Luke Rockhold brings some life to bland UFC Fight Night
Welcome to the UFC of 2014.
Every night is not going to be like Wednesday night. There will be fight cards like the one that'll go down three Saturdays from now, with not one but two championship bouts. One week earlier, we'll get to see a former champion at work.
But the promotion has revealed plans for more than 40 events this year, so do the math. There are eight men's weight classes, one (going on two) for women. Ten champions, then, each of whom will fight two or three times this year, if health allows. Of course, health woes already have struck down heavyweight belt holder Cain Velasquez and lightweight champ Anthony Pettis.
So we will end up with many fight cards like Wednesday's, headlined by a former Strikeforce champion coming off a loss in his UFC debut. His opponent was a fighter good enough to stake a place in the middleweight Top 10, not good enough to climb within the ranks.
Luke Rockhold is the former champ, last seen taking a kick to the head from Vitor Belfort, a guy who has made it a habit to do that to top 185-pounders. And Rockhold still has Belfort on the mind. As soon as he had dispatched Costa Philippou, getting the finish at 2:31 of Round 1 with a crushing body kick, the American Kickboxing Academy fighter ran around the octagon, spotted a video camera, and ran right up to it and said, "I want Belfort."
A couple of minutes later, interviewed in the cage, Rockhold reiterated his call-out, but with a stipulation. "I want my rematch with Belfort," he said, "and I would like it here in the States." He smiled knowingly. Vitor has fought his last five fights outside the United States, and while UFC president Dana White scoffs at the suggestion, it likely has to do with the Nevada State Athletic Commission's stated reluctance to issue the fighter an exemption to use testosterone replacement therapy. (Belfort's case differs from those of the many other UFC fighters who've competed while on a TRT exemption because the Brazilian tested positive for elevated testosterone following a 2006 bout in Las Vegas and was suspended.)
So Rockhold did what he had to do to spice up a fight card that was missing a shiny object (brass title bout) to dazzle the fans. He won by knockout. He made a call-out. Both of those things are good for business. Especially on a Wednesday.
Not that Rockhold seemed particularly desperate to impress. He started the bout patiently, as he had planned. "As long as I don't rush things," he said, "I'm a lot better fighter. You saw me tonight: I was lot more reserved, waited for my opportunities, caught him with that hook, and then finished with the kicks."
That sums it up nicely. Rockhold and Philippou did a lot of circling and just a little trading of leather. Costa, in fact, was credited with landing just 4 of 19 strikes in FightMetric statistics, though one of them, a counter left hand, caught Luke coming in to follow a right hand of his own that had landed. Rockhold bloodied Philippou's nose with a punch midway through the round, then hurt him with a liver kick. Almost immediately, he followed with another that crumbled Philippou to the mat, and referee Herb Dean jumped in before Rockhold could do any more damage.
It was a dominant performance by Rockhold, but dominant in an almost casual way. Patience can make an athlete look lackluster, until it pays off. Then the plan looks great, and the athlete as well. And that's what the 29-year-old is going after in this career. "I'm not here to be good," said Luke. "I'm here to be great."
Rockhold (11-2) has a ways to go to reach that goal. A Wednesday night victory over a guy at the lower end of the Top 10 is not the ultimate proving ground. But the rangy Californian has his sights set on someone several steps higher on the ladder. Belfort knocked him out last May and he wants a shot at redemption ... and greatness. "And I'll go through anybody I have to to get that," said Rockhold. "Especially Michael Bisping. Actually, that'd be nice."
He's a man with a plan.