There's a lot of mixed feelings going into this fight for Luke Rockhold.
He has been adamant in interviews that he senses something fishy in Vitor Belfort's use of testosterone replacement therapy. It's not so much the usage as the amazing physical transformation back into the hulk that showed up across the cage from Michael Bisping.
But there's another aspect of fighting Belfort that he hasn't talked about as much. He is facing one of his childhood fighting heroes, when he was a kid watching UFC in the almost underground era of the sport.
"I was a fan for sure," he said about Belfort. "Belfort was amazing, maybe the most exciting guy to watch back then. He'd explode across the cage. I watched the Wanderlei (Silva) knockout (a 44-second win in 1998, the day before Rockhold's 14th birthday). It was amazing. He and Royce Gracie I always admired. Also, I admired Randy Couture. He had the heart and will to beat people. I was a big fan of all of those guys. I always dreamed about it when I was a kid, that maybe I'll be a fighter some day. I lost track for a while, and then it came back to be real. Who would have ever thought I'd face Belfort, one of the guys I dreamed about?"
It's a fight he asked for months ago.
"I actually asked for Vitor before the fight ever came to me," said Rockhold. "I was looking for an opponent. I didn't want to sit around when I got healthy. I called Joe (UFC matchmaker Joe Silva) and I wanted to find a fight that would work. I said, 'What if Bisping loses, can I get Vitor?' He said, 'We'll see.' I did some interviews and talked about opponents. I was asking about Vitor and it happened, and I jumped on the opportunity when he offered the fight. He's a huge name. He's respected as a fighter. To go out there and beat him in Brazil in front of his fans, it'll be a big deal. I'm excited for the opportunity and the challenge."
Rockhold asked for Belfort before the Bisping fight, seeing it as a high danger, but a high-reward fight. He noted he's been frustrated at times, feeling that even with his record, he hasn't been fighting to the level that he shows in the gym. He thought maybe it was because he didn't go into the fights with the feeling of potential danger if he wasn't completely focused.
"I think for me it's good to face a striker I have to respect. I really haven't respected any strikers so far and its made me a little sloppy in my stand up. I'm a lot better than I've showed, and my coaches know it, too," Rockhold said.
Rockhold's career was going strong in Strikeforce, peaking with his win over Souza to take the middleweight title on Sept. 10, 2011. But the last 20 months have been frustrating. He was a champion, but to really make a name, he had to face the top-tier UFC middleweights. Given the political situation, he wasn't going to have that opportunity. At the same time, a nagging wrist, both ligament damage and an injury to the meniscus inside the wrist, kept him away from serious grappling and striking training for months. It also forced him to twice have to pull out of fights with Lorenz Larkin.
"I see it like the Jacare fight," he said. "At that time, not many people knew of me. I shocked the MMA world and it was a life changer for me. But Keith Jardine, the next fight, didn't do that much for me. The Tim Kennedy fight didn't do much for me. But the Belfort fight, it's exciting and it drives me to train and pushes me to take my game to the next level. This fight can be a life changer. I've done everything in training I need to do to win this fight."
It also could be over very quickly. There is a statistic that catches your eye right away because, at least on paper, it indicates early fireworks with the two fighters who will square off in Saturday night's main event at UFC on FX 8.
Belfort has had the most first-round finishes of any fighter in UFC history with ten. Rockhold had the most first-round finishes, and in fact, tied for the most finishes overall in Strikeforce history with seven. He fought nine times with the now defunct organization.
And even though Rockhold comes into UFC as a Strikeforce champion with a 10-1 record and having only seen the second round twice in his career, he recognizes a win over Belfort is his career-making fight. At 28, he's young enough that a loss won't kill him, although it'll slow down his upward progress. But unlike his first pro loss in his second fight that almost nobody saw, a loss here will linger, while a strong win would put him in a good position to face the winner of the July 6 title match between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman.
Belfort (22-10) has been a major name in the sport dating back to his first night in the Octagon, some 16 plus years ago, and is coming off stopping Michael Bisping in his last fight on Jan. 19. He's ranked behind Weidman as the No. 2 contender for the title.
Even though oddsmakers have this fight even or Rockhold as a slight favorite, the UFC fan base only knows Belfort. With all due respect for Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Tim Kennedy, to most fans, a win is likely to do more for his reputation than all his other victories combined. Belfort is still a guy that only the best fighters in the world beat. In the past seven years, Belfort has only lost twice, a fight taken on late notice with Jon Jones, the champion a weight class up, and his memorable loss to Anderson Silva.
"It's my UFC debut, fighting in Brazil, against the biggest name I've faced so far in Vitor Belfort," said Rockhold, who was talked about by trainer Javier Mendez as a future world champion and one of the most gifted athletes he's ever trained from shortly after he started in the sport. "It's a big stage, a dangerous opponent, a lot of things play into it."
What's also notable about both men's records have to do with those who have gotten out of the first round. Belfort is only 7-7 in UFC in fights that he didn't win in the first round. Rockhold has never won a fight by stoppage in any round but the first. But his two fights that made it to the second round, both Strikeforce title matches, were decision wins over Souza and Kennedy in fights where he got stronger in the later rounds.
"There's more danger with Vitor than almost anyone in the sport in the first round or two," said Rockhold, who has never been knocked down in his nine-fight Strikeforce career. "It is what it is. I just have to relax, focus on what I've got to do. I've gone over this game plan and thought this through, so it's all instinct by the time the fight comes. I just have to have confidence in my abilities in what I've done this whole training camp. It's just another day. I just visualize over-and-over this situation and relax myself through it."
Since he was champion in Strikeforce, this is the fourth straight fight camp he's gone into having to prepare for five rounds instead of three. The camps are a lot harder, but he also recognizes that, like with every Belfort fight on paper, it changes if the fight goes long.
"It seems all I do is five-round training camps," said Rockhold. "It's tough, but it's part of my game. It sucks, but I get better every round. I get stronger as the rounds go on. I've started to realize it plays into my favor. His past shows how he fares the longer the fight goes. Vitor's dangerous, and have to be on my game and sharp right off the bat."
But up until three months ago, training was limited and not very fun, due to a wrist that continually started to get better, only to flare up once he trained on it.
"A break is a break, it'll heal," he said. "With the ligaments, it starts to get better, you train on it, you tweak it and tear it and again you're back to where you were. If I'd punch wrong, it would tweak and I'd have sharp pain. I couldn't hold onto anything with my wrist. I'd get a sharp shooting pain throughout my wrist. It was a big hindrance. I couldn't train. It was just lingering and nagging. I'd push myself into training, and then I'd set myself back. I'm always trying to push the envelope and sometimes it works out that you set yourself back."
Belfort is the focus right now, and a title shot is the more long-term goal. But the mention of one name, a former training partner, gets Rockhold going, clearly upset and he noted he'd be very happy to face Michael Bisping down the line.
When Bisping was preparing for Belfort, he mentioned he had done some training with Rockhold, and when talking about how it went said, "I've sparred with Luke Rockhold recently and let's just say I'm the unofficial Strikeforce champion."
"Obviously it gets under your skin a little bit," he said about the remark on Spike TV's MMA Uncensored Live, which he didn't see. "A bunch of people tweeted. Some friends called me. When you say something on national TV, it's going to be heard. It was stupid of Bisping to do it. I went out of my way to help the guy and he runs his mouth. And it's a matter of opinion what happened. It was pretty poor, in bad taste, that's for sure. I didn't like the joke very much. He tried to apologize, sending a message through a friend on twitter. But he didn't have the decency to say it to my face, so I didn't have respect for that. If you're going to say something, tell it to my face. I lost respect for him for sure. Maybe we'll meet down the line and it'll get squared away. It'll be fun to do."
(Editor's note: Check out Luke Rockhold's appearance on the MMA Hour below.)