Don't miss Fight Night Newark this Saturday night live and free on FOX. Rockhold vs. Machida is the main event of a jam-packed fight card in New Jersey.
SANTA CRUZ, Calif.
Luke Rockhold’s picturesque hometown is what people envision when they dream of California. Nestled between the sparkling Monterey Bay and a mountain range with towering redwood trees, this sun-splashed city has a seductive surf-and-chill vibe.
But for Rockhold, it was all a little too perfect.
As he reached his early 20s, this son of the beach felt restless, even lost. Rockhold worried that he was going to wake up one day and suddenly realize that time had slipped past him in this idyllic setting, like sand through his hands, and that he had accomplished nothing.
“I was just living the Santa Cruz life,” he said. “I love my town, but everyone’s content working an average job in construction or restaurants, just so they can have fun all weekend. Then they do it all over again the next week. This place breeds contentment. But I didn’t want that. You only live once, and I don’t plan on living an average life.”
Today, at age 30, there is nothing remotely average about Rockhold.
He is a man on the edge of stardom.
When Rockhold steps into the cage Saturday night against Brazilian legend Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida in a UFC on FOX 15 showdown of top middleweight contenders, he hopes to take the final step toward a long-coveted title shot. This easily is the biggest fight of his career, and one that validates the decision to leave behind a tempting, seaside slacker existence and instead dedicate himself to the workaholic gym life of an elite mixed-martial artist.
“He’s still got the whole Santa Cruz thing going on,” said UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, one of Rockhold’s sparring partners at the American Kickboxing Academy. “But he’s also worked so hard. And this is his time to shine. It’s been fun watching Luke make himself into a great fighter. Now that he’s in the spotlight, people are going to see that.”
Standing in his way is one of the greatest fighters in MMA history. Machida, 36, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, is a karate specialist who has been finished only twice in his storied career -- and shows no sign of slowing down. But Rockhold promises that he will not let this opportunity elude him.
“I always saw myself at this point someday,” he said. “I never would have started in this sport if I didn’t think that I could be the absolute best. I don’t believe in having a mindset of being second-best."
> WATCH: Fight Night Newark: Opportunity Awaits
With a name like Rockhold, he certainly is in the right sport.
But after a grueling workout session at AKA recently, his close friend Daniel Cormier continued with the verbal sparring by shouting out his full name -- Luke Skyler Rockhold -- over and over.
Rockhold took the ribbing in stride, rolling his eyes. He did, though, point out to a visiting writer that his parents weren’t even “Star Wars” fans. But his name does fit with the quirky, trippy Santa Cruz attitude. The city of 60,000 is best known for the Boardwalk amusement park that sits right on the beach, some killer surfing breaks and also being the film location of the vampire cult flick “The Lost Boys.” The mascot of the local university is the Banana Slugs, which doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents.
And it’s where Rockhold once won a county art contest in high school for creating an elaborate ceramic sculpture that actually was a cleverly disguised bong.
“Only in Santa Cruz,” said Rockhold, smiling at the memory.
He comes from an athletic family that is something approaching city royalty. His father, Steve, was a 6-foot-8 bruising rebounder who played three seasons of professional basketball in Europe and spent time with a Golden State Warriors’ summer league team. But for much of his life, Luke was seen as the little brother of Matt Rockhold, a well-known, acrobatic surfing professional who is 10 years older.
Growing up, Rockhold was good at whatever sport he tried, and thought that he might follow in his dad’s footsteps on the basketball court. But when a middle-school coach tossed a ball at his head for not paying attention, he took off his jersey and stalked away from the game. Rockhold also considered a surfing career like his brother, but he was a better skateboarder. His 6-3 height, though, wasn’t particularly well-suited for either sport.
He had been a strong wrestler in high school, but could see no point in continuing the sport in college. When he took up Jiu-Jitsu seriously after high school, Rockhold showed real promise -- competing as far away as Brazil. Still, he wasn’t convinced that he could do much with the sport than teach. He also took junior-college classes and wondered if had enough artistic talent to make sculpting a career.
But mostly, he was just making time.
Finally, he got tired of just riding on Matt’s coattails.
“It was like, ‘What are you going to do?’” Rockhold recalled. “Everybody gets to that point in life when you’re 20 or 21, and you’re just screwing around. I was thinking: ‘Is this what life really is all about?’ I was questioning what I wanted. There wasn’t a clear-cut path that I wanted to pursue.”
Rockhold always knew he could handle himself well in a scrap. After all, he had learned to defend himself against two older brothers, and their friends. Nate Rockhold, who is three years older, jokes that Luke had to endure “a thousand headlocks.” But it also was apparent that his younger brother had some serious bad-ass in him.
Stories would drift back to his older siblings about how a teenaged Luke was getting into fisticuffs around town -- sometimes with men nearly twice his age.
“Luke could be intense, and it was definitely worrisome sometimes,” said Nate Rockhold, who was a standout volleyball player and now coaches at a local high school. “He was never a bully. But he liked to defend his friends. Nobody was ever going to push one of his friends off a wave. That just wasn’t going to happen with Luke around. He was very protective.”
Just before his 22nd birthday, he decided to find out if he could make a living in the fight business.
Rockhold made the trip “over the hill” -- through the Santa Cruz Mountains -- to San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley, where The Next Big Thing seems to be created every day. He walked into the no-frills, strip-mall gym that then was the home of Javier Mendez’s AKA team. Mendez has an open-door policy for wanna-be fighters who wish to try out. But Rockhold was one of the more unprepared people to come through his door.
“He didn’t even have a mouthpiece,” Mendez recalled. “I told him that they got ‘em over at Target across the street.”
When Rockhold returned and got his chance to spar, Mendez had a revelation. It dawned on him that he just might be looking at The Next Big Thing in MMA.
“He impressed the hell out of me with his raw talent and desire,” Mendez said. “He was just so gung-ho. I could just see that this kid could be a champion.”
That’s exactly what Mendez told him -- something that still seems to amaze Rockhold.
“I had heard so much about this gym,” he said. “So that inspired me and made me change my life. It gave me a direction and a focus. I’ve always been good with goals, but I had lost track for a little bit. I rediscovered that in the cage. From that moment on, I knew exactly what I was doing and what I wanted.”
Back then, the AKA big dogs were fighters like Mike Swick, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck. Rockhold started off at the bottom -- one of the young hopefuls who are tasked with mopping down the mats after workouts. Broke, he even lived in a small room upstairs, next to the office.
“I miss that old place,” said Rockhold, sitting outside the new, more modern AKA gym in South San Jose. “It had a stench of hard work. Me and another guy lived there for about six months, and it could be just creepy as hell at night.
“It was a hard time in my life. It was a long struggle. I’ve never been the most gifted person in anything that I ever did. But I would persist. I would be patient. I would work and work. If you’re going to do something, you have to believe in yourself wholeheartedly.”
Gradually, he became part of the next generation of top AKA fighters along with Velasquez and Cormier, who arrived after an amateur wrestling career that saw him make two U.S. Olympic squads. Over the years, the three have helped one another fine-tune their MMA skill sets.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Rockhold said. “There’s a reason why they build world champions here. We help each other. For me, training every day with Cain and DC helped me learn how not to get hit. Let’s just say it doesn’t feel very good when Cain Velasquez lays a big shot on you. So I’ve had to be elusive as they’ve tried to hunt me down.”
The result, Velasquez added, is that stepping inside the cage against the southpaw Rockhold can be like fighting with a ghost.
“It’s as if he’s completely made of fast-twitch muscle fibers,” Velasquez explained. “You throw at him, and suddenly he’s not there. You can get frustrated against him, and start reaching. But lunge all the way forward at him and then you can’t defend whatever he counters with against you. Some people will try to catch him and end up getting caught instead.”
Velasquez completes the Rockhold scouting report with this: “And while he’s the hardest guy to hit in this gym, he’s also one of the hardest hitting guys.”
Rockhold also racked up the most victories by submission in Strikeforce history on his way to that organization’s middleweight title. But there has been disappointment along the way, too. Most notable was his first UFC bout, in May 2013, when Vitor Belfort caught Rockhold with a spinning heel kick to the head in a knockout loss.
But that only served as motivation as Rockhold spent last year improving his record to 13-2 by ruthlessly dispatching Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch and Michael Bisping in quick succession. In those fights, Rockhold put on absolute clinics as he melded an array of lightning-quick strikes and methodical submission holds that showed him to have one of the most complete, pain-inflecting portfolios in MMA today. In fact, it was agony just to watch the way he turned Boetsch into a pretzel with a devastating, first-round kimura lock.
“Nothing,” Mendez added, “deters him from his quest to get where he wants. Luke has goals in life, and he’s determined to attain them.”
Machida (22-5) will have something to say about that.
Rockhold has nothing but praise for The Dragon. He knows that Machida’s combination of quickness and pinpoint-accurate striking makes him the toughest challenge he has ever faced in the Octagon. If he allows Machida to move unfettered around the cage, it will be a long fight for Rockhold.
Or perhaps a very short one.
“You have to cut him off, trap him in the wrong place, and make him fight you,” Rockhold said. “You almost have to brawl with him. If I can corner him, make him wrestle with me, that’s my chance to use power against him. But you have to do everything against him because he’s so good. I know that I’m going to have to use every element of fighting at my disposal.”
For Rockhold, the whole “Santa Cruz thing” -- to borrow from Velasquez -- means he still grabs the surf board when the swells are looking good. Well, at least when it’s an off day from training. If the waves aren’t cooperating, he might just go paddleboarding. Or he might be on the golf course instead because he finds hitting the little white ball around is just as relaxing as being on the water.
And when he wants to just watch the ocean, he has a 180-degree view of the water at a place he rents from friends in the enclave of Capitola, just down the coast a bit from Santa Cruz.
So, the boy really hasn’t left home after all. Rockhold is just determined to live life on his own terms. He freely speaks his mind. (Perhaps other than Ronda Rousey, no one is more vocal than Rockhold about the need to make sure UFC is clean of performance-enhancing drugs.) And if he thinks it might be fun to appear on a silly reality TV show, like when he recently did a guest spot on “The Millionaire Matchmaker,” Rockhold smiles for the camera.
But while all of that stuff is nice, Rockhold knows what’s really important. He understands that if his arm is raised at end of Saturday night, he could be in line for the ultimate prize: a UFC middleweight title shot against the winner of the upcoming Belfort-Chris Weidman bout.
“If I win this, there’s nothing left for me but to fight for the title,” Rockhold said. “There’s a reason why we’re headlining this event. I know what I’m in for with this fight. But I’m ready to handle my business and get my world title shot.”
With that, Rockhold reached for his sunglasses. The California sunshine was blinding. Or perhaps it was something else. Rockhold’s future is so bright, maybe he really does need shades.