Luke Rockhold’s first UFC pay-per-view headlining duties come Saturday night as he defends his middleweight championship versus late-replacement Michael Bisping at UFC 199 in Inglewood, California.
It’s Rockhold’s first title defense but not his first go-around with Bisping. In Australia, near 2014’s end, Rockhold tapped Bisping out in less than six minutes. Two fights later, Rockhold stopped Chris Weidman with strikes in Round 4 to close out 2015. Weidman was granted an immediate rematch. However, a neck injury opened the door for Bisping to seek revenge -- and his first title UFC title opportunity -- on three weeks notice.
Rockhold predictably doesn’t like Bisping’s chances. He insisted Bisping was smart to jump at the opportunity because it’s now or never. Who knows if he would ever get a title shot? He was in Rockhold’s view at least one fight away, which is where Bisping has seemingly always been. It’s a gulf he’s never crossed in 10 years fighting in the UFC. So he understands why Bisping would accept short-notice circumstances to fight for the gold.
“He’s a tough dude and he’s got balls stepping up. Good for him,” Rockhold told Champions.co. “His fairytale won’t be achieved.”
Rockhold thinks the reason Bisping is here is because his English accent. It’s made him a promotional favorite. American fans are drawn to English or Irish accents in MMA, according to Rockhold. They aren’t as enthusiastic about supporting their American representatives because they aren’t hooked with the varied English UK fighters offer. An accent is a good selling point for his opponents. However, Rockhold counted out Bisping and anyone that will challenge for his title.
“This will be his exit,” Rockhold said. “Unfortunately it’s not going to be a nice one.”
Rockhold is keen on granting title shots to those, like Bisping, who will help draw numbers for his fights. Competitively? There is no one on the horizon at 185 pounds he is worried about.
“There are some decent guys out there, but comparably, I think they all suck,” Rockhold said. “What excites me now is the guy that’ll be able to sell a fight. I want a good dance partner. They’re all going to get beat.”
If fans can believe a challenger will beat Rockhold, that’s enough for Rockhold to go with it. Whether loved or hated, Rockhold is OK with whatever role he takes on because he has the belt to drive the story. A “loud mouth like Bisping” gets the people excited and motivates Rockhold to silence him. All that said, Rockhold is dismissive of his opponents because they are outside his focus.
“Even if I could beat Bisping coming off the couch, I wouldn’t. I can’t stop [training],” Rockhold said. “I’m going to go out there and reach my potential. It’s not about him. It’s not about who I’m fighting. It’s not about winning. It’s about myself and what I can potentially do.”
Rockhold at the high-level virtually came from nowhere. Despite being a prospect from a respected camp, he’d never fought anyone of note or even competed on a major main card. He was out for 18 months dealing with injury. Then suddenly was challenging Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight crown in September 2011. It was a “lofty goal” to beat Jacare under those circumstances. He was confident he’d win, “almost sure” he would. Once the decision was rendered, almost fell out of Rockhold’s vocabulary.
“I believed in myself that I could achieve these things,” Rockhold said. “I’m passionate about it. I took everything, like my second loss [Vitor Belfort], it baffled me. I didn’t think I’d be touched. It made the sport so real. It makes the victories mean so much more.”
Rockhold fell to Belfort in his UFC debut in May 2013. The first-round KO stunned Rockhold in less than three minutes because it was his first loss in a major promotion. He responded to defeat with a five-fight win streak culminating in toppling Weidman and becoming UFC middleweight champ.
“Look what I’ve done with my losses in my career,” Rockhold said. “I’ve bettered myself. This is a game where anything can happen but I know that I’m better than these guys. If I were to get caught, I get caught. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be back right where I’m at in no time.”
Therein lies where Rockhold is dangerous to the middleweight division. Winning and losing are temporary to him. His greatness, in his mind, and with each passing UFC title defense to the MMA world, is sustained.
“I lost my second fight, I went on undefeated nine fights in a row, won the Strikeforce title, defended it,” Rockhold continued. “I lost to Vitor, I got caught, I came back just like I would, bettered myself, stormed through everyone like everyone else has and won the [UFC] middleweight championship.
“That’s the game -- can’t lose your focus. Stay hungry, stay tough, keep your heart, keep your focus, keep everything.”