By Alistair Hendrie
Since Luke Rockhold last won a UFC contest in September 2017 a lot has changed. The 185lbs title he once wore has switched hands three times and three of the American’s last four victims – Lyoto Machida, Michael Bisping and David Branch – have either retired or left the UFC. But after Rockhold suffered a pair of knockouts between 2018 and 2019, leading to concerns for his welfare, the polarising middleweight is now considering stepping back into the Octagon.
“I’m getting healthier, and I might be getting an itch (to fight again)” Rockhold told MMA UK. “We’ll see… If Anderson Silva is still interested and seemingly he is. Maybe, you never know.” UFC president Dana White and former foe Michael Bisping had urged Rockhold to leave the sport after his dip in form and since going on hiatus last summer, Rockhold has acted in a film, Cage Fighter: Worlds Collide, in order to keep his options open for a career after MMA.
After all, White and Bisping’s advice was understandable. Yoel Romero broke Rockhold’s jaw when blasting through the Californian in February 2018, while Jan Blachowicz’s punches sent the American Kickboxing Academy man clattering to the mat, stiff as a board, in a light-heavyweight contest in July 2019. The ex-Strikeforce 185lbs leader still has the desire to compete but over the course of his 1-2 skid, Nigerian stylist Israel Adesanya has swaggered into the UFC, vanquished eight foes and taken the middleweight crown. That’s the standard Rockhold will be stepping up to, if he does decide to fight on.
It won’t be an easy decision and you can be sure he’ll map out a comeback in detail with coaches Javier Mendez and Henri Hooft. His support team will know all about his raw skillset and grappling acumen which helped him tie up Machida, Bisping and Tim Boetsch in his UFC run. It would also be fascinating to see how Hooft, a master teacher of striking fundamentals, would shape and nurture his student’s kicks to the body.
Also, despite those beatings by Romero and Blachowicz, Rockhold doesn’t have many miles on the clock. At 35 and with a record 21-5, he has only gone beyond three rounds three times and doesn’t have a history of taking prolonged punishment over a short passage of time. Age is on his side and he can look to his friend, Daniel Cormier, 40, to see that MMA can be an older man’s sport if approached with a sense of defensive nous and an intelligent strategy.
Intelligence, of course, will be key to any return. Team Rockhold must negotiate with UFC matchmaking staff to ensure they get the right fights and the right time. But that’s the problem. If he starts again at 185lbs he’s in shark-infested waters. Jared Cannonier is on a run of 3-0. Paulo Costa is undefeated at 12-0. Jack Hermansson stands at a stint of 4-1, losing only to Cannonier.
Light-heavyweight is also a crowded house with Polish boxing stand-out Blachowicz on an unbested streak of three, and each of Thiago Santos, Dominick Reyes and Anthony Smith only dented by the inimitable champion, Jon Jones.
Rockhold mentioned he’d like to challenge Silva but at 45-years-old, the Brazilian, once a mythical combination of speed and technique, is past his best and has won one of his last eight bouts. That said, in the strange world of MMA, Silva wouldn’t look out of place on a modern UFC pay-per-view. The pair could gel well but Brad Tavares, the 32-year-old with a relentless engine and a shrewd boxing brain, would be a better opponent once the Hawaiian returns from an ACL injury.
Rockhold would need to tread carefully at light-heavyweight too, so perhaps he could challenge Ed Herman, who holds victories over Rafael Natal and Glover Teixeira over a nomadic career but lacks consistency at the top tier. Paul Craig would be also worthwhile test dependant on the outcome of the Scot’s to-be-rearranged bout with Ryan Spann.
As Rockhold takes time to plan his next move, however, he could face a reality check as Adesanya, Costa and Robert Whittaker have taken over at 185lbs, while Jones has 205lbs under his rule as he awaits the repercussions of his arrest, in March, on suspicion of driving under the influence and negligent use of a firearm.
Rockhold might be inclined to focus on middleweight where he has unfinished business. He’s faced only one of the current top five and given his dexterity on the feet and habit of choking opponents beyond their will, with the right seasoning he could pick up a few wins. Trouble is, MMA has changed, shifted and morphed since Rockhold held the title in 2016 and he will face a high climb to catch Adesanya and company.
Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more