Luke Rockhold is ready to step back inside the octagon for the first time in two years, but he’s not going to accept anything less than a top-10 guy, or somebody that gets him intrigued and fired up.
The former UFC and Strikeforce middleweight champion made the decision this past August to not call it a career after telling ESPN in October 2019 that he had “no interest” in fighting again. Rockhold hasn’t competed since his second-round stoppage loss to Jan Blachowicz in his move up to the light heavyweight division at UFC 239.
With the world slowly opening up more and more, and the UFC returning to capacity crowds for their major events, Rockhold is looking forward to getting back to competition in front of fans — as long as the opponent is right.
“It feels good to see the world come back, filling up an arena and getting that energy back into the game. That’s what sparks us to want to thrive in that spotlight,” Rockhold told MMA Fighting. “That’s what it’s all about. Fighting in an empty arena, it just doesn’t sound as cool and doesn’t feel the same way. When you’re watching fights during the pandemic, there’s nothing there, you can’t even feel it.
“Now it’s a different feeling and everything’s coming back to full fruition and makes it more exciting to come back, especially when you’re just getting healthy, too. I’m finally getting my health back, my freedom of movement and I’m f*ckin’ ready. And I need the right f*ckin’ dance partner.”
Between 2014 and 2015, Rockhold went on an impressive five-fight win streak, which was capped off by a fourth-round TKO win over Chris Weidman at UFC 194 to become the UFC middleweight champion. The rematch between the pair was set for UFC 199 six months later before a neck injury scratched Weidman from his chance to regain the title.
That led to the insertion of another former opponent, Michael Bisping, who pulled off the big upset on short notice to capture the belt from Rockhold in his first title defense. Rockhold went on to stop David Branch in his next appearance 15 months later before suffering a third-round KO loss to Yoel Romero in an interim middleweight title fight at UFC 221 in what would be, to this point, Rockhold’s final appearance at 185 pounds.
Now that he’s stepped away and the desire has returned to compete, Rockhold admits he feels as at ease with the sport as he has felt in quite some time.
“I’m 36 years old, my body hurts a little bit here and there for sure. It’s not like it used to be,” Rockhold said. “Athletically, technically and mentally, I feel f*ckin’ sharp, I feel ready and I’ve been able to be more present. Sometimes throughout the career, you allow the pressure and different things to kind of weigh on you, and right now I just feel so clearheaded and in a good space where I’m ready to come back, assert myself, and do what I know I can do.
“Give me the f*ckin’ dance partner to prove that, or not. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m going to go there and I’m going to do what I do. Let me prove myself right, and let people try to prove me f*ckin’ wrong. But someone’s gotta step up and f*ckin’ do it.”
It’s been a bit frustrating for Rockhold since he’s looking for the right fight and the right names that he just hasn’t been able to land. With most of the middleweight top 15 either booked, likely targeted for a bout, or having just coming off of fights, Rockhold isn’t sure why he can’t pen on paper for his return.
While the division has seemed to have left Rockhold shaking his head, one middleweight has gotten his attention in a different way.
“I was looking at ‘85ers, top-10 ranked guys, I wanted solid guys,” Rockhold explained. “Uriah Hall went the other way and chose a different guy. I know my management talked with Kevin Holland and he actually reached out to me. He’s the only guy that reached out to me personally and was like, ‘Who said I was ducking?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, the managers talked and it didn’t sound like it was the direction they wanted to go.’ He was like, ‘No, no, no, let me handle my business and I’ll step up and do my thing.’ That guy, respect to him, he’s the man. He’s the only guy, I’m assuming, that wanted something that’s interesting, so we’ll see if that comes later.
“I know Jack Hermansson didn’t want it. I know a lot of guys in the division, the top-ranked [guys] didn’t want it.”
In June, MMA journalist Ariel Helwani reported that a fight between Rockhold and Khamzat Chimaev was offered for this summer, and that Rockhold stated that Chimaev declined the bout because he wanted to stay at 170 pounds. That turned out to be the case, as Chimaev will now face Li Jingliang at UFC 267 in a welterweight matchup.
At first, Rockhold was thrown off by the offer to fight Chimaev, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense.
“They threw Chimaev at me just out of nowhere because I didn’t see it coming,” Rockhold stated. “I didn’t really think about it and I was like, ‘F*ck. I’m a little interested in this.’ The kid has been talking up a game, claiming he can beat anybody and everybody at any time and I’d like to take the hype. I heard good things from the inside, too. I heard the kid is real tough. So let’s see. Let’s see what it’s all about, I love that, [I love] taking [hype], or he could prove himself right.
“They offered me a date, offered me Aug. 7 and I was a little pressed for time and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s f*ckin’ do it,’ and then they wanted to push it back to a main event on Aug. 28 and then I got really excited. I was like, ‘F*ck, let’s go, 100 percent.’ I thought it was done because they kept giving me multiple dates, and then he just went silent and I guess he wants to stay at 170, something like that.”
Since the Chimaev fight was taken officially off the table, Rockhold has just been playing the waiting game, hoping the phone will ring with another fight offer. As of now, no other offer has been made, but he’s hoping now that UFC 264 has officially come and gone, movement can be made on getting Rockhold back to action.
However, Rockhold is making it clear that the UFC needs to come forward with something worthwhile or he’ll be just fine waiting it out until they do.
“I think they were waiting on the fight to get done with Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier and that was a big thing, so hopefully, now that we’re passed that, we can get some more traction,” Rockhold said. “Hopefully something pops up. Hopefully someone sacks up. But I’m f*ckin’ enjoying [everything] and I think everything that’s meant to be will happen when it’s time. I just roll with it.
“But I ain’t gonna take anything that doesn’t excite me. I’m not just gonna step up and fight somebody that doesn’t excite me or doesn’t excite my fans. There’s no point. I’ve been doing that. I’ve been a Strikeforce champ, I’ve been UFC world champ, I don’t need to come back and fight some bum that doesn’t f*cking get me excited. I’d rather just not come back. If you want me to fight, give me something that excites me. Give me something that excites my fans, my people, and all of us. Otherwise, f*ck off and let me go because I ain’t gonna do that.
“I just want someone that’s fun,” Rockhold added. “If it’s someone outside the top 10, it’s got to be f*ckin’ something that gives me some interest, somebody who’s got f*ckin’ personality, some hype, someone that gets me out of f*ckin’ bed. I’m not gonna wake up for some f*ckin’ chump that doesn’t do anything for me, get out of bed and work my ass off.
“I’m f*ckin 36 years old. I’ve achieved the heights and I want something that gets me excited. I believe I’m still one of the best guys in the world and I came from the No. 2 spot in the world. I lost a world title fight to Yoel Romero. None of these motherf*ckers in the top 10 would fight Yoel Romero in his heyday. I lost a f*ckin’ world title fight and I stepped away from the division. I’m not coming back to fight some bum.”
When asked if he was surprised that it has been this difficult go get an opponent, Rockhold didn’t hesitate to explain his theory behind it, and his displeasure for the rankings system as it stands in the UFC.
“These guys are ranked and everyone f*ckin’ thinks they’re entitled to this f*ckin’ position in their rankings. It’s all f*cking bullsh*t,” Rockhold explained. “The rankings don’t mean anything anyways, so f*ck off. If you want to talk about rankings, I should come back and still be No. 2. F*ck off. What the f*ck is a ranking?
“Like I said, I want someone who f*ckin’ makes sense, who gets me excited. It’s not just about the ranking. But, you know, [it is] a little bit. Honestly, I think a lot of these guys are gonna f*ckin’ run away from my position because they know when I’m on, I’m on. But I think I’m just gonna fall in, start training hard, start working for it, and then one of those fights is gonna fall apart. I’m gonna have to step in and they’re gonna have to sack up because that’s the way the game works.”