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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 221’s Luke Rockhold

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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight kingpin, Luke Rockhold, will square off with hyper-athletic knockout artist, Yoel Romero, this Saturday (Feb. 10, 2018) at UFC 221 inside Perth Arena in Perth, Australia.

Despite holding the belt just about 1.5 years ago, Rockhold’s position remains decidedly odd. His upset loss to Michael Bisping and subsequent injuries kept him out of the cage for more than one year, resulting in a somewhat rusty performance opposite David Branch back in Sept. 2017. At the same time, it’s a testament to Rockhold’s skill that forcing David Branch — a Top 10-ranked fighter and two-division World Series of Fighting (WSOF) champ — to submit to strikes in nine minutes is not held in higher regard. Rockhold looks unstoppable when he’s on his game, and he damn well better be against the incredibly dangerous Cuban Olympian.

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. 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, usually pairing 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. On the whole, Rockhold generally does a very good job of keeping his weight back while leading, which keeps him safer from the type of counter hook that Bisping cracked him with.

Once Rockhold has his opponent trapped, he has several attacks depending on how his opponent reacts. This is an important element of Rockhold’s game, and it’s where he’s most effective. The various options Rockhold has opposite a pinned opponent are broken down both in the following video and below:

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 up his targets 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 brutal kicks. 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 set up 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 toward 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 clean, as a glancing blow was enough to send his opponent to his knees (GIF).

Another weapon to counter his opponent’s movement toward 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).

Since both the right hook and left kick result in many of his biggest finishes, it’s caused Rockhold’s clinch work to go a bit unnoticed. Once Rockhold secures a body lock, he doesn’t always look for 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 these strikes had a visible effect on his UFC opponents like Chris Weidman.

Outside of the Bisping fight, Rockhold generally keeps himself safe while leading. When on his back foot, however, Rockhold relies almost entirely on the check hook to keep him safe. If he clubs his foe with a check hook and the combination stops, then it’s worked wonderfully. However, should his opponent manage to roll the strike — or even absorb it without losing footing — then Rockhold is caught with hands low, sometimes even having thrown himself out of stance. David Branch managed to move through the right hook a couple times, following up with big combinations that landed well as a result.

That’s clearly something Rockhold and his new kickboxing coach, Henri Hooft, have been looking to improve. Against Branch, Rockhold did not rely exclusively on his check hook. While backing up, Rockhold was more willing to switch to Orthodox and jab to keep his foe back, and he also attacked with the calf kick to off-balance forward offense. It wasn’t perfect, but these are newer tools for the Southpaw and could help improve his defense.

Wrestling

Rockhold’s wrestling is an interesting case, very likely the direct result of training with large, expert wrestlers like Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez. On the whole, Rockhold is an amazing defensive wrestler — one of the best ever to be frank — but his takedown offense largely comprises grabbing the body lock and trying to force his foe to the mat. He’s not ineffective with that takedown, but it’s clear that Rockhold has spent far more time in the gym defending takedowns than trying to land them.

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 and since, 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 out Weidman, and Rockhold was again able to drag him down from the clinch at the start of the fourth. In the recent bout with Branch, Rockhold used a similar strategy to force Branch to the mat, digging underhooks until he controlled a body lock. From that position, Rockhold could muscle his foe around and look to trip/block the leg until eventually landing the takedown.

Most important for a fighter looking to stand with most of his opponents, Rockhold may be the finest counter wrestler in 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 mixed martial arts (MMA) career and found some success in jiu-jitsu 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. When Boetsch shot for the single, Rockhold attempted to spike his head into the mat and circle to the back, but it resulted in a scramble that landed Rockhold on top in a sprawl. From there, Rockhold chose not to attempt to circle to the back. Instead, he allowed Boetsch to control the single leg, wrapping up a head and arm inside an inverted triangle (GIF).

From that position, Rockhold manipulated his trapped opponent and took top position. It took some time and hard shots to the body, but Rockhold was eventually able to secure a kimura grip and finish “The Barbarian.”

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 impressive, 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.

In general, Rockhold has a tremendous ability to control the guillotine/front head lock position. From the head control, Rockhold can threaten the choke or quickly spin to the back, another position in which he dominates.

I touched upon it in the wrestling section, but Rockhold’s mount and back mount are brutal. Once in either position, Rockhold’s unique combination of length and strength allow him to hip in with great power. He effectively traps his opponent in terrible position, and Rockhold simply batters foes from there. Any attempts to scramble or turtle are met with continued heavy shots, and Rockhold will even make things worse by crawling higher into mount or trapping wrist control as his foe gives up the back.

Branch is a Renzo Gracie-trained black belt and very tough veteran, but he was smart enough to recognize that there was no way for him to escape from Rockhold’s dominant back control. It took Rockhold less than one minute in mount/back mount to force Branch to tap to strikes, as there was no fate for Branch other than continued abuse.

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 is perhaps the most talented fighter in the world to be constantly questioned by fight fans. There is no doubt at this point that his striking defense could use improvement, but the skills that brought Rockhold to the title and allowed him to dominate so many top fighters remain strong. If he can dispatch Romero and capture the interim title, it should help remind the world of Rockhold’s unique skill set.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion 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.