Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
For Luke Rockhold, it's back to punching, back to kicking, back to making new believers. Though he hasn't gotten the official word quite yet, the Strikeforce middleweight champion has been informally told that his next title defense will come against Tim Kennedy, likely in July.
Coming on the heels of his title win over Ronaldo "Jacare" Souze and a successful first defense in an opening-round knockout of Keith Jardine, Rockhold is hoping to cement his place among the world's top middleweights.
In his mind, he's already gotten there. Now, it's just a matter of convincing the rest of us.
"I’m trying to do what I can, and I think Tim Kennedy is another huge step in that direction," he told MMA Fighting. "By no means is he a stepping stone, because he’s a very tough guy. It will take a lot to beat him and it would mean a lot to beat him. He’s a very underrated fighter, and I’m looking forward to keep proving my status, if that’s what I have to do. But I feel I can compete with anyone in the world at my weight class, and I’m going to prove that by keeping on winning."
Rockhold's rise to the top was sudden yet slow-developing. He showed himself to be a quality prospect early on in his Strikeforce career, which dates back to 2008. The promotion slowed-played him, giving him matchups against opponents with increasing experience levels as he went. By the time he beat Paul Bradley, he was 7-1 overall and 6-0 in Strikeforce. After that, injuries put him on the shelf for more than a year, so when he was ready to return, it came as a surprise when Strikeforce jumped him to the front of the line, and right into a title match with Souza.
As it turned out, the match was close, a five-rounder that he won on points. His matchup with Jardine, though, was not so close. He needed less than one round to finish Jardine, who was coming off a strong performance in a draw against the vaunted Gegard Mousasi at a higher weight class.
During the win, Rockhold broke a bone in his right hand, but escaped without needing surgery. With it completely healed, he's ready to get back to work against anyone Zuffa puts in front of him, but he's expecting Kennedy, a rugged former No. 1 contender who's won consecutive bouts against Melvin Manhoef and Robbie Lawler.
"He’s a tough guy, so tenacious, and just doesn’t want to give up," he said. "He’s going to keep coming for the takedown. He’s not going to quit but I’ve got to break him. My wrestling defense is one of my best attributes, so I feel very comfortable in that. I’m just going to try to break him on the takedown the whole time, and I’m going to try to play my range on the feet. If we get to the ground, I’m confident in my jiu-jitsu. I just don’t want to be on bottom. He's a beast on top, so I ain't going to have that."
Kennedy's best attribute might well be his tenacity. The longtime Army Special Forces soldier has seen combat in danger zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, so it's surprising to hear Rockhold mention the possibility of "breaking" someone like that. Then again, fighters who reach the championship level are used to beating the odds.
"He’s so tough mentally, we've seen it in all his fights," he said. "I think everybody has a breaking point, and I just have to find it. That’s the key. Even if it's just to make him change his game plan."
The Jardine fight was a difficult one to prepare for, largely because of timing. Because of ongoing negotiations between Strikeforce and Showtime over a contract extension, Rockhold didn't get official notice for his title defense until five weeks beforehand. That situation starkly different from his fight with Jacare, which started with a 15-week camp and then was delayed six more weeks, giving him 21 weeks to prepare.
Given the intensity of camp, Rockhold would settle for a happy medium, somewhere between 8-10 weeks.
"I want to be able to peak at the right time," he said.
That holds true for the fight, it also holds true for his career. While most rankings have him firmly in the top 10 -- some have him as high as No. 5 -- Rockhold has his personal sights set on No. 1.
That means that like many others who fight at middleweight, he'd like the chance to test himself against long-reigning UFC champ Anderson Silva.
"It’s the dream fight," he said. "I’m here to fight the best in the world, and it’d be a dream to fight Anderson Silva. If I didn’t fight him before his career was over, it would be a disappointment to me. I want to fight the best in the world, and fighting him would be amazing. And getting him while he’s champion? Everyone wants to be that guy to beat him. I want to go down in the books. I hope he keeps going, because I want that fight.
"I am the Strikeforce champ," he continued, "But I feel like I’m in contention for his belt. That’s how I look at it sometimes. I am the champion of Strikeforce, but I’m looking to be the best in the world, and I can’t prove that without fighting the guys in the UFC. So, eventually, that’s what I’m going to need to do."
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