Why isn't former champ Luke Rockhold considered one of the UFC's best fighters?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Luke Rockhold spent much of 2017 fighting, but it was with UFC president Dana White on social media more often than in the cage, where he excels.

Rockhold is one of the best and most under-appreciated fighters in the world. It defies belief that he is not one of the 15 fighters in the UFC’s official pound-for-pound rankings.

Even White, who once caustically told Rockhold on Twitter to “stick to modeling,” is mystified by the lack of respect shown to his former middleweight champion.

“I agree with you. I agree with you,” White said when the lunacy that Rockhold is not ranked in the UFC’s pound-for-pound Top 15 was pointed out to him. “I don’t know what the reason for that is. I think a lot of it is the way that he talks: ‘Oh, you know, maybe I’ll just model instead of fighting.’ The fans don’t look at him that way, but he’s absolutely one of the best in the world.

“He’s incredibly well-rounded. He’s unbelievably talented. He can beat you anywhere, on the feet or on the ground. His grappling is awesome. The guy has it all.”

Rockhold will fight Yoel Romero on Saturday in the main event of UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, for the interim middleweight title. He was supposed to fight champion Robert Whittaker, but when Whittaker had to withdraw because of injuries, Romero was brought in to replace him.

Luke Rockhold (above) will headline UFC 221 in an interim middleweight title fight against Yoel Romero on Saturday. (Getty)

The bout will be a chance for Rockhold to regain the momentum his career had when he defeated Chris Weidman for the middleweight belt at UFC 194. It was Rockhold’s fifth successive win and his 14th in his previous 15 bouts.

His only defeat in that span came to Vitor Belfort on May 18, 2013, at a time when Belfort was still using testosterone replacement therapy. In the seven years from 2008 through 2015, Rockhold established himself as one of the elite fighters in any weight class in the world.

“Oh, my God, Luke is so good, so, so, so good,” said his friend and former teammate, light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. “He does things in there that you don’t see a lot of guys doing.”

But a shocking loss to Michael Bisping, a late replacement for Weidman, on June 4, 2016, at UFC 199, changed a lot for Rockhold.

He was injured after the bout and had to cancel a planned fight with Jacare Souza, as a result. Because of the injury, and a contract dispute with the UFC, Rockhold was out of the cage for 15 months after the loss to Bisping.

Out of sight means out of mind, especially in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of MMA. Rockhold, though, has no regrets, not even for his very public disagreements with White.

“They are businessmen and they play hardball,” Rockhold said of UFC management. “You have to be ready to stand up for yourself and fight because if you don’t, they’ll walk all over you. I did what I had to do.”

He returned to action in September with a one-sided win over David Branch, setting up the title fight with Whittaker. He wasn’t happy when Whittaker pulled out, but rationalizes it by saying that if he’d beaten Whittaker, Romero would have been next and now that he’s fighting Romero, if he beats him, Whittaker will be next.

He and Romero, on paper, seem to be mirror images and they’ve even beaten the same guys. But Rockhold believes he’s the better fighter and says he’ll prove it Saturday.

“He’s taken my sloppy seconds the whole time,” said Rockhold, who beat Weidman, Souza, Lyoto Machida and Tim Kennedy prior to Romero defeating them. “I loosened the lid and he finished it off. It’s time to settle the score, you know? He runs his mouth, but I’ve done it better and I’ve done it in better timing.”

Rockhold is one of the best pure athletes in the sport, but what may separate him from Romero is his conditioning. Romero has all the tools, as well as staggering punching power, but all of the muscle he has requires a great deal of oxygen, and if fights last a while, he tends to slow down the pace.

That is never the case with Rockhold.

“There is no doubt they’re two of the best in the world and they match up very well, but I think the question in this fight is whether or not Romero will gas,” White said. “That’s the thing. Luke Rockhold has a gas tank that goes for days and days. Romero is nasty, but you’ll see him run out of gas at times. If it gets to be one of those long, tough, nasty grueling fights, we know for sure Rockhold can do that, but can Romero? If there is a significant edge in this fight, that could be it.”

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