Fighting for the middleweight title after 18 month layoff
You can’t blame Luke Rockhold for being a little irritable.
Heading into Saturday’s bout against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight title, one of the main narratives attached to the American Kickboxing Academy product is his Lazarus-like return.
“It sounds like I fell off the map; I was nowhere to be found,” scoffed Rockhold, speaking with Heavy MMA from San Jose, prior to departing for Cincinnati, site of this weekend’s Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Kharitonov event. “I remember I was talked about a little bit, but everyone acts like I have no right to be doing this.”
When Rockhold was announced as the next challenger for the 185 pound championship, it caught a lot of people off guard. It’s not that the 26-year-old California native isn’t skilled; he’s won six straight, and collected all seven of his victories by way of first round stoppage. Where most people get hung up is that Rockhold hasn’t fought since defeating Paul Bradley in February 2010.
There is no denying how impressive he’s looked, especially in his last three bouts, all against solid veterans on the Strikeforce Challengers series. But it’s not often you see a fighter go from top prospect to top contender following an 18-month layoff.
“People can think what they want, but I’ve accomplished quite a bit with the fights that I’ve had. I think I’ve looked pretty good, and I compete against top tier talent everyday in the gym. What I lack in experience in the cage and with those top tier guys, I definitely gain through my teammates and the veterans in the gym. I’ve always known I can compete at their level, and I look forward to having those tougher, longer fights. I’d eventually like to get out of the first round.”
While Rockhold is quick to come to his own defense—as anyone would—he’s also quite logical about what has brought him to this point. In addition to his own run of success and string of impressive finishes, he knows a part of what has put him opposite “Jacare” on Saturday night is a product of the other men in the middleweight division.
“I realized that a lot of the contenders had beaten themselves out while I was injured, and there weren’t that many people left to fight Jacare. I was somewhat in contention, but I didn’t know if they’d really look at me as a contender. When the opportunity came, I was more than happy to oblige.
“I’ve always believed in myself and thought I could match-up well with Jacare. I think I match-up well; I’m a very well-rounded fighter, and I’m going to come into the cage and prove that.”
Not only will he be looking to prove to people that he belongs in the cage with the constantly improving champion, he’ll also be aiming to show that the injuries that have left him sidelines for the last year-and-a-half are healed, and that his time away from the cage hasn’t slowed his development. Critics and fans may not be sold on those conclusions yet, but Rockhold certainly is, especially when it comes to his health and continued evolution as a fighter.
“I feel really good. I’m not going to lie—I feel great. I had an awesome day of training—today was my last sparring day—and it couldn’t have been any better. It was the highlight of my training camp, and I’m excited to have this all come to an end, and peak the way that I should be peaking.
“The leg is 100-percent, and my arm’s good. I don’t think that you’re ever going to be back to exactly where you were from an AC separation and torn ligaments and stuff like that—once the ligament’s gone, the ligament’s gone—but I feel really strong. My wrestling has been really on, and it feels real secure, so I’m not worried about it.”
Rockhold says that he was actually preparing to fight on the July 30 show in Chicago, and has used the extra six weeks between the two shows to drill fundamentals and reassure himself that his health and conditioning are where they need to be. Both are where they should be, something Rockhold attributes to the outlook and approach he’s maintained throughout his time away from the cage, including the people he surrounds himself with on a daily basis.
“There’s a lot of people out there who have these layoffs, they work their second job, they’re out of shape, getting 20 pounds overweight or whatever; they haven’t been doing what I’ve been doing. I’ve been in the gym everyday, improving. I’ve been working around my injuries.
“When I was injured, I was working on my jab, and I was working on my kicks, and I was in the gym, mentally focused, watching sparring, trying to keep growing. I was staying focused the whole time, so I feel good. Training-wise, I’m sticking to the program.
“Here’s at AKA, we train so hard. I’m sparring top guys in the world every day. I’m sparring King Mo, I’m sparring Josh Koscheck, I’m sparring Daniel Cormier; I’m sparring with all these guys. At our gym, we spar so hard, you get the butterflies a little bit every time you get in there because you know anything can happen. I think it’s good to have that butterfly effect when you’re sparring as much as we are; I think it really shakes off the rust, and helps prevent you from rusting in the first place.”
He’ll need to be rust-free when he steps into the cage on Saturday night.
The current champion is an apex athlete; a guy who could have excelled at whatever he put his mind to. After earning great acclaim in the jiu-jitsu world, Souza has transitioned into mixed martial arts and improved steadily over the last two years. His days of being just a grappler are long gone, something Rockhold has noticed and that leads him to believe this fight will be a blend of styles and locations on Saturday night.
“I feel like I’m going to have to fight Jacare everywhere. His stand-up is obviously looking a lot better; he’s got fast hands, and he’s getting more technical. He’s relaxing more, so I expect him to come stand with me for a while, and then he’ll look for his takedowns; he usually does. That’s definitely his comfort zone, and if I were in his position, I’d definitely like to fight where I feel the strongest.
“But my jiu-jitsu is top notch; I feel like I’m one of the best jiu-jitsu guys he’s faced. I’m comfortable off my back, and I’m comfortable in the wrestling department. I’ve been wrestling my ass off, and I think that’s a huge part of this fight; controlling the fight, controlling the pace. If I can make him work for each takedown he wants to get, wear him out, I have faith in my cardio. I can push it hard or I can try to finish it fast. I think my stand-up is right there with the best too.”
Rockhold understands the lingering doubts; the questions about his health and where he’ll be at after 18 months and multiple injuries. Stepping in with “Jacare” without those question marks surrounding you is a daunting task, which makes the test before the challenger seems even greater to some.
But Rockhold doesn’t quite see it that way. He knows he’s used his time away wisely; he’s done the rehab, sharpened his technique, strengthened his weaknesses and bolstered his strengths. This fight isn’t about proving he can survive and hold his own; it’s about fulfilling his dreams and showing everyone that this is where he belongs.
“I’m definitely better (than before I got hurt). I feel like I’ve improved tenfold; I’m a completely different fighter, and I’m going to bring so much more to the cage this time around. It’s going to be a huge difference, trust me. I don’t really need much motivation from the naysayers and the doubters. You live once and I want to make the most of this.
“I promised myself I’d walk in with no regrets, and I’ve given this everything I have. My dream is to be a world champion and be the best in the sport, and this is a really big step in that direction. I’ve put every waking moment of my life into this fight, and I’m going to open some eyes come September 10.”