California Dreaming

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If you’re Luke Rockhold, and your new promotion has fighting’s pound-for-pound best at the top of the division, it boils down to this—the best way out is always through.

“I’m promising right now, if I beat Anderson Silva, I would fight Jon Jones,” says Luke Rockhold. It’s not the first thing he says, it’s the last. It doesn’t sound audacious or unreasonable, he’s just answering a question. It’s a good endnote, too, and he knows it.

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What is he really saying? His 6-foot-3 frame isn’t ducking anybody. Just give him these chances. He points this out in a variety of ways in a 90-minute conversation at a little fish shop in Newport Beach that serves the freshest fish that you’ll ever hope to eat, a man who envisions himself clobbering the whole pantheon of greats before it’s all said and done.

He doesn’t notice the three-top that keeps sneaking glances at him throughout our conversation—three gorgeous prototypical Southern California blonde women in yoga pants. They are passing fond at a man they have no idea is the last-and-forever Strikeforce Middleweight Champion. Adonis pays them no attention.

Adonis? Wait, hold up, hold up—who the hell is Luke Rockhold, and how did we get here?
Let’s start with who he isn’t. Rockhold isn’t quite average, even in his own vertical family. He is a mere 6-foot-3. He has one brother who is 6-foot-3 and a half, and another, Nate, who’s 6-foot-5. “They said I wasn’t a part of the family because I was so small,” Rockhold says. Meanwhile, his father, former pro basketball player Steve Rockhold, is 6-foot-8. He played against the likes of Dr. J back in the halcyon 1970s, in a summer league with the Golden State Warriors, and later in Europe. He was a “full-bodied 6-foot-8,” a thick-cut center, who played far bigger than he was.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, the Rockholds surfed. Luke’s brother Matt does it professionally. As for Luke? He can surf, brah, better than most. He’s got a fantastic beach-bum demeanor and a tan. This jibes well with the ladies. But his calling was for something other than the tubular life.

“I just never committed myself to surfing,” he says. “I was always wrestling, and I would surf in the offseason. Surfing on a professional level, you have to commit to it at a young age. My brother started really young. I skateboarded a little, but I didn’t really pick up surfing until 6th or 7th grade. Matt was maybe 8 years old when he started.”

Instead, what Rockhold did was trade dukes with unfriendly perps. “I grew up getting into a lot of fights, protecting our territory in high school and at parties,” he says. “Guys would come and crash our parties, and I had to slap ‘em up a little bit.” Not only did his older brothers make him fluent in the art of roughhousing, but Rockhold dabbled in karate very young, then judo (first grade) before wrestling (junior high and high school). He fell in and out of these worlds throughout childhood, but, as he says, “I wanted to do my thing—surf, travel, and chase girls—so I quit wrestling.”

In high school, he found the salvation of so many wayward souls—jiu-jitsu. He began training BJJ full-time after graduation. He took to it and got good at its geometry—so good that he began winning tournaments. He got good enough that he wondered if he could go pro. Then, an old desire came over him that went back to the grainy VHS days of Royce Gracie and Dan Severn, the protagonists in those early freak show UFCs. What if he made a go at becoming a professional prizefighter?

Suddenly, Rockhold’s waywardness had a new direction.

“It kind of became a reality when I realized how good I was at jiu-jitsu on a world-class level, training with these guys,” he says. “I won quite a few tournaments, and I was training with the best guys. I knew I could compete.”

Urged on by his friend Bobby Southworth, he landed at the doorstep of AKA—the famed American Kickboxing Academy, home of the trinity of brotherly welterweights (Fitch, Koscheck, and Swick).

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“I went in, and they were like, ‘Are you ready? Do you have a mouthpiece? Do you have gear?’ And I was like, ‘Nope,’” Rockhold says. “And they said, ‘Well, go get one.’ So I ran down to Play It Again Sports and got a mouthpiece for $2, went to the sushi joint across the street to get hot water and threw it in my mouth. They started latching pads on me and threw me in the ring with a couple of guys.”

Then, like so much in Rockhold’s life, things turned cinematically unreal.

“They threw me in there with Christian Wellisch first round,” says Rockhold. He was messing around, and I ended up head kicking him. He was trying to take me down, and I spun him around and took his back and choked him. He was right in the middle of his training camp for a big fight, and everyone was like, ‘Whoa.’ Then I got in there with Mike Swick and Bobby Southworth right after that. I was struggling, but I made it through the three rounds, and coach Javier Mendez asked me to join the team.”

From there, he marched—marched through Josh Neal in his Strikeforce debut, and then through names that were Greek to everyone (Nik Theotikos and Cory Devela) and those that were familiar like Jesse Taylor. Next was Paul Bradley, who took a nasty knee and had to relearn to breathe. Then, after a mammoth 18-month layoff due to a lingering shoulder injury, he marched through Ronalda “Jacare” Souza to win the belt. That was in Cincinnati, in Rockhold’s ninth professional bout. It was a razor-close, five-round decision, but Rockhold had arrived.

What he wasn’t anymore was a challenger. He was the Champion. And that night in September 2011 changed the MMA landscape.

“Suddenly you had Ebony and Ivory taking over the world,” the 28-year-old Rockhold says. “Now, me and Daniel Cormier are going to show you how it’s done.”

* * * *

Ivory is dumping three kinds of hot sauce into his Cajun ahi burrito at the Bear Flag Fish Company. He’s in Southern California to help Dan Henderson train for Lyoto Machida, and to “get a change of scenery.” He sits with his blue eyes fixed through the back of my skull. Since that night in September, when he busted into human consciousness along with his AKA teammate Cormier, he has destroyed stalwart Keith Jardine—“It really kind of pissed me off, the thought of Jardine trying to take my belt”—and batted challenger Tim Kennedy (after overcoming a blinding headache beforehand). He was supposed to fight hard-hitting Lorenz Larkin next, but the bout fell through because of Rockhold’s lingering shoulder injury. Of course, a short time later Strikeforce—inevitably, finally, mercifully—came to an end.

Now, he’s in the UFC, at long last.

What a strange odyssey to get here. The partition has come down between Rockhold and the best in the world, just as he’s coming into his own. It’s almost poetic. The feeling among lively Strikeforce fighters in 2012 was that they were trapped, and that didn’t feel like poetry to Rockhold.

“It wasn’t the greatest time to be with Strikeforce, constantly speculating on when it was going to end, and whether there would be a crossover fight,” he says. “They were running out of competition, and we were constantly talking about rematches. There just weren’t a lot of qualified guys. I couldn’t really get myself to that next level in the rankings. I want to be the best and to fight the best, and it was just frustrating. It sucked. I loved being with Strikeforce, but since the UFC bought it, everyone was wondering constantly when it was going to end. At this point, given the circumstances, I’m glad it’s over. I’m in a great position to fight the best in the world.”

That begins with the old lion himself, the ageless Vitor “The Phenom” Belfort, at UFC on FX 8 on May 18 in Brazil. When the Phenom’s name is mentioned, Rockhold gets an ornery little smile.

“I think my first fight in the UFC against someone like Vitor Belfort will introduce me to the UFC fans and will be my coming out party,” he says. “After that, as long as everything goes well—I perform well and get the win—this will be the perfect opportunity.”

If Rockhold had it his way, they’d lower him into the cauldron of an arena in Brazil, where Belfort is adored, and Belfort can be aided by testosterone and whatever else. “Doesn’t matter,” he says. Rockhold likes the notion of all the cards being stacked against him. He’s a typical lunatic. Or, is he? Maybe he just understands his hard wiring. He came through against Jacare when people doubted him (or didn’t even know who he was), and he says he learned a few things in the process.

“Experience always helps—just knowing you can do it,” he says. “Until the Jacare fight, I had nothing but first-round finishes, and then going five rounds was like, ‘What the hell?’ I felt pretty good, you always feel a little worn, but I knew I was really prepared with my cardio. I was getting through five-round wars in the gym with different training partners. That’s the benefit of AKA. We always spar so hard, and there are so many top guys. I can put in full rounds of fighting. I get butterflies in the training because we have so many good guys, and they’re all so dangerous. Anything can happen. That translates to the fights. It makes you more prepared for the fight. It shakes the rust off and prepares you for the real deal.”

The statement he could make against Belfort would be twofold. For one, UFC-centrics would find out who he is. And two, big things potentially dangle in the balance—things like Anderson Silva. Silva’s been in the media dropping Rockhold’s name as a challenge he’d welcome. Rockhold, like Rusty James in the movie Rumblefish, has three simple words for the longest tenured UFC Champion.
“I ain’t hiding.”

* * * *

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There’s a scenario that Rockhold has thought about, which is as fantastic as it is uncomplicatedly realistic. AKA, at some point in the near future, could be saturated with world champions. Cain Velasquez is already the UFC Heavyweight Champion. Daniel Cormier looks like a certain sort of wrecking ball if he moves down to 205 pounds to challenge Jon Jones. Rockhold? Well, he’s the Champion of a bygone promotion, but he has his sights set on Silva. Gray Maynard, the latest arrival in Santa Cruz, is a mean match-up for Benson Henderson. Should things shake out, 2013 could be the year of AKA.

“I think we could really make a statement,” he says. “Imagine, we’d have the 155-pound belt, the 185-pound fight, the heavyweight belt, Cormier drops down to 205 pounds…” It requires perfect set-ups that are purely imaginative at this point. But then again, it’s hardly out of the question.

But consider Rockhold, who is 10-1 as a professional mixed martial artist, and his relative lack of trepidation for the man standing opposite him on fight night. Surfer cool? Maybe. But it derives from eight weeks of nihilistic sparring and hell from his work with the big boys.

“I’m training with heavyweights,” he says. “I’m training with the baddest man on the planet in Cain Velasquez. I’ve been in there so many times with Cain and with Cormier, with King Mo [Muhammad Lawal]. Who at 185 pounds is going to compare to sparring with Cain? With Cormier? You’re not going to face anything like that. I fear no man.”
This extends to lanky, world-class strikers with 16-0 records in the UFC like Silva. Rockhold doesn’t look the part. His ears are free of vegetation. He doesn’t bulge and twitch with pectoral muscle. His skin doesn’t appear to be a form of burlap or thick leathery hide. He has only 11 fights into a career and doesn’t have a biography of scars on his face.

And yet, here he is, playing music to matchmakers’ ears.

“I’ve always wanted to fight Anderson,” he says. “He’s a great fighter. He’s amazing—he always finds a way to win. He doesn’t give up until the bitter end, and he’s always going to be attacking. That’s something to admire for sure. Now, something I don’t admire about him is he’s kind of trying to secure his legacy and avoiding certain fights. At this point, he’s kind of picking fights. I think when you’re the Champion, you fight the number one contender or who they put in your way. I’d like to see him fight Chris Weidman of course. As much as I want to be the one to take his belt, I think Weidman poses a good chance—Anderson’s equally there to beat him. It’s a good time for Anderson to fight him. It could taint his legacy to avoid Weidman at this point—no, wait, let me rethink that. I don’t think it would. He’s had too many title defenses. But certain people will remember it, and it’s always good to silence the naysayers.”

Yes, but does Rockhold prefer to dip his toe in the water with Belfort, and get past the famous (sometimes illusory) Octagon jitters first?

“My preference?” he says with a laugh. “I’d like to fight Anderson right now. Black House is just down the street, right? Let’s go. Right after my Bear Flag burrito.”

* * * *

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It’s a good time to be Luke Rockhold. He’s in the UFC, where there are more challenges than he’ll likely ever get through. He travels up and down the Californian coast in a surfer’s attitude of leisure. He has a meeting with a new sponsor sometime later on. What to do until then? Surf? Golf maybe? Sure.

“I love playing golf,” he says. “Always been a fan of golf. Totally different from fighting. Peaceful, cool, takes a lot of patience. I love the sport, and love the game. I’m pretty decent at it, too. Probably a 12 handicap right now? I’ve shot in the 70s a couple of times. It’s hard when you’re training. My goal is not to be the best golfer, it’s to be the best fighter—but it’s always nice to hit something that’s not going to hit you back.”

As for his Strikeforce belt—the coveted piece of memorabilia that so much blood was spilled over? It’s sitting in his little white Toyota truck in the parking lot.
“I don’t carry it around with me,” he says. “But, randomly I have it with me today. I never have it with me. This guy is doing a deal with my truck. He’s going to pimp out my truck, give me some new rims, and then we’re going to do a little photo shoot with it. That’s the only reason I have it with me, I promise.”

Sure, sure. If you believe that, you’ll never actually catch him driving around with both his belts, either, if he ends up winning the UFC title someday. Or, all three, if he decides to move up to light heavyweight at some point in the future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Those are goals. Those types of things are a little farther up the PCH Highway. Those still belong to the golden afternoon, which right now feels like it’s all his.

“I could definitely see myself at 205 pounds someday, though,” he says. “Trying to fight up there. I think I’d match up well with Jon Jones. I think anything’s possible. My goal right now is to beat Anderson Silva and take his belt.” And if those elusive superfights fall under his power to accept?

“I’m promising right now, if I beat Anderson, I would fight Jon Jones.” That’s not the first thing Rockhold says, it’s the last. And you know what? For this surfer-like fighter with the bright future, it doesn’t feel like such a pipedream.

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