Luke Rockhold takes any threat to his Strikeforce middleweight championship seriously. Slap a "No. 1 contender" tag on anyone, and Rockhold will bare his teeth, stake his ground and dare you to move him off his spot. That certainly applies when an opponent is accomplished as Tim Kennedy, a former Army Green Beret who boasts a 14-3 record and stoppages in five of his last six wins.
While he's on guard for Kennedy's challenge, that doesn't mean he's a huge fan of Kennedy's style, or the approach of his fight team at Jackson-Winkeljohn's. The Albuquerque, New Mexico-based gym is alternately one of the most feared and criticized camps in mixed martial arts. Its proponents say it's a gym that makes champions. Its detractors contend that the head coaches -- Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn -- often favor conservative strategies that lead to lackluster performances.
Rockhold, who trains at fellow mega-gym American Kickboxing Academy, is among the latter camp, a sentiment he voiced during a Tuesday conference call for his July 14 Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy fight.
His viewpoint became clear when he challenged Kennedy to bring the fight to him, saying "I'm not the biggest fan of Greg Jackson game plans."
But asked by MMA Fighting if his judgment was directed at the coaching staff or based more specifically on something he had seen from Kennedy in the past, Rockhold didn't hedge his words.
"I think that’s kind of across the board," he said. "It's Tim’s style, it's his previous fights. I mean, there's a lot of fighters who come out of that camp, they have a smart game plan, they follow the game plan and it's not the most exciting game plan a lot of the times but it wins them fights sometimes. It doesn't excite me much. I'm not a big fan of his style.
"Also, he yells the guys names in the corner, like, 'Great job, beautiful low kick Tim Kennedy,' and this and that," he continued. "I think he tries to play into the minds of the judges a lot, and it's a form of, I think, cheating to some extent. I’m there to fight. I’m confident in my abilities, and I’m not going to let this fight slow down. Whatever he brings to the table, it's not really going to matter because I'm going to nullify it, and I'm going to play my game."
Team Jackson-Winkeljohn came under fire most recently over the weekend, when Clay Guida used a tactical strategy of minimal engagement for the majority of his five-round fight with Gray Maynard, which he ultimately lost by split decision. Prior to that, they guided Carlos Condit to an upset win over Nick Diaz in another bout that was criticized heavily for cautious engagement.
On the other hand, the team has also generated and worked with some of the sport's most exciting talents and fight-finishers, including current UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, Shane Carwin and Donald Cerrone, a fact which Kennedy brought up in defending his home gym.
"It doesn't make any sense," he said. "That same night when people were harassing Clay Guida for his performance, we had the Knockout of the Night with Cub Swanson going out there and doing some insanity in the cage to finish one of the best kickboxers in the division. But did anybody mention what a great performance Cub Swanson had and how fantastic that finish was? And hey, Greg Jackson, congratulations for having Knockout of the Night?
"No, they were like, 'Clay was running,'" he continued. "Well, Gray hits really hard and he's a really great wrestler. I think that Clay had nearly the perfect game plan for that fight. It wasn't flawlessly executed. He should have done more sticking than he did moving, but he had the right idea, and it was an extremely close fight. And the Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit … I’m a Nick Diaz fan but if i was going to fight Nick Diaz, that’s how I’d fight him, is the way Carlos did. So I think the criticism is completely unfounded. I think Greg is a fantastic coach. We have more finishes, more knockouts, more submissions, more champions than any other camp out there. It’s asinine and I think it's just people lashing out at somebody's who's very talented at coaching fighters."
As far as Rockhold goes, it's nothing personal. In his mind, Kennedy's earned the right to face him and is proven as the No. 1 contender, and he's planning to protect his space at the top, no matter how Kennedy approaches him.
Whether his comments were meant to provoke Kennedy, were an honest viewpoint on a recent topic, or a little bit of both, Rockhold knows his actions will ultimately have to back up his words.
"I just hope he comes out and fights me in the middle and fights me everywhere," he said. "This is mixed martial arts. I quit wrestling for a reason; I want to fight. I'm looking for a fight."