If there were any lingering doubts as to whether Luke Rockhold would be able to compete with the best of the best in the middleweight division, the former Strikeforce champion erased them as quickly as he erased Lyoto Machida from the middleweight title scene.
Coming into the fight ranked below both “The Dragon” and co-headlining fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, whom Rockhold had already defeated, Rockhold had more to prove than any of the contenders jostling for a title shot at UFC on Fox 15 last weekend. He made the most of his headlining opportunity by smashing one of the most decorated middleweights on the UFC roster. The victory over Machida signaled that the climax of Rockhold’s quest for a UFC title is on the horizon, but, more than that, it proved he could hang with the elite in the division after an uncharacteristically bad performance in his first UFC bout.
After walking into the organization as the Strikeforce champ and the highest ranked of a handful of solid transfers from the San Jose organization’s roster, Rockhold drew a huge match-up for his UFC debut: a fight with Vitor Belfort in Belfort’s native Brazil that would likely determine the next challenger to the UFC middleweight title. Needless to say, things didn’t exactly go according to plan for the American Kickboxing Academy product that night.
Octagon jitters. They may not affect everyone and their potency definitely differs from fighter to fighter, but the dreaded jitters are a very real thing. They did some work on Rockhold that night in Brazil. Even after making a point of the importance of staying elusive and not letting Belfort land the devastating blows that “The Phenom” often uses to end fights within the first five minutes, Rockhold looked far more tentative and stationary than the guy we’d grown accustomed to seeing in Strikeforce. Unable and unwilling to really try to get any offense going with Belfort stalking him, Rockhold ended up eating one of the most brutal head kicks in UFC history that night and effectively went from a possible No. 1 contender to the bottom of an increasingly deep middleweight talent pool.
Following the one-sided loss, Rockhold had a lot of ground to make up if he wanted to prove that he was more than the fighter that couldn’t last a round with Belfort. Many fans were highly skeptical about whether or not the fighters coming over from the Strikeforce roster were championship material, and the way that a relatively dominant champ lost his debut only added fuel to the fire, pushing Rockhold further from being a contender in the minds of those fans. So, Rockhold went to work. After a brief layoff due to injury, he returned with a vengeance.
Starting with back-to-back, extremely dominant first-round finishes of fringe top-10 fighters Costa Philippou and Tim Boetsch, Rockhold quickly proved that his lackluster effort against Belfort wouldn’t be the norm inside the Octagon. Using the Philippou fight to showcase his striking and then the Bostech match-up to show why he’s so feared on the mat, Rockhold made it known that he was dead set on taking on the best in the division again, and where better to start than with perennial contender Michael Bisping?
It was in the Bisping fight where Rockhold officially started to silence his doubters and prove he was every bit as good as his top-five ranking suggested. While Bisping hasn’t ever been considered the cream of the crop at 185 pounds, he’s consistently found himself near the top of the rankings and had given some highly ranked opponents a solid run for their money in the past. Even though Rockhold was coming into the bout as a heavy favorite, how he handled himself against a tried and true contender like Bisping would allow fans to see if the AKA veteran was ready to compete for a title opportunity again. In typical Rockhold fashion, he left no doubt, battering the Brit on the feet before locking in a fight-ending choke in the opening minute of the second round and securing the win he needed to get back into the mix for the middleweight title.
Heading into last weekend, Rockhold’s quest back to the middleweight strap was nearly complete. Once more in the scenario he found himself in during his UFC debut, Rockhold faced a fight where a convincing win would more than likely get him the title shot he covets. All he had to do was defeat Machida, and that’s exactly what he did. Quickly finding his range and landing a big shot early in the fight that had “The Dragon” reeling, Rockhold took control and never looked back, dominating Machida in a way that even current UFC champs Jon Jones and Chris Weidman can’t say they did. On the contrary, Weidman was pushed harder by Machida than by anyone else in his career, going five full rounds in an entertaining, back-and-forth match-up.
If Rockhold had just beat Machida, it would have shown that he is ready for a championship bout. But to dominate Machida the way he did? Well, that shows that Rockhold might be ready for more than just a shot at the title. Next month, when Weidman and Belfort step into the cage to fight for the middleweight strap, the winner will undoubtedly be the best middleweight in the world. Whether they’re able to hold onto that moniker once they’re in the Octagon with Rockhold may end up being an entirely different story.
Rockhold may not quite have been ready for the big time when he stepped into the Octagon for his debut a couple of years ago, but the Rockhold that’s been in the cage since that day has been fighting with a renewed sense of purpose. He is going to give whomever holds that belt a run for their money when he finally gets his chance. It’s not time to crown Rockhold the next champion-in-waiting or anything, but he’s proven himself as more than the fighter that looked like a deer in headlights against Belfort. The AKA product will be a seriously tough test when he fights for the title. He even has a very real chance of ending the year with UFC gold around his waist.