SAN JOSE, Calif.
The walls of the sprawling American Kickboxing Academy are lined with poster-size photographs of fighters. They are among the baddest men on the planet. Most strike intimidating poses as they glare back at the world, fists-raised.
“There’s no fear. None. Luke believes in himself – in the right way.” --AKA Coach Javier Mendez
Yet to hear long-time AKA Coach Javier Mendez tell it, virtually every single one has gone through moments of self-doubt – even stars like Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez. Each needed to be reminded, before entering the cage, that he was invincible.
All except one: Luke Rockhold.
“Of all of my champs, I’ve had to do the least amount of confidence-building with Luke,” Mendez said. “There’s no fear. None. Luke believes in himself – in the right way.”
And this is what Rockhold also believes. He is going to defeat Chris Weidman on Saturday night and claim the UFC middleweight title. You probably have heard him saying this . . . over and over again. Rockhold is not shy about speaking his mind.
“You only live once,” he said before a recent training session. “I don’t mean to be just good. I mean to be great. I always knew I was going to be here. I want to be the best (expletive) fighter in the world.
“This is my time.”
Lack of confidence has never been an issue with Rockhold.
The card for UFC 194 at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena is so insanely epic that the Weidman-Rockhold clash is “only” the warm-up act. The long-awaited showdown between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor for the undisputed featherweight title has top billing.
Think about that for a moment. The popular Weidman (13-0 MMA, 9-0 UFC) is on the short list of the best pound-for-pound fighters. He is the All-American. A family man who literally drapes himself in the Stars and Stripes. And he’s defending his title against Rockhold (14-2 MMA, 4-1 UFC), a fighter with leading-man looks who arguably is the sport’s hottest fighter not named McGregor. The rangy, 6-foot-3 southpaw stands on the brink of becoming the UFC’s next breakout star.
It’s New York-area grittiness versus California brashness.
While Weidman and Rockhold always have been on friendly terms, it’s also apparent that they both have gotten sick of each other’s act in the crucible of this pre-fight hype.
A typical Rockhold sentence about Weidman begins this way: “Chris is a tough guy, but . . . “
He’s slow. He’s flat-footed. He fattened his record on old Brazilians. He’s not going to last three rounds against me.
As Rockhold was shadow boxing at AKA to loosen up for a late-night workout, he broke into a monologue about what he thinks is going to happen against Weidman.
“There’ve been a lot of guys who are intimidated by Chris,” Rockhold said. “But I’m not intimidated by him in any way, shape or form. I’m not going to hold back. I’m going to be on him. I’m going to outbox him. I’m going to be operating on a different frequency once we hit the ground, too. I’m faster. I’m more athletic. Once I step into that cage, nobody works harder than me. Nobody prepares better. Nobody is smarter. I know who I am and where I’m from. And I back up what I say.”
On a UFC conference call last week, the 31-year-old Rockhold was delivering an abridged version of all this to reporters – “I’m going to dominate him and then I will finish him” – when the low-key Weidman, who also was on the line, couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“I can’t wait!” Weidman interrupted.
That pretty much sums up how the fight world feels about this bout.
Cormier knows both fighters well. Rockhold is his close friend and teammate. So he has a unique, cage-side view of their back-and-forth trash talking.
“You can tell that Weidman hates that people think Rockhold can compete on his level,” Cormier explained recently. “And you can tell that Luke hates that people think Weidman is just head and shoulders above everybody in the division.”
It’s said that styles make fights. But so does a strong dose of pure dislike.
Rockhold grew up in the Northern California seaside city of Santa Cruz. Yes, there’s year-round sunshine and blue ocean. But Rockhold also describes a seedy underbelly to laid-back paradise. Santa Cruz has its share of gang problems. Turf wars even can extend out into the surf waves. But growing up, Rockhold never would tolerate anyone bullying him or his friends.
Let’s just say there are fights that aren’t listed in his MMA record.
It wasn’t until he discovered Jiu-Jitsu and then later showed up at an AKA gym for a tryout that Rockhold found his calling.
And here’s the thing: Even as an unknown fighter in the old Strikeforce, Rockhold already carried himself like a cocky champ. It was as if he were living in a future that only he could envision. Then, he made it happen with a Strikeforce middleweight title.
"I always knew I was going to be here. I want to be the best (expletive) fighter in the world." --Luke Rockhold
“Confidence is everything,” Rockhold explained. “You can’t second-guess yourself in this game. If you do that, you’re going to get beat to the punch. You have to believe, 100 percent, that you are unbeatable.”
Yet he has been beaten.
Reality hit him hard in his first UFC bout on May 18, 2013. Actually it was a spinning heel kick. Vitor Belfort put him away with a first-round knockout. Today, Mendez says that training camp was one time he had been concerned about Rockhold’s focus.
“That probably was the only fight where I didn’t think Luke was quite onboard,” Mendez said. “But he learned from that. And look how much better he is today for it.”
Rockhold got back on his feet and then got down to the business of dispatching middleweight competition. He since has reeled off four consecutive victories. Most impressive was his back-to-back beat downs of Michael Bisping (guillotine choke) in November, 2014 and Lyoto Machida (rear-naked choke) in April.
While Rockhold made the Machida fight look easy, it wasn’t. He struggled through the worst camp of his life. He was dealing with ligament damage in his left hand, a stubborn case of bronchitis and even needed a cut on the back of his head super glued for the fight following a surfing mishap.
But the run-up to this fight has been drama-free. He brought in a nutritionist to help him fine-tune his diet and now is in the best shape of his life. Maybe most important of all, Cormier and Velasquez – who both had been away from AKA on breaks from serious training – returned in the last few weeks to help Rockhold’s final preparation.
Cormier, a two-time U.S Olympic wrestler and the reigning UFC light heavyweight champion, has been an especially important sparring partner because Weidman’s strong suit is his standout ground game.
Iron sharpens iron.
Rockhold, Mendez added, will need to be razor sharp.
“Luke is more determined and focused than I’ve ever seen him,” Mendez said. “But he needs to be more in everything. Chris Weidman is another breed of a fighter. I don’t take anything away from that guy. He’s a great champion.”
Weidman, who has said Rockhold runs his mouth all the time because he is “insecure,” won the title with his 2013 shock-the-world upset of Anderson Silva. He beat Silva again in the rematch and then defended it with victories against Machida and Belfort.
Still, Mendez maintains that Rockhold is the more complete fight package. He takes full advantage of his long reach with viper-quick combinations of punches and kicks – unleashing an especially devastating whip kick with his left foot. His eight victories by submissions show how dangerous he is on the cage canvas.
The question is if he can measure up against Weidman’s wrestling skills.
“I’m very comfortable that we’ll win the stand up,” Mendez said. “But for me, the grappling is the unchecked box. We’ll see what happens with what Chris can do with Luke on the ground. If he can’t do anything, I don’t think he has any chance outside of a one-shot knockout. Chris is really good. But I think Luke is just better.”
“It’s all about achieving what you want and making a mark. I’m ready to make mine.” --Luke Rockhold
Rockhold trains hard, but his life isn’t confined by the gym walls.
His place on the coast has an ocean view. This year he traveled to Paris and London. He famously did an episode of “The Millionaire Matchmaker” reality show on a whim. When he was named to Golf Digest’s list of Top 100 athlete golfers, he filmed a video about how to deal with annoying people on the course. (Spoiler alert: It involves chokeholds and liver kicks.)
Even when he says something outrageous – “Maybe some people don’t like me because I can kick your ass and I can take your girl” – it usually is accompanied by a playful smile. Hey, life is too short not to have fun.
He even admits to becoming a big fan of Taylor Swift.
A mutual friend invited him backstage when Swift’s concert tour hit the Bay Area last summer. Most of the people there seemed to be longtime acquaintances of the pop and country singer.
“And then there was me – this random, outsider guy,” Rockhold remembered. “I just introduced myself, got a picture and a hug. She had no idea who I was. But it was really refreshing to see that she’s very down to earth. It was pretty interesting to meet the biggest star in the world.”
He appreciates that Swift lives her life on her terms. So what if haters gonna hate?
That sentiment also captures Rockhold’s attitude.
“I am who I am,” he said.
What he expects to be is the next UFC middleweight champion.
“It’s all about achieving what you want and making a mark,” Rockhold said. “I’m ready to make mine.”
Mark Emmons is a freelance writer based in San Jose, Calif. Follow him on Twitter at @markedwinemmons.