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Luke Rockhold: The Patient Realist

"I want to beat the number one guy before I get my title shot. I want to
earn it and I don’t want anything given to me, in this life or in this
sport." - Luke Rockhold

UFC middleweight Luke RockholdLuke Rockhold is confident, not cocky; ambitious, but patient; a dreamer, yet a realist. It’s the mix that makes him one of the more intriguing personalities on the UFC roster, but at heart, what drives him is the fight.

So every day, he travels to the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) Gym in San Jose, California, and he fights. He doesn’t get paid in cash for these daily scraps with some of the best in the business, but in experience, in confidence, and in knowing that, like the old saying goes, “the more you sweat, the less you bleed.”

You can also go with “steel sharpens steel,” “the harder the training, the easier the fight,” or any number of phrases that are so true that they’ve become clichés. Rockhold believes them to be true though, especially as he closes in on his UFC 172 meeting with Tim Boetsch this Saturday in Baltimore.

“I expect the fight to be a hundred times easier than what I’ve encountered every day in the gym,” he said. “Me and DC (light heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier) have been sparring pretty hard, and I don’t think Tim Boetsch is anywhere near the wrestler or striker DC is. He (Boetsch) is a tough guy, but we have the best guys in the world and I train with them and fight with them every day. That’s why when it comes to fight time, we’re more prepared than anybody else.”

If Rockhold vs. Cormier or Rockhold vs. Cain Velasquez sound like sparring sessions you would pay to see, you’re not alone, and that probably comes down to the fact that when the AKA guys put on the gloves, it’s on. That’s a tough way to make a living, but Rockhold admits that when he does get in the Octagon on fight night and somebody puts their hands on him, it’s a confirmation that all the hard work in the gym was worth it.

“Everything just feels so much more normal and much easier,” he said. “‘Oh, so this is what it’s like.’ (Laughs) I’m going with guys that are heavyweights and light heavyweights, and so many guys are bigger than me and faster than most of my opponents. Everyone is so good in the gym, it’s hard not to get better and be over prepared for your opponents. And that’s what I always train for. I want to be more than prepared for every guy I face, and I want to be a better fighter in every training camp. It’s not just about who I’m fighting and how I prepare for each guy; it’s about bettering myself every time. I’m just trying to be the best in the world, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Rockhold being one of the best in the world was a given for years as he reigned over Strikeforce’s middleweight division, but when he got knocked out in the first round of his UFC debut in May of 2013 by Vitor Belfort, it killed any momentum he had built up, and while no loss is easy to deal with, this one was a particular sore spot with the Santa Cruz native.

“Anytime you get an opportunity like fighting Belfort in Brazil, there’s a lot going into that, a lot behind the scenes, and for it to end the way it did, it didn’t really give me a chance to show my true self,” he said. “It’s not something that would sit well with most people, and definitely not me.”

For nearly eight months, Rockhold was forced to live with the loss as he rehabbed a knee injury that forced him out of an original UFC 166 bout with Boetsch. But when he came back in January against Costas Philippou, it was the entrance to the UFC he wanted to make, as he knocked out the New Yorker midway through the first round.

“All the stars aligned,” he laughed when asked if all was well with the universe after the bout. “I’m not used to being on the losing side of things and I don’t ever plan to be in that realm for too long, so it’s nice to be back on track and be where I believe I belong.”

Yet the one takeaway many had from that bout was the way Rockhold ended it, with a crushing kick to the liver. It wasn’t a one-off for the 29-year-old though, as he likes to think of that shot as his favorite.

“Truthfully, I knew it was gonna be there,” he said. “One of my favorite things to do is to kick a guy in the liver. I do it all the time in training, and everyone knows I’m hunting for their liver. I don’t like knocking people out in the head, but it sure feels good to kick them in the liver because you’re not doing any damage to their head. They can laugh it off eventually, but it’s fun, I like it.”

Wow, and Rockhold seems to be such a nice guy.

He laughs.

“I don’t want to knock a guy out kicking him in the head,” he explains. “I just want to kick him in the liver and watch him crumble and quiver.”

All kidding and crumbling aside, Rockhold’s liver kick is a potent weapon, and one that can change the course of a fight in an instant.

“You’ve got to really kick a certain way, and I’ve been working on it for a long time and I finally figured out the art of just laying it in there,” he said. “It’s a lot about placement and disguise, and they really can’t anticipate it. If they anticipate it, they clench up and it’s hard to get through their defenses.

“But if you land it in the right spot, as long as they’re not prepared for it, you can hurt anybody,” he continues. “And if the placement’s right, it doesn’t take a lot of power. I’ve slapped people and watched them crumble. But I’ve probably got more power in my kicks than most anybody in my division, so I know I can penetrate through a tightened body and clenched defense.”

And having tasted some liver shots in the past from none other than UFC heavyweight champion Velasquez, Rockhold knows just what a day dampener they can be.

“I’ve felt some big liver shots, and I’ve had to take a knee here and there, but I was never completely finished,” he said. “Cain was getting pretty high on his left hook to the body for a while (Laughs), so like two years ago I remember him trying to tee off on me. He almost got me to a knee for a second, but I bounced up and kept sparring. I was hurt for the rest of the round though.”

These gym wars do bring up an interesting dilemma though: how do you keep your confidence level up for the fight on those days when you’re the nail and not the hammer?

“I’ve been in this game for a long time, and I know when I’m sharp and when I’m not, and I try to avoid getting beat up for the most part and try to do most of the beating up,” he said. “I give it, and I take it sometimes, but I sure do give it back to these guys. You just have be confident in yourself. For the fight, I know I pushed hard and did everything I need to do, and these guys aren’t better than me. And if they’re gonna perform better than me, then they’re gonna have to reach where they haven’t reached before.”

Rockhold is confident, not cocky, that Tim Boetsch isn’t that guy to reach higher than him this Saturday. But a win won’t get Rockhold calling for a crack at the middleweight crown yet either. It’s not like he’s willing to wait; he just wants to make sure that when it’s time to choose the next challenger, there’s no question that he’s the guy.

“I don’t think this is my opportunity to prove myself for a title shot,” he admits. “I’m not delusional like (Michael) Bisping, and I’m not even going to call for title shots because I want to earn my title shot. I want to beat the best guys and Tim Boetsch is not a guy that should project me into a title shot. I believe I can make a statement on Boetsch and I believe I will. But I want to beat the number one guy before I get my title shot. I want to earn it and I don’t want anything given to me, in this life or in this sport.”