On the heels of Anderson Silva's knockout win over Chael Sonnen in a widely watched fight last weekend, and Chris Weidman's quick rise up the middleweight division's ranks, Strikeforce fighters Luke Rockhold and Tim Kennedy look to hijack the middleweight spotlight in a Saturday night title matchup.
For Rockhold, it will be the second defense of his championship belt after knocking out Keith Jardine in January. And far from Jardine's striking base, the champion will have to contend with Kennedy's grappling-heavy style in order to walk out with the gold once again.
The style is hardly foreign to him. After all, he won the belt by defeating Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, a submission stylist with a strong wrestling game. In that match, Rockhold did something that is rarely done, surrendering five takedowns yet still winning on points. Given Kennedy's predilection for grinding, Rockhold may have to pull off the same kind of win this time around.
Leading up to Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy, the challenger has not fought in a year. It was July 2011 when he last competed, defeating Robbie Lawler in a unanimous decision on the strength of five takedowns and an at-times stifling ground game. It will also be his second crack at the title. Like Rockhold, he too, once faced Souza. Unlike Rockhold (9-1), he lost, in a fairly convincing unanimous decision.
There is really not much to discuss about Kennedy's fight game that hasn't already been stated in the brief mention above. That's not a knock on him. He focuses on what he does best, and due to his strength and durability, he does it well. There's simply no flash to his approach; he's a meat-and-potatoes fighter. He doesn't set up takedowns with combinations into a transition. He often simply uses a single jab or right hand to work his way inside, and reach for the clinch, or shoots from range, confident that his chin will hold up against whatever return fire might come his way.
Kennedy (14-3) trusts in his own ability to fight a grinding style and take the fight to the grind where he has good submissions and brutal ground strikes. This is essentially the route taken to all of his wins. On his career ledger, he has five knockouts and two other wins that came by way of submission due to strikes. Suffice it to say, having Kennedy atop you is no picnic.
If Rockhold has his way, the fight will never see the ground. In the eight Rockhold fights FightMetric has examined, Rockhold has only tried a single takedown, and that came in the grappling-heavy fight with Souza. Aside from that Rockhold has not been shy about criticisms about game plans light on actual fighting.
Still, he'll have to work hard to keep Kennedy from imposing his game plan, and according to FightMetric, he does a decent job of defending the takedown, stopping 62 percent of attempts against him. In fights against wrestlers and grapplers, that percentage is about the same. Against Jacare, he stopped eight of 13 attempts. Former UFC fighter Paul Bradley was 0-for-1 against him, and Jesse Taylor had moderate success, landing three of six attempts.
Working at American Kickboxing Academy, it's clear that Rockhold's takedown defense has improved considerably, though he doesn't always fight for position after stopping the initial burst. Instead, he often chooses to throw his hands, giving his opponent an opening to trip him down. That might work well for Kennedy, who likes the clinch position to begin with.
But Rockhold does this because he believes in his ability to scramble. Jacare wasn't able to hold him down for long stretches as Rockhold found multiple ways to get back to his feet when the action hit the mat. That's best illustrated by the fact that Souza was not able to attempt a single submission or pass Rockhold's guard once during the five-round fight. That's an incredible statistic and it bodes well for his fight with Kennedy.
Rockhold is a much better striker than he gets credit for. Though he's fought primarily as a southpaw in recent fights, he's capable of switching stances, and has dropped or staggered multiple opponents including Jardine, Bradley and Cory Devela with a right hook. It's clear that's his power hand, and he simply prefers leading with it, much the same way Anderson Silva does. Rockhold employs a diverse attack, adding kicks and risky striking maneuvers like spinning back fists. Though he sometimes keeps his chin a bit too high, he's exhibited the ability to take a punch and recover quickly.
It's safe to assume that we know what each man will be looking for here. Rockhold wants to stand and slug it out, confident that his striking repertoire is more diverse and dangerous than Kennedy's, while the challenger will be looking to gain a grasp on the champion and drag him to the mat where he can use his size to wear him down.
Given Rockhold's track record of defending the takedown and popping back up to his feet when he does find himself on the mat combined with Kennedy's long period of inactivity, I'm leaning strongly towards the champion to retain his belt. Rockhold is faster on the feet, and I believe he will win most of the striking exchanges and refuse to play with Kennedy on the ground. Rockhold via unanimous decision.