What Makes Luke Rockhold so Special?

On December 12, 2015, 16,516 fans packed in the MGM Grand Garden Arena and millions around the world watched as Chris Weidman walked out to the octagon. Awaiting was his foe, the heralded 6-foot-3 inch super athlete from Santa Cruz, CA. On paper, both men looked as close to an even match as possible. Rockhold stood one inch taller than Weidman, and Weidman had an inch of reach on Rockhold, at least in punching range. Both competitors had outstanding records: Weidman was 13-0, with his previous nine fights taking place in the UFC. Rockhold was 14-2 and on a four fight win streak, his only blemish coming from a KO loss to “TRT Vitor” in his UFC debut back in May of 2013. Both men had supreme confidence in themselves, and both men were at their physical primes, destined for future greatness as the UFC middleweight champion. There was no doubt in each of their minds that he would emerge victorious over the other, dominating his opponent in all aspects of martial arts. It was a compelling matchup for any fan – both casual and hardcore – to enjoy, and presented an intriguing stylistic matchup as well. Some pundits weren’t yet sold on Weidman, despite his incredible success in the octagon (he had never been taken down, and had only conceded 0:03 seconds of control time to all his previous opponents combined). Rockhold was the slight favorite in the stand-up department, but many were unsure if he could keep Chris off of him, noting the stifling pressure game and physically imposing stature of the incumbent champion.

For Rockhold fans, Chris’ pressure game and his wrestling weren’t of much concern, because Rockhold has a world-class ground game, vicious technical striking, and an imposing physical stature of his own. For a plethora of reasons, this matchup was nearly impossible to predict, with many fans and media members going back and forth on who took this fight. As the fight began, the tension was palpable in the arena as the world watched to see who would emerge as the new middleweight champion.

Up until the third round, the fight was fairly even, with both fighters exchanging numerous kicks to the body. The tides turned in Rockhold’s favor when Weidman threw an ill-considered wheel kick, which Rockhold countered by clinching and securing double underhooks, which he transitioned to a body lock takedown. As Joe Rogan stated, the missed wheel kick attempt “was the beginning of [Weidman’s] demise,” as Rockhold turned the corner several times to maintain control of Chris’ back before landing on top of a turtled up Chris Weidman. From there, he slid both hooks in with ease and secured back mount. Weidman immediately recognized the danger and tried to roll to his back. Once Rockhold achieved full mount, he unloaded with a barrage of elbows and punches that bloodied and battered Weidman’s face, nearly finishing the champion before he was saved by the bell.

What Makes Luke Rockhold so Special?

Anyone who has watched the fight can agree it was over the moment Luke capitalized on that failed wheel kick attempt. Therefore, let’s examine what led to that point, and why Chris wasn’t able to buck Rockhold off and regain some kind of guard. Despite Weidman’s unparalleled success up until this fight, he received a lot of criticism I would consider unfair, most notably from a certain BJJ black belt who seems to think Weidman’s inability to escape Rockhold’s mount means he should “quit fighting” and “should not be in the UFC.” The reality is that Weidman had taken a lot of punishment before this point, especially from shots to the body, which plays a huge factor in one’s endurance. The other reason is simply because Luke Rockhold is a terrifying force of nature and an absolute monster on the ground.

How come Weidman got hit so many times, you might ask? One reason is because he consistently surrendered the outside angle during the stand up, which enabled Rockhold to land his patented liver kick. One particular example is during the first round, after referee Herb Dean stood both men up for lack of action (Rockhold had Weidman in a guillotine, but he was on side-control bottom where it’s nearly impossible to finish the choke). Rockhold would continue to throw and land vicious kicks to the body and head, but it was the kicks to the body that landed flush on repeated occasions. Those kicks would sap any man’s energy, and are extremely painful to endure. Weidman had trouble defending Rockhold’s kicks, and was unable to close the distance into boxing range, where he may have had an advantage.

Another reason Weidman took so much punishment is because he over-extended himself during his attacks, lunging in with his chin straight up in the air. Luke has a lightning fast counter right hook, which he sets up by shuffling back a step and once again securing the outside angle with his lead (right) leg. He keeps his left hand high in his guard, ducking his head as he plants his right foot farther on the outside angle and throws the right hook. This punch landed flush about 8 seconds into the second round, stunning Weidman and setting up Luke’s next attack – shoving Weidman against the cage and unleashing a volley of punches while Weidman covered up. During the second round, Luke repeatedly went to the well, throwing a body kick followed by a head kick, and throwing the check right hook as Weidman charged in, trying to close the distance. Both men stuck to the gameplan, but it was Rockhold who landed the harder, cleaner shots.

Each fighter was able to neutralize the other in the clinch, and going into the third round, they were even on takedowns and takedown attempts. The difference was Rockhold’s kicks, which Weidman seemed unable to deal with, other than return fire with his own. What Chris failed to do was throw feints, which may have helped him close the distance and establish boxing range, where he may have had the advantage. With 1:40 remaining in the third round, Chris threw a wheel kick to the head of Rockhold. Joe Rogan pointed out that Chris may have thought Rockhold was susceptible to the wheel kick, since Rockhold’s KO loss to Vitor Belfort. Although Rockhold does tend to stand very tall, with his head straight up and on the center line, if anything, he would be exposed to his left side – the same side to which he circled – not the right, where he can easily duck his head and block with his shoulder. This is exactly what happened: Rockhold ducked, blocked the kick, and established double underhooks for a body lock takedown. Rockhold was wise to slip only the left hook in and roll to his back instead of trying for both hooks. This is because a) one hook allows the top fighter to use his weight to pull the other fighter to one side, exposing the back, and b) only one hook is needed to secure single-leg back control, which is actually a more versatile position than full back control with both hooks in. With single-leg back control, the dominant fighter can attack with chokes or transition to the truck, which is a perpendicular position of control where the attacking fighter has the far-side leg of his opponent’s caught in a figure-four control with his legs, and his hips underneath the defending fighter’s hips. Rockhold opted for single-leg back control long enough to gauge where Weidman would focus his defense. Of course, Weidman was physically worn down at this point, both from the dozens of punishing body kicks and from the grueling grappling exchanges. This may have contributed to him not immediately fighting Rockhold’s hooks, ultimately a worse mistake than giving up a takedown off a failed wheel kick attempt. Fighting the hooks means reaching back and using a hand to push the foot off the hip, while rotating away from the attempted hook and toward the opponent, most likely inside the opponent’s guard (facing each other).

Instead, Rockhold sunk his right hook in, and proceeded to try and flatten Weidman out. Weidman defended by placing his right hand on Rockhold’s left knee to try and retain half guard, but Rockhold countered by grabbing a single collar tie with his left hand around the back of Weidman’s neck, controlling Weidman’s spine and thus preventing Weidman from scooting his hips away from Rockhold and out of full mount. Controlling the spine is a technique used to pass the guard or to stop the opponent from retaining a higher level of guard. Without the spine, the hips cannot move, and the fighter is rendered immobile. This is a pivotal technique that Rockhold used to achieve full mount, where he spent the final minute of the third round beating Weidman’s skull into the canvas.

One final tactic Rockhold used at the end of the third round was to pick his shots carefully, rather than try to bludgeon Weidman’s face in with sheer volume and ferocity. Instead, Rockhold secured the position, kept his knees tight to Weidman’s hips, and judiciously picked each shot in order to penetrate Chris Weidman’s cover.

Luke Rockhold did what no man had ever done: he defeated Chris Weidman, and did so decisively. Although the fight appeared close until the takedown in the third round, I believe Rockhold was heavily winning the fight until then, and the result would have been the same with or without the wheel kick attempt. His striking looked superior. He had better control of distance and timing, his kicks were harder and landed more frequently. Luke even looked to be the superior grappler. He was able to work his way back to his feet when he was on bottom, and he was able to control Weidman on top. Luke Rockhold had Chris Weidman’s number, and ultimately outclassed the Serra-Longo prodigy and former MW champion.

The fact is, Luke Rockhold is a very special athlete. He’s in his physical prime, he’s massive for the weight class withouts being too big to make a “healthy” weight cut (he hasn’t had any public weight cutting issues so far), and he’s single and doesn’t have children, allowing him to make MMA his paramount focus. Not to mention, he trains with American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), MMA Junkie’s “Gym of the Year” that’s home to a current LHW champion in Daniel Cormier and a former HW champion in Cain Velasquez, as well as an arguable No. 1 contender in Khabib Nurmagomedov (if he can stay healthy!). Equally as important, he seems to have recovered and learned from the only hiccup on his record, the aforementioned KO loss to Vitor belfort in 2013. That loss appears to have invigorated Rockhold with focus while reminding him of his own vulnerabilities. There’s no doubt that training with the likes of Cormier and Velasquez has taught him to outwrestle – or at least hold his own – with superior and/or bigger wrestlers, something that indubitably played a large role in his victory over Chris Weidman. All in all, Luke Rockhold is special because of both his own physical and mental attributes and because of the circumstances surrounding his training regimen: he doesn’t have any distractions, and he trains with champions and former champions who are bigger, better wrestlers than he is. At first glance, that sounds a bit myopic, but if we examine the current MMA landscape, it’s hard to find another fighter to compare him to.

Will Luke Rockhold hold the title through 2016? He most certainly can, though he’s far from cleaning out the division. Yoel Romero, who fought and defeated Ronaldo Souza on the same card, is now 7-0 in the UFC with 5 KO or TKO victories. Then there’s Souza himself, who will likely need 1-2 impressive victories before he’ll be considered for a shot at the middleweight title. The winner of Thales Leites and Gegard Mousasi, who fight on February 27 at UFC FN 83, would make an interesting matchup, and then there’s Robert Whittaker, who is on a four fight win streak with two victories by way of KO or TKO.

Personally, I don’t see any of these guys dethroning Rockhold any time soon, unless Romero explodes and catches him in the first round with a bomb. The biggest threat to Rockhold is most likely Chris Weidman, if he can take some time off and establish a new game plan. And that’s a big if. The fact is, Luke Rockhold is a special kind of fighter: the question is if, not when, people decide to join the team. The rematch between Weidman and Rockhold would constitute a compelling feature of the impending UFC 200 card, when legions of fans will amass in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and millions around the world will watch the best fighters in the world compete.

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