the later rounds of a fight. All Rockhold has to do is take advantage of proven weaknesses in Belfort's game and play it safe for a few rounds.
After that, the fight is his for the taking.
Will Rockhold prove he's one of the very best fighters in the world, or will Belfort earn a rematch with Anderson Silva?