BALTIMORE, Md. -- It's not merely that there's a meritocratic strain to the way UFC middleweight Luke Rockhold talks about his career. A basic sense of fairness, responsibility and legitimate athletic accomplishment underpins Rockhold's entire view of career ascension and achievement.
This isn't hugely novel as a worldview for elite fighters. Many, if not most, publicly clamor for wins in fights that can legitimize them as much as possible. They all typically wish to showcase skill to dazzle and amaze promotional brass, media and fans alike.
What separates Rockhold is the narrow repetition of it all. He doesn't simply say a meritocratic climb is his chief priority. It's all he ever says.
"I don't think in calendar years," Rockhold told the media on Wednesday's media day to promote his bout opposite Tim Boetsch at UFC 172. "I just think that I need to fight. I need to make money. I want to be on top. I want to be the best in the world.
"You live once," he continued. "I'm coming into my prime. I need to make the most of this. I want to prove it all the time."
For Rockhold, Boetsch isn't exactly unworthy as an opponent, as far as logistics, availability and having a modicum of talent matters. It's a fine challenge and an opportunity to showcase skill. But it's not particularly valuable as anything that meaningfully brings him closer to evidencing his place atop the division. It's a place holder, and there's a certain undeniable value in that, but Rockhold isn't willing to dress it up as anything more than what it is.
Which brings us to Vitor Belfort.
Rockhold notably lost to the Brazilian in rather spectacular fashion in what would serve as the AKA-product's UFC debut. That's enough to rankle any fighter, but it's particularly grating given how Rockhold views Belfort. That is, the anti-Rockhold.
Rockhold stated plainly he believes TRT is a way for fighters to mask steroid and other performance-enhancing drug use. He openly stated to the media Belfort has had a 'shady' career, although declined to mention specifically what that term entails in this context. But speaking reasonably, he views Belfort as not merely someone he needs to defeat for normal career purposes, but to set an example of how to do this sport properly.
"I want that fight back," Rockhold said, almost pleading for it. "I want to be the best in the world. I don't want to get the title shot, beat the champ and become some token champ. I lost to Vitor Belfort. I gotta go get that fight back to be the best in the world.
"That's why I'm calling for it," Rockhold went on. "I'm not too bitter about it. I just know I want that fight back. I can beat him. That's why I called for it."
Belfort is almost all things to Rockhold. He's an opponent where earning a victory of him carries significant value; he's a fighter Rockhold candidly states has achieved some of his rank and status fraudulently; he's the albatross around his neck that has to be removed for any larger career goal to be achieved.
In a universe framed and created by Rockhold, Belfort is everything that's wrong with the sport, how achievements are claimed and what not to be as a competitor.
Any response to this is going to note Boetsch as part of the process of reclaiming that opportunity, placeholder or not. In this particular circumstance, Rockhold has no choice but to acknowledge the threat. But you get the sense talking to him that demonstrating himself as a fighter who can be viewed as the best in the world gnaws at him so intensely he cannot conceive of an outcome where he isn't prepared to compete and win. If it's opposite Boetsch or fighter X, it's irrelevant. As long as he's not where he wants to be, he can't stand being there.
"I want to be the best in the world," Rockhold said again and again. "That's my goal. You only live once. That's what I'm here for and I believe I have to beat Belfort to be that guy."