After a long period on the sidelines, the former Strikeforce and UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold will make his return to competition facing David Branch this weekend but is he fully invested in himself following his downtime and are the other avenues that are now open to him going to hinder his motivation?
Luke Rockhold is a pretty divisive figure amongst mixed martial arts fans these days. For many, his reign as the Strikeforce middleweight champion will forever sit in the shadow of his short and ill-fated run atop the UFC’s 185lb division.
Chris Weidman had brought the world to a standstill by defeating the consensus G.O.A.T Anderson Silva in two equally shocking title showdowns and by the time UFC 194 came around and Luke Rockhold was knocking on the door, the ‘All-American’ had successfully seen off Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort, earning himself an impressive three title defenses.
Rockhold came into that matchup with a strong pedigree, though. At the time he held wins over the aforementioned Machida, Michael Bisping, Tim Kennedy and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, but despite the fact that championship glory was in his past, his first shot at UFC gold was undoubtedly the most significant fight of his career. Weidman was a star in the making following his legendary victory over ‘the Spider’ but just like Anderson before him, he was about to meet his maker on the biggest stage possible.
Rockhold mauled Chris Weidman that night in the co-main event to Aldo/McGregor. It was, at times, difficult to watch and a fight that probably should have been stopped much earlier than it was but nonetheless, a new champ was crowned and whether they knew it or not, the UFC had a new potential star in the making.
But alas, things were about to go south for the new middleweight kingpin in the most dramatic way imaginable.
Given the status that Weidman attained through his memorable run as champ, a rematch was booked for UFC 199 in Inglewood, California that was set for a date in early June of 2016.
I’m sure Rockhold enjoyed his time as champ, he certainly received a lot of attention as a result of it, with his home town of Santa Cruz even going as far as to declare December 18th ‘Luke Rockhold Day’ and despite his underdog status at UFC 194, the notoriety that his dominant win brought him was evident as the betting lines switched and instead it was he who came through as a favourite as himself and Chris moved towards their second encounter.
Unfortunately, however, Chris Weidman was forced to pull out of their rematch about two and a half weeks before they were due to fight as a result of an undisclosed injury. Often times, late pull-outs can lead to fights being scrapped altogether – especially when a title is on the line – but with ample time for them to find a replacement, a familiar face was brought in and finally given the title shot he had spent his entire career chasing.
Michael Bisping was the classic example within MMA of ‘forever the bridesmaid, never the bride’, as un-macho as that might sound.
For years he plied his trade quietly (in every sense barring verbally) within the UFC’s middleweight division but was just a shade too inconsistent to get himself firmly within the title picture. A win over Chris Leben would be followed by a loss to Dan Henderson, while a trouncing of Jason Miller would lead to Chael Sonnen getting the nod from the judges in the followup. Perhaps one of the most impressive wins of his career came back in 2014 against former Strikeforce champion Cung Le, but unfortunately, a brutal loss at the hands of Luke Rockhold himself came straight after.
So when Bisping finally got the call to have a go at the title against someone who held a win over him, he obviously took it with open arms and focussed his attention like his life depended on it. At 37, time was most certainly not on his side but another factor would see him through on the day, Luke Rockhold’s massive overconfidence.
That night at UFC 199, Bisping recorded one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport and in all honestly, made a laughing stock out of his opponent, who was seen as such a vastly superior fighter in every facet of the game that his nonchalant attitude in the buildup to the fight didn’t even seem that far out of place. I mean, who actually thought Bisping could do it?
I mean, who actually thought Bisping could do it?
But he do it, he did, and Rockhold immediately sunk into a whinge. He voiced his disillusionment with the current state of the UFC, then repeatedly called for a rematch, then refused to fight at all until he was given one.
Take a look at TJ Dillashaw, he stole away the bantamweight title from the formerly dominant Renan Barao with one of the greatest title-winning performances of all-time, defended the belt on two different occasions before losing it once more by one of the closest decisions you will ever see and did he refuse to fight? No. He took on and defeated two top contenders in John Lineker and Raphael Assuncao and earned his way back into contention.
Rockhold lost his first defense by way of his first-round KO and felt entitled to a rematch? It’s a strange one to say the least but Luke earned himself no new fans through the way he handled himself in that defeat.
Some good fortune did come his direction following that major setback however when he landed himself a pretty lucrative modeling deal, one that his fellow fighter/model Alan Jouban claimed had him set on a path that could see him reach some great heights, heights that would not require taking a left-hook to the face while getting there.
“Luke Rockhold was signed by the same agent who found me. His name is Jason Kanner and he owns Soul Artist Management and he is very very good at what he does. He’s the one, well him and my fight manager, they’re the ones who orchestrated the whole Versace deal.
“Luke does have a pretty big name. He has been the (UFC) champ already. You know, he’s the number 1 or 2 guy and is a former champion. So the possibility is definitely there for him to make some big money. He just has to land some big jobs with major designers and it will come.
“Luke is definitely lined up with the right agency. Soul Artist Management specializes in working with men and they are the ones who jump-started Channing Tatum. They discovered him and got him to be really popular.
“My deal with Versace is absolutely the largest payday I’ve had in my career.” (via BJPenn.com)
It was widely believed when Ronda Rousey made her eagerly-anticipated comeback to face Amanda Nunes for the women’s bantamweight title back at UFC 207 that she seemed to have one foot out the door, something that was backed up by some of the comments she had been making in the leadup to the fight.
Of course, prior to Conor McGregor, Rousey was the biggest star in the UFC’s history but as her fame grew, she slowly learned all about that often-quoted fact of life that when it comes to the fight-game, you’re either fully in, or you’re fully out.
Her end came swiftly at Nunes’ hand when she entered the octagon that night and even a newcomer to the sport would be able to see that she just could not cope with the pressure anymore. Now I’m not saying Rockhold is destined for that same fate but when you consider the facts, something just seems off about his return.
Look at Rockhold, he’s a 6-foot-3, handsome, former-champion who has had a heavily-publicized relationship with famed singer Demi Lovato that has done nothing but help to raise his profile in recent times. His modeling career – according to Jouban – could well be headed in the right direction if he makes the right choices, and for all of his talk about the flukish nature of his loss to Bisping, he hasn’t seemed overly fired up about doing whatever it takes to get that win back, even if it means taking out a few contenders.
It’s not concrete by any means and who knows, maybe he goes in there this weekend, blitzes David Branch and immediately reaffirms his status as one of the best middleweights on the planet but just like Rousey before him, the question about his commitment to the fight-game, especially given the mental weakness his overconfidence exposed before, makes September 16th’s fight quite a bit more interesting than many are expecting it to be.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena