Luke Rockhold is on the cusp of beginning the biggest chapter of his career against the toughest challenge he's ever faced.
Where this scenario brings a unique brand of stress and pressure, the last man to hold the Strikeforce middleweight crown is largely unaffected. Much like the California-surf vibe of his native Santa Cruz, there isn't a hint of anything but laid-back cool in his voice as he talks about his upcoming UFC debut against Vitor Belfort at UFC on FX 8.
"The work is already done, man and I'm pumped," Rockhold told Bleacher Report. "I'm ready to do this now. I would fight Belfort today if I could. I've been ready to do this and when you stay ready you don't have to get ready.
"The closer and closer I get, the more real it becomes. This is my UFC debut and it's finally coming. I'm feeling better than I've ever felt and truly believe my game has elevated. This fight with Vitor will bring out the best in me. I'm facing a striker I'm going to have to respect and that will make me more precise and raise my skill level.
"My game plan is on, my head is in the right place, and I'm ready to get this done."
The reason for his state-of-mind is simple: this is the moment Rockhold has been asking for and he's excited to get to work under the UFC banner.
Since defeating Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza to claim Strikeforce gold in 2011, the 28-year-old has been asking to face the best middleweight fighters in the world. While his attachment to the now-defunct promotion prevented that request from being fulfilled, it didn't stop Rockhold from preparing to face the premier fighters in the 185-pound weight class.
That work will be put to the test when the AKA-trained fighter steps into the Octagon for the first time to face the former light heavyweight champion Belfort on May 18th in Jaguara, Brazil. While "The Phenom" is experiencing a career resurgence as of late, Rockhold has every intention of stopping that momentum cold.
He knows the bout with the heavy-handed Brazilian is his opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the middleweight division and Rockhold is determined to make his first impression a memorable one.
"There a lot of things that are going to make the difference in this fight," Rockhold said. "The range obviously helps, but Vitor is quick and fast on his feet and I'm going to have to control that distance. Otherwise I feel I have the advantage in the other areas of the fight. I feel I'm a better wrestler. And I feel I'm a better jiu-jitsu player. I'll put him on his ass if need be and take it to him there.
"I have a lot of advantages in this fight and the longer it goes, the more it turns to my favor. I think I have the best cardio in the middleweight division. I don't think there is anyone who can really keep up with me. I get stronger as the fight goes on. Vitor may think he can go five rounds with me—but trust me—the pace I'm going to bring to this fight, there is no way he's making it through five rounds. I'm finishing Vitor Belfort."
When the doors to the Strikeforce organization closed in January, the opening act of Rockhold's career drew to a close. The highly-touted prospect had risen through the promotion's Challengers Series to become champion and he will be looking to carry that momentum as his work begins under the UFC banner.
Where other fighters have come from distinct pedigrees and disciplines, Rockhold is the result of what hard work can produce inside the gym. Granted, there is no shortage of natural athletic talent where the former champion is concerned, but developing the skill set to become one of the best 185-pound fighters in the world has been forged from the rigors of training.
And that is what he believes will make the difference his fight with Belfort. The 35-year-old has struggled when fights have gone beyond the opening frame and Rockhold believes that has just as much to do with the mental as it does with the physical.
"There is no substitute for hard work in this sport and a good mindset," Rockhold said. "That is what I bring to the table. I think Vitor is breakable. We've seen him break in the past and you just have to fight him the right way and I believe I have that style. I am going to finish him but I want to break him before I finish the fight.
"I want to make a statement in this fight. I want to put it on Vitor and finish him early. When the referee gives the go, I'm going to be hunting Vitor from the start, and I'm not going to stop until I put him down."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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