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Luke Rockhold: I'm the most well-rounded fighter in the game

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Cynthia Vance, MMA Fighting

Lyoto Machida has been described in the past as the Rubik's cube of fighters, in the sense he's like a puzzle who is extremely frustrating to go against.

Luke Rockhold (13-2), who faces Machida (22-5) in the main event of the April 18 UFC on FOX card at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., has spent the last two months studying the work of the few guys who solved the cube, Chris Weidman, Jon Jones and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.

"Yeah, he's definitely a difficult guy if you let him be that way," said Rockhold, who would likely be next in line for a middleweight title shot with an impressive win. "If you take away his momentum in the cage it can work against him in many ways. Controlling the ring is huge. Me, being the bigger guy, people underestimate my footwork. They don't know my subtleties and feints and that's going to play a big factor. He's fought some good guys, but I can strike with him, cut the corners, wrestle him, and he has to worry about every aspect of my game.

"I'll fight my fight. I'm going to control the cage, strike with him, and make him think about my takedowns. If he's taken to the ground, he'll get into trouble, and it'll open up my striking. The key is MMA, and I'm the most well-rounded fighter in the game. If I put it all together, I don't have to worry about too much."

On paper, Rockhold's big edge looks to be age. He's 30, and is on the most impressive run of his career. He had three straight early finishes in 2014, where he was a candidate for fighter of the year. Machida is about to turn 37. But thus far he's shown no sign of aging. He finished C.B. Dollaway in just 1:02 in his last encounter. Even though he lost a title match to Chris Weidman last year, it was one of the year's most exciting boutS, and he gave Weidman a lot of trouble late in the fight.

"I've watched the Weidman fight probably 50 times in this camp, I've watched a lot of his fights," Rockhold said. "The main fights I've focused on were the two Shogun fights (in 2009 and 2010), the Weidman fight (last summer) and the Jon Jones fight (in 2011).  They are telling fights, and then you watch Gegard (Mousasi) who sat back and let Machida find his timing. You don't want to do that.

"He's grown and he's changed," added Rockhold. "He's good, very good, great timing. He waits. He wants you to start attacking. He finds the timing of your attacks and he counters. You just gotta make him fear certain aspects. I have to make him fear my kicks and my punches, and he won't open up as much. You don't give him the opportunity for counter strikes."

There is some familiarity between the two as they briefly trained together about five years ago when Machida sometimes came to the old American Kickboxing Association Gym in San Jose, Calif. 

"I got a little bit of training with him, but not too much," Rockhold said. "I have a feel for what he's capable of, but I can't take too much away from it. We've both grown a lot."

This is the first fight of Rockhold's new contract with the UFC. As a testament to his potential, he's got a clause in the contract that covers if he wins the middleweight title. Originally, the top two fights on FOX were to be middleweight bouts, with the Yoel Romero vs. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in the co-main event. But with Romero pulling out due to an injury, whatever pressure an impressive performance by the winner in the bout right before his could have put on him, that is no longer there.

All things being equal, Rockhold would have probably gotten the next title shot with a win, but had Romero or Souza looked more impressive to the large network audience, one or the other could have gotten to the front of the line. Rockhold said he wasn't planning on paying much attention to their fight, that he would be warming up and focusing on his own fight, and wasn't going to let one of them looking impressive put pressure on him to try and finish early. He said he's also not letting himself think ahead right now, nor thinking too much about the Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort title fight on May 23 in Las Vegas.

For one, he's still not convinced that fight, postponed a couple of times already, even happens.

"It's (the Weidman vs. Belfort fight) crossed my mind, but it's not my focus right now," said Rockhold. "Obviously, right now, my focus is on what's in front of me, which is Machida. I think Weidman is the better fighter. Who knows if Vitor is going to show up that day? He hasn't been clean in a long time and that will change a lot. I'm sure he'll have a burst or two in him, but he's not going to be as explosive. He's not going to be as strong. He's losing a lot right off the bat and who knows how he's going to show up if he shows up."

The Belfort name brings up a lot of memories, many bad. Rockhold came into the UFC as the Strikeforce middleweight champion. He lost his UFC debut on May 18, 2013 to Belfort, via knockout, at 2:32 of the first round to a spinning back kick.

"I was just p*ssed off. I came in with a lot of weight on my shoulders," Rockhold said. "It was my debut in UFC, fighting Vitor in Brazil, knowing he's on steroids. I was thinking a lot of things. You wanna f*cking test me?  You want to send me to Brazil to fight Vitor on steroids? You have no faith in me. It p*ssed me off. I said, 'I'll beat his ass on steroids. It doesn't matter.' I was furious knowing I was fighting a cheater and I let it get to me. I could have fought that fight so much better. I let the emotion get to me, and that was that. I forced the issue. I wanted to put something on him. I've never fought like that. I threw a kick and slipped on my ass. That's not how I fight. I don't know what came over me. But it was a great learning experience because I'll never let my myself get in that head space again. It helped me rethink how I fight and reflect on what I did. As you've seen in my last few fights, I've been pretty on top of my game and I feel I'm the best I've ever been."

The big thing he took out of the fight was relaxation, and not burning endless energy early. Machida has had 14 decisions in his career and he's never gassed out in a fight.

"I really have grown (since the Belfort fight), my timing, my standup, my relaxation, and that's huge for my standup," Rockhold said. "Technically, I've become more sound, sitting on my punches which creates more power. That's the big leaps I've had and there's more room to grow, being comfortable in all areas and finding set ups, outsmarting opponents, adjustments, feints, I still have a lot more to grow. My standup has grown. My jiu-jitsu is getting stronger and its always been at the top. It's about position dominance rather than submission, and my scrambling is at the top."

The PED issue is one that he's adamant about, hoping that the UFC's hiring this past week of Jeff Novitzky to oversee a new UFC drug-testing program that is said to go into effect in July changes the sport for the better.

"Everyone speaks highly of the guy," said Rockhold. "His track record is simply amazing, but I'll believe it when I see it. You see them making those efforts and then they try to make excuses for Anderson Silva. Anderson's a legend, but the fact is, he got caught for using steroids and he should be punished. They're talking about stepping up punishments, but it was still a one-year ban for Hector Lombard. One year in this sport is nothing. I'm disgusted by a one-year suspension."

A lot of fighters have privately said that the risk vs. reward with the limited testing done encourages PED usage. Rockhold said even after losing to Belfort, who at the very least was on testosterone replacement therapy, it isn't something he'd ever consider.

"I couldn't live with myself," Rockhold said. "I wouldn't do it. I'd get out of the sport and do something else. But I know a lot of guys say that stuff and then get popped, and some have really surprised me."

Although in a FOX main event with major title implications, Rockhold hasn't been drug tested thus far, and he's only a week from his fight. He said he's been looking forward to being tested.

"Blood test me over-and-over," he said. "I'm hoping to get my first blood test. I imagine we'll get tested (before the fight). I contacted the commission and asked for (out of competition) testing. I've been informed there will be various forms of testing. I guess that means blood and urine when they say various forms. They can't tell me anything except there will be multiple tests."

He made it clear he doesn't think Machida is on anything illegal, but also noted the number of test failures coming from the Blackhouse gym makes him not certain.

"I see Machida training with those guys and it makes me question it, but I like to think Machida is clean," Rockhold said. "He definitely appears like he hasn't changed too much. He's shredded down, but he's also a weight class down. But it's definitely a thought. Anderson Silva didn't look like he used steroids. A lot of guys don't. I've been in the game and heard a lot about it. How did Hector Lombard get by so long without getting caught? Some guys never get caught who are at the top, and then retire and look back and talk about the cheaters, but sometimes you see the transformation in their bodies that isn't normal."

Everything else leading to the fight is on target. A week out he woke up at 200 pounds and has his diet completely planned for fight week. He's been meticulous with his food intake throughout camp, on a diet to help him best recover from hard training. He describes making 185 this week as a process he's very familiar with, not a stress. He said he just came off his best week of sparring. The top fighters in the gym, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier have all started gearing up for their upcoming fights, so he's had top people to push him both in training and in evening cardio.

"It's great to push each other at night in those hard night workouts with a packed gym," he said. "It's been good. I have nothing to complain about. You have down days, but you've got guys to motivate you and it helps to be part of a good team."