Strikeforce Middleweight Champ Luke Rockhold Ready To Be Part of Sport’s Best

Luke Rockhold (Strikeforce)

California-based fighter likely meets Tim Kennedy in next title defense

Luke Rockhold may have a laid-back California vibe outside of the cage, but once the gloves are on and the door is locked, he’s all business.

The current Strikeforce middleweight champion has been on a quest to prove he is one of the best 185-pound fighters on the planet. With impressive victories over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and MMA veteran Keith Jardine, Rockhold’s quest is picking up solid momentum.

Since signing on as a prospect with Strikeforce in 2008, his record has been spotless as he’s put together eight consecutive victories – with all but one coming by way of stoppage. Rockhold worked his way through the promotion’s Challengers series to eventually become the middleweight champion after a five-round war with heralded submission artist Jacare. Now, with a successful defense against Jardine under his belt, he is looking to continue his quest to become recognized as one of the sport’s best.

“Everything matters to me right now,” Rockhold told HeavyMMA. “Progessing, defending my title and constantly moving forward toward bigger and better things are all important to me. I’m looking to get better with each and every fight. I want to train harder and smarter. I’m learning with every fight and training camp how to do things better. It’s not always about training harder – it’s about training smarter and listening to your body. I feel like I’m fine-tuning everything and getting ready for that next level or whatever is ahead of me.”

Following his victory over Jardine, Rockhold was vocal about wanting to face the toughest competition available and put an open offer for UFC middleweights on the table. While Zuffa has yet to cross fighters over from either organization, a handful of interesting matchups still exist for Rockhold in Strikeforce. In addition to the current roster of potential contenders, Zuffa announced former UFC middleweight title challenger Nate Marquardt would be entering the Strikeforce fold later this year. Rockhold doesn’t believe it’s a fight he will see immediately, but has been hearing his next test will come from Tim Kennedy.

“Strikeforce is talking about July right now,” Rockhold said. “There hasn’t been anything made official, but everyone is telling me July and Tim Kennedy – so it’s on. I’m happy with facing Tim Kennedy because he’s a tough guy and I’m looking forward to it.

“Nate Marquardt would be a very interesting fight, and the first time I heard about him coming over I was pumped because that’s what I wanted. But it looks like he is going to 170, and I’ve been hearing talk about him fighting (Tyron) Woodley. I think he’s content with fighting at welterweight.”

Alongside training partners Jon Fitch, Daniel Cormier and Josh Thomson, Rockhold is a proud member of the American Kickboxing Academy family in San Jose, Calif. The gym has long been one of the most revered teams in mixed martial arts, but recently experienced some turbulence when longtime member Josh Koscheck parted ways to train in Fresno.

While the split drew a lot of attention, Rockhold feels things are firing on all cylinders in San Jose. A new face has been added to the mix in UFC lightweight Gray Maynard, and several of his teammates have big fights scheduled.

“Things are great at AKA,” Rockhold said. “They couldn’t be better. We got a new jiu-jitsu coach, new boxing coaches and things are going great. We are more of a family than ever before. We have a great team. I can’t wait for (Muhammed) Mo (Lawal) to get healthy and come back. He’s one of my main training partners. It’s going to be a great year for our team. Cain (Velasquez) is going to get his belt back. Mo’s going to get healthy and back on track. DC is going to get a belt. Thomson has his title fight with (Gilbert) Melendez and has a chance to get a belt. Gilbert is a tough mother (expletive), but Josh has a really good chance. That’s going to be a great fight.

“I can’t forget about Gray Maynard, either. He’s in there training a few times a week. He’s trying to bark on my hometown and trying to get all Santa Cruz on me. I’m like. ‘Whoa, Gray, watch out now – we know who the real Santa Cruz is here.’ I have to keep him in check. Gray is a good guy and he’s definitely a part of the team. He enjoys it out there and we enjoy having him.”

As the team prepares for the opportunities at hand, one of Rockhold’s closest friends and teammates will be attempting to make his return. Lawal has experienced a tumultuous year as he’s overcome a staph infection that nearly took his life in addition to receiving a suspension for a failed drug test following his win over Lorenz Larkin – and then a release from Zuffa after a Twitter rant alleging a Nevada State Athletic Commission member was racist in her questioning at his hearing. Despite all of the adversity, Rockhold is proud to see how well his friend has handled everything that has come his way.

“Mo seems really positive as he’s gone through this situation,” Rockhold said. “It’s so rough to see him go through this situation with the staph infection, the surgeries, the suspension and the fines. It’s a tough blow, and I don’t know if I could take it as well as he has. To see him keep a smile on his face and remain positive has been great.

“He’s coming to the gym now and helping out. He’s getting out and getting healthy. I think he’s going to have a good return. His spirits are high, and that’s a big part of it. It looks like things are mending between Zuffa and him, so we’ll see how that all works out. Hopefully he can make his return to Strikeforce or the UFC later this year.”

While the fighters at AKA strive to become champions and make their marks in the MMA history books, a recent incident may have cemented one of their fighters in the “instant classic” category. At a Fight! magazine party in Columbus, Ohio, Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix finalists Cormier and Josh Barnett held an impromptu “dance-off” that caught the MMA world’s attention. Rockhold was there as an eyewitness and had more than a little bit to do with starting the exchange.

“I did see the dance-off between DC and Barnett,” Rockhold said. “It was a close call for sure. I actually instigated the entire ordeal because I walked over to the UFC part of the party and saw Barnett getting jiggy with it. He was doing his thing and for a big white boy, the man can move. I walked over to DC’s table and pulled him over told him Barnett was on the other side starting to get a little freaky with it and that he needed to go over there and straighten him out.

“I didn’t know DC was going to call him out for a dance competition, but he goes over there and jumps on a table and calls his ass out. It was great, and if their fight is anywhere near as good as their dance-off we are all in for an awesome show.”

Rockhold’s support for his friends and teammates is unflappable, but he is very much aware of his own trajectory toward the upper echelon of the sport. He understands respect and recognition doesn’t come without accomplishments, and even though he is the current Strikeforce champion, he will take his place among the sport’s best one way or another.

“It doesn’t matter if they want to give me Top 10 status or not because I’m taking it,” Rockhold said. “I’m going to earn my place, and people will eventually see it. I’m just going to keep winning and winning and keep doing my thing. I’m going to keep training and improving and all the pieces will fall into place.”