Former Strikeforce Middleweight kingpin, Luke Rockhold, takes on boxing specialist, Costa Philippou, in the UFC Fight Night 35 main event this Wednesday (Jan. 15, 2013) at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia.
After a solid (7-1) start to his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, Rockhold was forced onto the shelf with injuries. For his return, Strikeforce matched the "Challengers" series staple against Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, the promotion's champion. Rockhold demonstrated his improved skills, defending Souza's takedowns and out-striking him en route to winning the 185-pound title.
Rockhold managed to defend his title twice before Strikeforce was dissolved, after which he was sent to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The American Kickboxing Academy (AKA)-trained product's Octagon debut didn't go particularly well, though, thanks to a Vitor Belfort head kick. Now, Rockhold looks to get back in the win column against a fighter, Costa Philippou, in a similar outside-looking-in position.
Does Rockhold have what it takes to earn his first UFC victory?
Let's find out:
Originally a grappler, Rockhold's striking has come a long way, thanks in large part to his athleticism and size. Despite his lack of knockout finishes, the southpaw is a heavy hitter and has a diverse arsenal of attacks.
For such a long striker, Rockhold is undaunted by the prospect of stepping into his opponents' range and slinging leather. When he boxes, Rockhold is rarely content with picking apart his opponent from the outside. That's actually the purpose of his kicks. Instead, Rockhold steps in behind heavy punching combinations and is willing to end the combination with a clinch.
Although he doesn't use it enough, Rockhold has an effective jab. He sets it up well with feints, occasionally doubles up, and it lands with a snap. As Rockhold finds his rhythm, he'll also mix in jabs to the body.
Rockhold, like many southpaws, uses his straight left hand very well. He frequently throws it as a lead and steps in deep with the punch, covering plenty of distance. Like his jab, Rockhold will occasionally go to the body with this punch. When Rockhold is not the aggressor, he likes to counter with the left cross as his opponent tries to close the distance with punches.
Unquestionably, the best punch in Rockhold's arsenal is his right hook. He likes to throw it from either stance and mixes it into his combinations well. Rockhold will also use his right hook to enter the clinch by leaping forward with it and locking up a grip after. Finally, Rockhold is very good at catching his opponent coming in with the hook. Thanks to his height, Rockhold can easily land the hook over the top of his opponents' strikes.
Fight Night Atlanta Free Fight: Luke Rockhold vs. Paul Bradley (via UFC - Ultimate Fighting Championship)
Rockhold's real talent lies in his kicking ability. After opening the round with quick, distance-gauging leg kicks and teeps, Rockhold will begin to attack with high kicks and body blows. Rockhold's head kicks are especially difficult to predict, as he throws them with little movement before the kick and often arcs the kick so that it initially appears to be a leg kick.
Unlike many fighters, Rockhold throws a majority of his kicks to his opponent's body. In fact, Rockhold goes to the body with many of his stand up attacks. When Rockhold drills his shin into his opponent's torso, it saps his energy and weakens future attacks. He'll also switch stances and throw a kick to the liver, and occasionally spins before throwing for even more momentum and unpredictability.
One of Rockhold's best combinations is the body kick to left hand. 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. By getting this angle, Rockhold makes it much more difficult for his opponent to land any useful counters.
Rockhold also uses unorthodox kicking techniques fairly often. Notably, he uses the spinning back kick and jumping switch kick. Both of these strikes are uncommon, making them difficult to predict and thus hard to counter. Additionally, they are useful from a very long range, one that only Rockhold can land from. While the jumping switch kick doesn't seem especially powerful, his spinning back kick lands hard, another body striking technique.
After landing a few punches, Rockhold often looks to clinch. Rockhold, a very skilled wrestler, is generally able to out-muscle his opponent in the clinch and control him against the cage. From there, Rockhold will either get double underhooks or a single underhook and hand control. Once he achieves either position, he'll look to step into hard knees to the liver. These knees were used effectively against Jardine, Kennedy, and in his finish of Paul Bradley.
Additionally, Rockhold is effective on the exit of the clinch, often because he dictates when it happens. Rather than let his opponent fight out and have an opportunity to get an advantageous position, Rockhold will land his knee strikes and then break off with an elbow. He'll also push his opponent back, throw two or three tight punches, and then close the distance once again.
Rockhold doesn't necessarily have bad defense, but he does make mistakes. The largest is his occasionally over-aggressiveness, which causes him to stop moving his head. For a fighter that likes to keep his hands low, head movement and distance are key. If he's moving forward without moving his head and has his hands low, he's an easy target. In addition, Rockhold's kicks can be countered if his opponent reads his feints.
Despite never wrestling past a high school level, Rockhold's wrestling may be his best attribute. His rapid improvement makes sense, as AKA is a wrestler-heavy camp, featuring talented takedown specialists like Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, Gray Maynard and many more.
According to FightMetric, Rockhold has only completed a single takedown in his Strikeforce career. 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.
That lone takedown came after a scramble in the fifth round of his fight with Kennedy, when 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, often just trying to create space. Rockhold hasn't hit many takedowns, simply because he doesn't go for them very often, he just likes striking too much.
Since Rockhold so adores punching, kicking, and kneeing his foe, keeping the fight standing is vital. Rockhold's impressive takedown defense wasn't truly noted until the "Jacare" fight, but the signs were there. Jesse Taylor and Paul Bradley are both very solid wrestlers, but Rockhold was able to negate their skills with his defense and scrambling.
Rockhold's distance control allows him to recognize takedown attempts early. If he can't fully stop the takedown with a hard sprawl, which he often does, Rockhold delay the shot long enough to get his back to the fence. From there, Rockhold is excellent at spreading his legs and getting a wide base. This makes it difficult for his opponent to connect his hands for a double leg, and allows Rockhold to pester his opponent with punches or elbows to the body.
One way Rockhold uses his wide base to counter his opponent's takedown is to reach one arm between his opponent's leg and one over his back. After connecting his hands, Rockhold will turn and lift his opponent, winding up in top position.
Despite his wide base, Rockhold is occasionally dragged to the mat against the cage. When this happens, Rockhold makes sure to land on his butt with his back against the fence. From there, he'll fight for an underhook or use a whizzer to begin working a wall-walk. If his opponent manages to prevent this, Rockhold will turtle up, exposing his back, and try to explode out. Rockhold trusts in his jiu-jitsu, and even talented grapplers like Tim Kennedy weren't able to capitalize on Rockhold turning his back.
Another technique Rockhold uses to return to his feet is the switch. From the aforementioned position -- on his butt, back against the cage -- Rockhold will reach by his opponent's double leg and look for a single leg of his own. Instead of trying to finish the single, Rockhold will create just enough space to spring back to his feet.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Rockhold recently received his black belt in jiu-jitsu and has competed in the Worlds as a blue, purple, and brown belt, winning gold medals in all except brown. Although his fights rarely hit the mat, Rockhold has proven to be a quick finisher on the ground.
A majority of Rockhold's submission victories come via rear naked choke. The rear naked choke is a simple move, so it's how he gets to the back that is impressive. When Rockhold sprawls on his opponent, he's quickly able to slide around to his opponent's back. From there, his back control is very good, and he'll land a few punches while looking for the choke.
From his back, Rockhold has demonstrated a few skills. In his bout with Taylor, Rockhold briefly demonstrated his guard game by working for a triangle choke. He not only nullified "JT Money's" ground and pound almost immediately, but Rockhold latched on a triangle a couple of times in just a few seconds. Taylor tried to rip past Rockhold's guard when he went after the triangle, but Rockhold rolled to turtle, where he would soon reverse the position.
Another of Rockhold's preferred techniques is the kimura, which he'll use from many positions. Against Tim Kennedy, Rockhold used the kimura to cause a scramble from his half guard and return to his feet, as well as later using it to prevent double leg takedowns against the cage. He also attacked with the kimura whenever he returned to his feet with Kennedy hanging onto his back, forcing Kennedy to abandon his body locks.
In terms of defense, Rockhold has more than proven his jiu-jitsu. In the first round, "Jacare" Souza was able to repeatedly hit takedowns, but he was unable to control Rockhold or gain dominant positions. Souza is an incredible grappler, yet Rockhold stymied all of his attempts to force a grappling match.
Rockhold faced a similar challenge in Kennedy ... and the result was the same.
Best Chance For Success
Rockhold is up to a 5-1 favorite on some sites and for good reason. It's not that Rockhold's skills far surpass Philippou's, as the Cypriot is a talented fighter, but Rockhold matches up very well against him.
Philippou is primarily a boxer and likes to fight from the outside, countering foes as they come in or land shots from the outside. Rockhold should be happy to oblige him, as he has the ability to damage from further away than Philippou with his kicks. As long as Rockhold is wary of Philippou's overhand counter, he can wear down Philippou with kicks before closing the distance with punches. It also may be a good idea to use the front kick often, as Boestch had a lot of success with it.
After his loss to Belfort, Rockhold needs to regain some momentum. To do that, Rockhold needs to either dominate or finish Philippou. To finish the "Cyprus Slugger," Rockhold needs to push the pace and continually go to the body. Philippou -- who's currently 34 years old -- has slowed down in fights he's winning, which means he'll almost certainly deteriorate under Rockhold's constant attack. Once Philippou is tired and less of a threat, Rockhold can start stepping in with power punches.
Will Rockhold earn his first UFC victory or can Philippou force an upset?
For a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of Philippou be sure to click here.