When Luke Rockhold stepped in the cage for his UFC debut against Vitor Belfort, he carried the virtual weight of Strikeforce on his shoulders.
One month earlier, former Strikeforce lightweight kingpin Gilbert Melendez had already competed, and lost, in his own UFC debut. Rockhold was the last of the Strikeforce champions trying to prove they belonged with their counterparts in the UFC.
One highlight-reel head kick, and Rockhold was sent crashing back to the drawing board. Knocked down a few pegs, he'd have to earn his way back to championship gold the same way everyone else does.
He's still a ways off, but after his one-hitter-quitter knockout body shot to the gut of Costas Philippou in the main event of UFC Fight Night 35, he's well on his way. Rockhold is back to square one. Where he goes from here is totally up to him and the whims of UFC matchmakers.
Rockhold told Jon Anik after the kick that he'd been working on switching things up, in going from high kicks to low kicks. That's exactly what he did in the fight, cutting Philippou open with a kick to the head and then ultimately crushing him with a left kick to the body. Philippou instantly clutched his stomach and doubled over in pain. Rockhold drilled him with a halfhearted soccer kick to the body, but the damage was already done—the fight already over.
Where does Rockhold go from here? He badly wants a rematch with Vitor Belfort, and he wants it in the United States. After Wednesday's win, he'll likely need one or two more consecutive victories before putting himself in the title conversation. And, if Belfort beats Chris Weidman later this year, Rockhold could ultimately get what he wants: a rematch with Belfort and a chance at the UFC middleweight title.
There's little question that he has the potential to be a major star for the UFC. He has the looks, charisma and fighting ability. Now, he just needs to put it all together in one of the toughest and most wide-open divisions in the company.