Luke Rockhold is the first to admit that he had initial doubts when Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) approached him with a free agent offer.
Then he dove deeper into the deal and realized what BKFC was truly proposing: Freedom.
The former UFC middleweight champ is set to make his bare-knuckle boxing debut on April 29 against Mike Perry in the five-round, 185-pound main event of BKFC 41. Rockhold is one of two former UFC champions to make his promotional debut on the card, alongside Eddie Alvarez. Speaking to MMA Fighting, Rockhold said the contract is for one fight and doesn’t restrict him from pursuing opportunities elsewhere, such as for MMA or boxing bouts.
“It’s an offer I couldn’t refuse — and I’m still a free agent,” Rockhold said on The MMA Hour. “That’s the beauty of life. That’s the beauty of where we’re at and where we’re going to keep it. BKFC, I’m loyal to them, for sure, if we stay in that space. But this is a one-term bout agreement and they gave me a fight with Mike Perry as the main event for this groundbreaking fight. I love it. Mike Perry, he’s a little dog. I like what’s in front of me and I like the opponent and I like the f****** stage and it’s f****** new, it’s different, and it’s challenging. It’s f****** scary and it’s f****** fun, and I love it. That’s fighting.
“It’s straight to the roots of fighting, and it’s just so f****** pure. There’s something about it, you have to think differently. It’s a different game and it’s back to where it all began for most of us. I think anybody from the early days of fighting was a street fighter. All these new kids are MMA fighters now, they’re grown into it now. But a lot of us growing up, we all started in the game. So I’m making it as real as possible. Just bringing it back.”
Rockhold, 38, has been a vocal critic of the UFC stemming from around the time of his UFC 278 bout against Paulo Costa, speaking openly about the organization’s need to improve conditions for its athletes regarding health care, fighter pay, restrictive contracts, and more. Rockhold briefly retired from MMA following his loss to Costa, but ultimately changed his mind several months later, requesting and receiving his UFC release to hit the open market.
A former Strikeforce and UFC middleweight champion, Rockhold has competed for some of the biggest promotions in MMA. Asked if he’s set to earn more for his BKFC debut than he earned for the Costa fight, Rockhold merely grinned and laughed at the question.
“They take care of the fighters, man,” Rockhold said. “They take care of people and they give you what you’re worth, for sure. And I’m happy to go in there. I’m happy to train.”
Rockhold noted that there are other opportunities in the combat sports space he’s currently exploring as well. He also relished the chance to secure his own in-ring sponsors after being restricted from doing so for the majority of his UFC run from 2015 onward.
“It’s amazing the freedom that they give,” Rockhold said of BKFC. “You can actually do your own f****** thing, live your own life. Not be a f****** slave.
“So I’m done being a f****** slave and I’m excited to be partnered with Bare Knuckle and do this thing, give the fans [what they want]. I think it brings out the best in a fighter too, when you’re not enslaved into that s***, when you know that you’re fighting for yourself and your own worth and what you can be worth.”
Rockhold isn’t the first well-known combat sports star to test his skills in bare-knuckle boxing. A variety of former UFC fighters from Perry to Paige VanZant to Ben Rothwell have dipped their toes into the bare-knuckle boxing waters, as have former boxing champions such as Paulie Malignaggi and Austin Trout, all to varying degrees of success.
It’s a challenge Rockhold is excited to face head-on once April 29 rolls around.
“You’ve got to condition your hands, for sure, a little bit more,” Rockhold said. “My hands have been so good for so many years. I’ve been fighting for 20 years, so I’ve never had a problem with my hands recently in the last 10 to 15 years really, so I’m confident in my hands. I’m still going to do what I have to do to strengthen that.
“My legs have taken some punishment, so it’s nice to just focus on boxing, which I’ve been doing since I’ve ‘retired.’ That was the big stick, was just my body just can’t take the wrestling. The boxing avenue, it’s fun and it’s exciting, it’s new. And yeah, trying to understand the game of bare knuckle, it’s a little different, for sure.
“But I think I can take advantage my clinch work, take advantage of my length, take advantage of my size,” Rockhold continued. “I don’t think this f****** kid [Perry] understands — I’m big and I hit hard. I know it’s a different game, how he’s going to approach it, but I’m very confident in my abilities here and how I can find my spots.”