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Luke Rockhold overcomes obstacles in camp, but a few still remain

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Rockhold may have made last Saturday's win over Lyoto Machida look smooth, but the weeks preceding it were anything but.

Earning a probable middleweight title shot in a one-sided win UFC on FOX 15, UFC's biggest platform to hit the most casual fans, was as much of a star-making performance as probably would be possible. But Rockhold's teammate, Daniel Cormier, who doubles as a FOX and FOX Sports 1 analyst, noted just how difficult it is to be the talk of the sport.

"I was talking to Bob Cook, and we were talking about how there's so much fighting now, and the performance that Luke had last week, before, everybody would be talking about it for a month and he'd be a huge star," said Cormier. "Now, it's over, and they're talking about Demetrious Johnson. I do UFC Tonight and they're talking about him (Johnson). It's so hard to distinguish yourself from the pack nowadays. And he did everything he could have done."

The win was so impressive that, in a rarity, Rockhold supplanted Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza as the top contender at middleweight even though Souza scored a first-round submission win over Chris Camozzi minutes earlier.

"It's just an unfortunate circumstance for Jacare Souza," said Cormier. "If Jacare would have fought (Yoel) Romero and done that, they'd still be talking about him fighting for the championship because Jacare's a bad man. It wasn't Jacare's fault that his opponent got hurt. But people want to see Rockhold and Wiedman because of how Luke looked. It's unfortunate, but that's how the game works. After Jacare submitted Gegard Mousasi, he was the guy. Jacare Souza may actually be able to beat Chris Weidman, and I'm a big Chris Weidman guy. I think Weidman is phenomenal and I picked him in both Anderson Silva fights."

While Rockhold talked confident, he had been sick through much of his training camp and the worst was yet to come the week of the fight.

"It was pretty bad going in," said Rockhold. "I thought it was strep throat. When I did hill sprints I was coughing up my lungs. My really high-intensity workouts would really affect me. Slower paced cardio wouldn't hit me too bad. But my body was fatigued. I couldn't hit pads for too long or I'd get tired. I was coughing all night and didn't get much good sleep. Thursday night (two nights before the fight) was probably the worst. I was dehydrated and coughing all night long."

Rockhold admitted that in his mind it did put pressure on him to finish the fight early.

"I was worried in the back of my head that in a longer fight, how would I fare. I was just going to go out there and do it. I wasn't going to let a sickness take me out of the fight."

The sickness was only one of a few issues, including a sprained knuckle on his left hand and splitting his head open three weeks before the fight when his head cracked into a reef surfing. He changed his punching style in training to protect the knuckle, which messed up other parts of his hand and before long, he couldn't grip well. But he recovered well enough to where he could hit hard the last week before the fight, and knew he'd be hitting hard in the fight itself. On Saturday night, he talked about being ready to step in if Belfort or Weidman pull out on May 23, but concedes the best thing right now would be to give the hand a rest.

"Luke had the worst training camp ever going into the fight," said head trainer Javier Mendez. "He split his head open surfing. He had the nasty cough that everyone's had, but he was yacking and yacking all the time. Look, all fighters are injured. He didn't care. He couldn't punch with his left hand. The hand was all jacked up. He got a shot for it. But if you talk to Machida, he probably wasn't at his best either.

"Luke was hacking all the way through camp, but he never lost confidence," said Mendez. "I'm not going to say I was that confident because we were going against a great fighter like Machida. My attitude going in was we can't screw up. We screw up once against Machida and he can checkmate us. I was 100 percent concerned because of how great Machida is at capitalizing on mistakes. Thank God he screwed up first. Once Luke knocked him down, that was Luke's world. The elbow to the temple at the end of the first round, that was the doom. Luke's got great ground control. That's his world. (Chris) Weidman gave us the blueprint of how to approach the fight, and we added to what Weidman taught us, so thank you Chris."

As soon as the fight was over, Rockhold was at the announcers desk, and right there was Weidman, the middleweight champion and his likely next opponent provided Weidman retains the title against Vitor Belfort on May 23.

Weidman's analysis of Rockhold is that he's good everywhere, but the difference is, Weidman said he's not great anywhere, and Weidman said he was great in both wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

"I'll smoke him on the ground," said Weidman, right to Rockhold's face.

"He's (Weidman) good on the ground, but it's a whole different element when people go to the ground with Luke Rockhold," said Mendez. "He may change his opinion when he goes with Luke on the ground, or he may not. Luke's jiu-jitsu is not normal."

"I think that Marcus 'Buchecha' (the world champion at both heavyweight and absolute the past three years) knows his jiu-jitsu and he said Luke Rockhold can be competitive at the elite level in jiu-jitsu at the present time."

Rockhold noted that he met Weidman years ago when both were doing a photo shoot and he's known that some day he was going to fight him since that point.

"We both believe in ourselves," said Rockhold. "We both believe we're the best. I think I'm better than him. He thinks he's got his specialty and can take me out of my element with his wrestling. People don't outwrestle me and don't control me. I wrestled before I was a fighter. I'm faster and pose more threats on my feet."

Rockhold talked on Saturday night about the fight being a headliner on the first-ever MMA show in Madison Square Garden, which theoretically would be in December. There are obvious obstacles, the two big ones being whether the New York State Assembly passes the bill to legalize professional MMA in the state, and what happens on May 23.

"Whether it's Belfort or Weidman, I don't think it really matters as long as Luke gets the shot," said Mendez. "But in a perfect world, a perfect world, it would be great if Luke can get Weidman in Madison Square Garden."

"I dreamed of it," said Rockhold about possibly winning the UFC title. "I believed in myself, but it's still surreal to me. It's like, wow, but I'm still ready to go farther and take that next step."

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