History in the making: Luke Rockhold captures MMA's loneliest title

Esther Lin for Showtime

Luke Rockhold captured the Strikeforce middleweight championship, not long after it was abandoned by Cung Le and Jake Shields, and not long before it was rendered obsolete by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

It was the championship that nobody wanted.

When Strikeforce got its mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion up and running in the first quarter of 2006, it did so with the intention of putting a belt around the waist of its key acquisition and former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) headliner.

The one and only Frank Shamrock.

"The Legend" was handed the grotesquely out-matched Phil Baroni on a silver platter and after two rounds of lopsided action, which took place in San Jose, Calif., in June 2007, "The New York Bad Ass" and fellow UFC veteran surrendered to a rear-naked choke.

But there would be no "Shamrock Era."

That's because a flashy young striker named Cung Le -- who also competed that night in a three-round laugher opposite Tony Fryklund -- was elevated to number one contender with a 5-0 record. Partly because he was a local attraction, but mostly because he was a marketable fighter.

Despite his superior stand-up, it was widely-believed that Shamrock would be able to use his formidable grappling skills to make short work of the Sanshou striker.

Made sense on paper.

Instead, Le upset Shamrock in the fourth round after breaking his arm and pretty much knocking him around for most of the fight, a contest that managed to dazzle a packed house at the HP Pavilion in the early part of 2008.

Then Le would take his ball and go home.

Instead of defending his strap against the next viable contender, the former kickboxer bolted for Tinseltown, thanks to a bevy of movie roles (like this one) created during the sport's boom in popularity.

Adios, suckers.

Undaunted, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker quickly named Jake Shields as his successor. But the talented grappler out of Cesar Gracie's academy in Stockton, Calif., wasn't going to get his hands on the gold until he disposed of sport jester Jason Miller.

Mission accomplished.

Shields survived a couple of close calls during their Nov. 2009 title fight in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and went on to upset Dan Henderson in Nashville the following year. It seemed the American Jiu-Jitsu practitioner was going to be the man to beat at 185 pounds.

Except he wasn't.

As Strikeforce gained solid footing in a crowded combat sports landscape, UFC President Dana White and the rest of the ZUFFA zealots had seen enough, making an offer Shields could not refuse and stripping the competition of its middleweight champion.

To his credit, Coker was nothing, if not resilient.

The promotion had planned to stage a four-man tournament in "The Lone Star State;" however, the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation denied their request and the "Houston" event instead looked to a frightening Brazilian grappler named Ronaldo Souza, whose accomplishments in jiu-jitsu were so incredible they read like a work of fiction.

He needed five rounds of work, but ultimately turned away Tim Kennedy in August 2010.

A few months later, Souza would defend his title against "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler, positioning himself for a new challenge in the form of Luke Rockhold, a surfer who walked into San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) in 2002 and declared himself a future champion.

It sounded like heresy at the time, but there he was at 8-1, just one fight away.

Souza ballooned up to a -600 favorite by the time they stepped foot inside the cage at the Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" Showtime event, which took place on Sept. 10, 2011 at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rockhold got off to a shaky start, but did enough in the second half of the fight to take home the win.

And 185 pounds of gold.

Talk of a potential "super fight" against Anderson Silva -- mostly from Rockhold -- soon followed, as did consecutive title defenses against a washed-up Keith Jardine and the aforementioned Kennedy, who earned another crack at the crown by default.

White and his band of merry men would eventually acquire Strikeforce, and like Le and Shields before them, wanted nothing to do with the middleweight title.

As a result, Rockhold was imported into the Octagon, but burned up when entering the UFC's atmosphere last May, thanks to a revitalized Vitor Belfort. He now has a chance to erase that Brazilian nightmare and get back into the hunt with a win over fellow middleweight contender Constantinos Philippou.

Right smack dab in the middle of the week.

They'll do the deed in the main event of the upcoming UFC Fight Night 35 fight card, which pops off inside the Arena Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia, on Jan. 15, 2014, live on FOX Sports 1. For more on how this 185-pound headliner came together click here.

To see more on Rockhold's run through Strikeforce click here.

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