There is a realization that virtually every fighter comes to at one point or another: They realize they’re not invincible, that they have weaknesses just like everyone else and that winning every night is not a given no matter how talented one might be.
On sheer talent, Luke Rockhold is pretty much as good as it gets in mixed martial arts. He’s an athletic marvel whose mind moves as quickly as his body. He won his fights because he could see openings, even the tiniest of ones, and his body was fast enough and athletic enough to take advantage.
Talent with a sharp mind for the sport is how one wins a title.
Rockhold, though, now has a title that he very much doesn’t want: Former world champion. He’ll begin the process of ridding himself of it on Saturday in Pittsburgh when he faces Dave Branch at PPG Paints Arena on UFC Fight Night on Fox Sports 1.
There is nothing Rockhold enjoys about the word former, particularly given how he lost and, most importantly, who he lost to.
Rockhold was knocked out in the first round at UFC 199 on June 4, 2016 by Michael Bisping, a late replacement for Chris Weidman. That Bisping, whom Rockhold defeated in a one-sided manner in Australia on Nov. 7, 2014, was the one to defeat him still gnaws at Rockhold.
Rockhold said the loss “was an accumulation of everything.” He mentioned a lack of focus, injuries and a good performance by Bisping.
It was hard, though, for him to talk about it. There’s a rivalry there and they don’t care for each other, not even a little bit.
As Rockhold tries to explain it, his voice trails off.
“My focus, it just wasn’t … ,” he said, taking a long pause before continuing.
“Yeah, I wasn’t necessarily healthy, but I think it comes down to the focus,” he said. “I forced the fight. I could have won that fight with very little, but I ran in, I left openings, I made mistakes and he definitely capitalized. He’s a tough guy. He’s by no means the best in the world, but he’s a tough guy. You have to realize that the best guys don’t always win in this sport.”
Rockhold knows that first-hand all too well. He comes from a camp, the American Kickboxing Academy, which featured “The Three Kings,” at the top of the roster. Heavyweight Cain Velasquez, light heavyweight Daniel Cormier and Rockhold were as strong a 1-2-3 as any camp in the sport has had.
Velasquez, though, was derailed by Fabricio Werdum, who stripped the nickname “Cardio Cain,” from him and pummeled the ex-champion. More importantly, though, Velasquez’s body continually betrayed him and 14 months since his last fight, he’s not even ready to train yet.
Cormier has lost twice to Jon Jones, though the most recent loss, at UFC 214 on July 29, was changed Wednesday to a no-contest.
And Rockhold ran into the Bisping buzzsaw.
But Rockhold, who had ACL and MCL injuries to his knee and injured two of his fingers on his left hand so badly that he couldn’t grip properly, isn’t about to be consigned to the scrap heap of MMA history.
Though he turns 33 next month, he said adamantly, “I’m in my early 30s – early 30s, got that? – and still in my prime. There is a lot I can and will do in this sport.”
Though he doesn’t mention Bisping specifically, one of those things he thinks about is regaining the belt. But he knows that starts with beating Branch in Pittsburgh first.
Branch has won 11 in a row and held the middleweight and light heavyweight belts simultaneously in the World Series of Fighting (now the Professional Fighters League) before vacating the belts and returning to the UFC in May.
“He’s a game opponent and the man hasn’t lost in five years,” Rockhold said. “He’s fought some decent guys. His last loss was to Anthony Johnson by decision and how many people go to a decision with Anthony Johnson? Everyone is to be respected.”
But it’s clear listening to Rockhold speak that he wants to make a statement, to remind people that the loss was an aberration and that he’s still among the best in the world.
And so he resorts to some old-time schoolyard bully-type trash talk to make his point.
“I just can’t go out and try to force a fight, and I just have to use what I have,” he said. “I have every tool to beat every guy in every way. I’m going to pick this dude apart. I’m going to break him down. I’m going to break his legs, rupture his liver and I’m going to rattle his skull.
“I don’t see this guy wanting to stand with me. I think he’s going to panic and shoot in and I’m going to squash him. I’ll flatten him and turn him into a white belt and I’ll smash his face in.”
No more needs to be said. If he does that, it won’t be long before he’s back in the title picture.
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