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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 116’s Luke Rockhold

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Luke Rockhold, returns to the fray opposite jiu-jitsu ace, David Branch, this Saturday (Sept. 16, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 116 inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

After his shocking upset loss to Michael Bisping in June of 2016, Rockhold was fired up to return to the cage and get back in the title hunt. Unfortunately, injuries have now kept him away for well over a year, and the division has — to some degree — kept on moving without him. It’s all on the line for Rockhold. If the 32-year-old is going to jump back into the mix and potentially get his strap back, he has to bounce back with a victory here.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

One of the tallest, longest, and strongest fighters in his division, Rockhold has a size advantage over just about everyone and makes full use of it. Much of Rockhold’s game relies on physicality, as the American Kickboxing Academy representative bashes his opponent with power kicks and clubbing hooks.

Rockhold is most comfortable when he can pressure and bully his opponent. That doesn't mean that Rockhold wants to work his way inside -- though he is capable there -- but Rockhold instead attempts to walk his opponent into the fence. In order to accomplish that, Rockhold relies on his excellent footwork and feints.

Like most Southpaws, Rockhold relies pretty heavily on his left hand. On the whole, Rockhold isn't much of a combination striker, as he usually pairs together one or two strikes at a time. With that in mind, Rockhold's cross serves many purposes, from a lead to a counter to his opponent's kicks. Plus, Rockhold's dual threat of the left kick and left cross ensure that he isn't predictable, as mistaking one strike for the other is likely a fight-ender. Additionally, Rockhold does a nice job of rolling to safety after throwing the left, sometimes throwing a rolling right overhand as he does so.

Opposite Bisping, Rockhold was uncharacteristically sloppy. He’s never been the most technical boxer, but Rockhold knows his game. He sticks to what works for him, and that’s why he’s found so much success. Against “The Count,” Rockhold was stepping deep into jabs and completely neglecting his opponent’s offense, which ultimately cost him the bout and his belt.

Normally, Rockhold is aggressive and imposing from a safe distance, not lazily falling into punches.

Once Rockhold has his opponent trapped, he has a number of attacks depending on how his opponent reacts. This is an important element of Rockhold's game, and it's where he's most effective.

If Rockhold's foe stands still -- which is fairly uncommon -- or circles to his left, a roundhouse kick is coming. Rockhold's power kick is a huge part of his attack, as his length and physicality make the strike absurdly effective. In the most basic terms, Rockhold kicks at the head and body extremely hard. Absorbing one of these kicks -- even if blocked effectively -- is a miserable and draining experience, whereas Rockhold has the conditioning and will to keep drilling kicks into his foe for five rounds if need be. In addition, he will throw these kicks in the center of the Octagon, where he'll use it to do damage as well as herd his opponent into the fence.

Rockhold mixes his targets up with his roundhouse kick. He attacks the inside of his opponent's leg, the body, and goes high with regularity, and the latter two targets can result in a quick finish if they land cleanly.

For example, the former Strikeforce champion's finish of Costas Philippou was a pretty perfect example of Rockhold's skill. After forcing his opponent into the fence and raising his guard with a jab, Rockhold slammed his shin into his opponent's liver, forcing the boxer to crumble onto the mat (GIF).

In his first fight with Bisping, Rockhold capitalized on Bisping's odd habit of circling into his opponent's power. Despite Bisping's best attempts, Rockhold could simply kick with no setup and knock his opponent off-balance. Since Rockhold had already landed several damaging body blows, he was able to drop "The Count" with a hard high kick after a small level change feint dropped Bisping's hand (GIF).

Should Rockhold's opponent look to circle away from Rockhold's power or advance towards the champion, Rockhold's right hook is imminent. Rockhold absolutely adores throwing the check hook and does it often. Fully committing his body to the strike, Rockhold commonly stuns or drops his opponent with the counter shot, making his foe less likely to try and push past Rockhold's kicking range. In the case of Lyoto Machida, Rockhold didn't even need to land cleanly, as a glancing blow was enough to send his opponent to his knees (GIF).

Another weapon to counter his opponent's movement towards his right that Rockhold really loves is the question mark kick. Raising his lead leg like he's throwing a low kick or lead knee, Rockhold instead suddenly switches his leg and slaps his opponent's jawline (GIF).

An overlooked weapon in Rockhold's arsenal is the clinch, which he'll wrap up his opponent in after pushing them into the fence. Once Rockhold secures a body lock, he doesn't look for a takedown. Instead, he'll drill his opponent's mid-section with strong knee strikes. It may not seem like much, but Rockhold finished Paul Bradley with this technique back in Strikeforce, and it's had a visible effect on his UFC opponents like Chris Weidman.

Defensively, Rockhold's style does have some risks. Since he generally keeps his hands low, Rockhold is largely relying on distance and range control to keep himself safe. In the pocket, he’s less comfortable in extended exchanges, relying on his check hook to disrupt his opponent’s offense.

Wrestling

Prior to his title win over Weidman, Rockhold had yet to score a single offensive takedown inside the Octagon. That's not to say Rockhold is or was a bad wrestler, but the champion was usually dropping fighters before the takedown ever became necessary.

In the bout with Weidman, Rockhold's first takedown was a major moment in the fight. For whatever reason, Weidman looked for a spinning wheel kick, and Rockhold capitalized by securing the back clinch and wrangling his opponent down to the mat (GIF).

From there, he proceeded to maul Weidman with punches and elbows. He's proven it before, but the final minute of the third round really demonstrated how brutally violent Rockhold is from top position. His control is excellent, and Rockhold knows how to throw hard ground strikes in transition.

That final minute largely knocked Weidman out, and Rockhold was again able to drag him down from the clinch at the start of the fourth. The only other notable offensive wrestling moment in Rockhold's career came in the form of a double leg opposite Tim Kennedy, which is a solid accomplishment on its own.

Most importantly for a fighter looking to stand with most of his opponents, Rockhold may be the finest counter wrestler in the UFC. Rockhold's takedown defense and overall scrambling ability are absolutely fantastic, as he's both very hard to takedown and nearly impossible to hold down.

Rockhold's distance control, made even more effective by his usual reach advantage, allows him to recognize takedown attempts early. If he can't fully stop the takedown with a hard sprawl, Rockhold defends the shot long enough to get his back to the fence (GIF).

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 in between fighting for underhooks. It's also important to note that if Rockhold does sprawl out in the middle of the Octagon, he's very quick to circle to his opponent's back.

More than offensive takedowns, that's how Rockhold secured the back to land five career rear naked choke wins.

In addition, Rockhold does not often just settle for escaping his opponent's grasp. To reverse his opponent, Rockhold will keep his base wide and 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, he 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 past his opponent's double leg and look for a single leg of his own. Instead of trying to finish the single, he will create just enough space to spring back to his feet.

The wall-walk and switch are hardly uncommon techniques, but Rockhold is able to do them extremely well and against the best fighters in the world. 'Jacare' Souza is the division's premier jiu-jitsu fighter, Weidman is perhaps the best wrestler, and Tim Kennedy is a masterful top control fighter, yet none of them found any success in trying to take and keep Rockhold down. Instead, they wasted a lot of energy and found themselves eating strikes as they fatigued.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Rockhold has pulled off some very slick finishes and transitions in his MMA career and found some success in BJJ competition as well. Despite his preference to stand, a majority of Rockhold's wins actually ended via submission, as he often seeks to tap out wounded opponents.

Much of the jiu-jitsu Rockhold uses serves as counter wrestling. As mentioned, he's excellent at sprawling on his opponent and immediately circling onto the back. Once there, Rockhold wastes little time in forcing a rear naked choke into place (GIF).

In an excellent display of both counter wrestling and jiu-jitsu, Rockhold punished Tim Boetsch for daring to attempt a single leg takedown. His transition from the single leg to turtle into an inverted triangle and eventual kimura are the subject of this week’s technique highlight, simply because it was so damn cool.

Rockhold's guillotine has been an effective weapon for him as well. It finished a barely-conscious-Bisping, but that goose was already cooked. More impressively, Rockhold used the guillotine to threaten and reverse Weidman, who's a talented grappler himself. Given the opening, Rockhold grabs a high elbow guillotine and sits back, looking to roll his opponent to their back either with a butterfly hook and just by hipping in.

When on his back, Rockhold does not attempt to establish a usual guard. However, he does mix in kimura attempts both from his back and against the cage while defending single leg takedowns, which often force his opponent to abandon the takedown. He also used one from half guard against Tim Kennedy, which caused a scramble and allowed Rockhold to work back to his feet.

Fighters without elite level jiu-jitsu defense don't survive on the mat with 'Jacare'. Against someone skilled enough to actually drag him to the mat, Rockhold made it incredible difficult to advance position on him, the necessary first step in securing a submission. Even when Kennedy and Weidman managed to jump on his back, Rockhold unceremoniously shook them off without much difficulty.

Conclusion

Rockhold has the skill set to be champion again. Every fighter has weaknesses, but Rockhold is still a brutal kickboxer with fantastic jiu-jitsu, the division’s premiere counter wrestler. If Rockhold can still perform to his old standards and fight more consistently, he still has a chance to rise to the top once more.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.