This Wednesday night (Jan. 15, 2014) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweights Luke Rockhold and Costa Philippou will face off in the main event of UFC Fight Night 35, live on FOX Sports 1 from The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia.
Rockhold left Strikeforce as the promotion's final 185-pound champion, but his UFC debut wasn't quite as successful. He ended up on the wrong end of one of 2013's most-watched mixed martial arts (MMA) highlights thanks to a brutal spinning kick from Vitor Belfort at UFC on FX 8. With only two losses on his record, he'll look to rebound against another powerful striker.
Cyprus-born Philippou was on a five-fight win streak before he ran into Francis Carmont at UFC 165. The talented boxer trained alongside UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman at Serra-Longo, but recently switched camps to nearby Bellmore Kickboxing Academy.
We'll see if the change helps against a very tough opponent.
With pivotal rankings implications in a crowded middleweight division, this bout is absolutely crucial for both fighters. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Rockhold vs. Philippou:
Record: 10-2 overall, 0-1 UFC
Key Wins: Ronaldo Souza (Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Kharitonov), Tim Kennedy (Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy), Keith Jardine (Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine)
Key Losses: Vitor Belfort (UFC on FX 8)
Keys to Victory: Number six-ranked Rockhold made a career in Strikeforce by bringing an extremely well-rounded game to the cage. The 6'3" combatant possesses a solid arsenal of kicks that are effective at keeping his opponents at bay. He also benefits from training at American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) alongside talented wrestlers like Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, and Jon Fitch.
That knowledge should benefit him greatly against Philippou.
Rockhold has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and he's used it to gain six submission wins throughout his career. More recently, however, he's preferred to let his fists and feet do the talking, something that ultimately spelled his demise against the surging Belfort.
To win against Philippou, Rockhold needs to avoid falling in love with his stand-up game. While he's no doubt proficient on the feet, there's simply no reason to play into Philippou's glaring strength by engaging in a slugfest. Rockhold should look to stay out of Philippou's range with his kicks, then transition into a takedown attempt to open up submission opportunities on the ground.
The former champ is so multifaceted that he can be very unpredictable. The same can't be said about Philippou, and that's going to play into Rockhold's hands in a big way in Georgia.
Record: 12-3(1) overall, 5-2 UFC
Key Wins: Tim Boetsch (UFC 155), Uriah Hall (Ring of Combat 34), Court McGee (UFC on FX 2)
Key Losses: Francis Carmont (UFC 165)
Keys to Victory: Number 10-ranked Philippou readily admits that boxing is his main skill set. He loves to throw heavy leather early and often in his bouts, and for the most part, it has been a successful strategy for him. He was met with some resistance when he faced a well-rounded fighter in Carmont. That doesn't bode well for the New York-based striker, because Rockhold may be an even more complete fighter.
Philippou won't stray from his gameplan of stalking Rockhold down to look for big shots. But, if he wants to avoid spending too much time on his back, he'll need to bring some heightened takedown defense to the Octagon. Rockhold is smart enough to know where Philippou's strengths lie, so he won't be lulled into a brawl too easily.
If Philippou can utilize some angles to bypass Rockhold's kicks, he could find an opening to get inside and unleash some vicious hooks. It won't be easy, though.
If and when this fight hits the mat, Philippou is going to be out of his element. He's only won one fight by submission, and that was early in his career. Rockhold has him outclassed on the ground, so it's up to Philippou to keep the fight standing.
That won't guarantee success by any means, however. Philippou's best bet is to push the pace aggressively early on to look for the finish. Rockhold could have some lingering doubt in his mind after getting knocked out so emphatically in his UFC debut and Philippou needs to capitalize upon this. If he can make the fight ugly and blast Rockhold early on, he'll have a chance to score his biggest win ever.
Bottom Line from Georgia: The bottom line for this fight is that Rockhold should hold a big advantage in terms of overall talent and skills. There's no questioning Philippou's boxing ability, but in today's ever-evolving MMA landscape, it's impossible to rise to the top by relying on just one skill set. Rockhold proved he is one of the best middleweights in the world by taking the Strikeforce belt from current number three-ranked middleweight Ronaldo Souza, so he can obviously hang with the best.
He just didn't have much of a chance to get his offense working against the bulldozing Belfort.
The longer this fight goes, the more Rockhold's technical advantage and complete game will begin to take over. Philippou throws huge punches that will trail off a bit if the fight reaches the championship rounds. But, you can bet that Rockhold will be looking to end this fight early by dragging Philippou to the mat and exercising his considerable advantage in submissions.
Philippou could surprise by turning the table on the canvas, but it's unlikely. His best shot is obviously in his thunderous power. If Rockhold fights to the fullest of his abilities, it's going to be hard for Philippou to find many chances to do so. His best shot is to rush the former champ to prevent him from finding his groove, similar to how Belfort beat him. Philippou is a step below "Phenom" at this point, but he has the power to shock the world on Wednesday.
On paper, this is Rockhold's bout to win, but he can't sleep on Philippou. It should turn out to be an entertaining fight for the fans in Georgia, with a shot at a top-five middleweight awaiting the winner.
It's fight time in Georgia. Will Rockhold prove his worth with his first UFC win, or will he become a stepping stone for power-punching Philippou?