Three years ago, Luke Rockhold was one of the most highly touted prospects in mixed martial arts. The AKA-trained fighter was blitzing his way through Strikeforce's Challengers series and showing a level of skill that put him on the radar as a fighter to watch.
While potential can be a difficult thing to carry inside the cage, the California native delivered at every turn, eventually parlaying the promise of expectation into championship gold. Rockhold finished his run in Strikeforce as the last man to hold the now-defunct promotion's middleweight title. With his first bout inside the Octagon now official, a new chapter begins and the former champion has his sights set on a new belt.
The road to a UFC title has proven to be a difficult path to navigate, especially in the middleweight division where Anderson Silva has reigned for the past eight years. Rockhold has embraced the challenge and wants to fight the best of the best. The first step of his new journey comes against former light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort in his native Brazil at UFC on FX 8, and the stage is now set for Rockhold to make a proper introduction.
"I'm excited about it," Rockhold told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "Vitor is a legend and I want to fight the best guys out there. Vitor seems to be that guy right now. I have a lot to prove and I believe I can do it. Vitor looked good in his last fight but I've seen some holes in his game and some things that have beaten him in the past. I am coming in there to get the win and continue to do what I've been doing for years."
"I'm looking for the biggest fights and to get to that belt as fast as I can. I believe I can beat these guys and I'm going to do so. I'm going into enemy territory. I'm going into Brazil and fighting one of the best fighters in the game in his home country. That should show people how serious I am about this. I'm going in there to handle my business and I'm going to bring it home."
The matchup between Rockhold and Belfort will feature two of the division's best strikers. While both have impressive skills on their feet, the stylistic differences make the pairing unique. Rockhold's length has allowed him to set the range against past opponents and once the distance is established, the former Strikeforce champion has shown the ability to not only close distance quickly, but remain accurate in the process.
As for Belfort, the 35-year-old Brazilian's power punches have historically been his foundation for success inside the cage. But in recent outings, "The Phenom" has shown patience and a crafty striking game where he's used feints and footwork to create openings and opportunities. Their respective styles should make for a dynamic clash and Rockhold is excited to test his skills against the MMA legend.
"I think he's getting a little wiser," Rockhold said when asked about the recent changes in Belfort's approach. "He's waiting for his opportunities and you could see him baiting for the kick in the Bisping fight. Most of the fight he was looking for it and found that it worked in the first round, then he waited for it in the second and got the knockout.
"Vitor is still one of the best fighters in the game and he's still sharp. He lost to Jon Jones and Anderson Silva and those are the two best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Who else has he lost to lately? He's pretty much destroyed everyone else in his path. I think he's still sharp. He's definitely looked explosive and in shape his last fight. He's constantly in the gym and he's focused right now.
"I'm coming out there to do my thing. I'm excited about fighting a southpaw and a striker at that. Vitor will be the best striker I've faced thus far and it should bring the very best out of me in the striking department. I'm a kickboxer and I'm going to employ my range and distance.
"You might also see some offensive wrestling from me," Rockhold added. "It's been a weakness in the past and people don't think I can wrestle but wrestling and jiu-jitsu are some of my strongest attributes. I'm going to be fighting everywhere, put on a great show and I'll be in the best shape of my life. I'm excited about the big fight and I'm expecting the best Vitor Belfort to show up."
While the bout has been rumored since shortly after Belfort defeated Bisping at UFC on FX 7, it did not become official until earlier this week. Over that time, news of Belfort's TRT exemption for the fight in Sao Paulo emerged, which immediately became a hot-button issue in the MMA community, with Belfort's past steroid issues coming under the microscope.
A prior offense for PED's would make it very difficult to get an exemption in the United States, but the decision to grant Belfort the recent exemption was made by the newly formed Brazilian athletic commission. Nevertheless, Rockhold was aware of the conditions at hand when he accepted the fight and isn't concerned with what Belfort does or doesn't use.
"I think the TRT thing should be out in the open before fights and not after they end," Rockhold said. "I was also under the belief that if you've been caught with performance enhancing drugs in the past, there was no option for TRT...but ultimately it doesn't matter to me.
"I saw Ben Henderson's statement about TRT and PED's being a weakness and I feel the exact same way. I don't really care. I'm going out there and I'm going to do what I do. I'm going to beat people whether they are on it or they are clean. I'm a clean fighter and I'm going to go out there and I am going to do my job. It doesn't matter to me. Honestly I get more satisfaction beating people who are on the stuff."
In the time Rockhold has been a professional mixed martial artist, he's worn several different labels. The Santa Cruz native has gone from prospect to champion and held himself to the highest standards over his pursuit of becoming one of the sport's best middleweights.
Shortly after earning the Strikeforce title, Rockhold publicly stated he wanted to face the best fighters in the world and issued a challenge to those competing under the UFC banner. Now Rockhold will see that opportunity realized as he goes from champion to contender, and sets out in pursuit of UFC gold.
"This is the next big chapter for sure," Rockhold said. "I'm happy about what I accomplished in Strikeforce. It meant a lot to me but this is the next chapter in my life. I've always wanted to be the best in the world and now I have my chance to prove that. I'm getting better, learning new things every day and I'm coming into my prime. I still have a lot of good years ahead of me and I feel I have a lot to prove. I'm coming to kick some ass and take my spot."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.