Finally, here was the Luke Rockhold we’d all been waiting to see.
Nearly eight months after his UFC debut ended in disaster, Rockhold got back on message Wednesday night, blowing past Costas Philippou via first-round knockout before calling out two of the middleweight division’s biggest names.
It was exactly the sort of performance that fans expected from the former Strikeforce champion when the UFC absorbed the rival fight company at the beginning of 2013. Rockhold had won nine straight in the Strikeforce cage, and his combination of size, athleticism and natural charisma had him poised for breakout success.
Unfortunately, things started poorly for him in the Octagon. The UFC made Rockhold’s debut a cable TV main event on May 18, but Vitor Belfort summarily destroyed his momentum with a first-round head-kick knockout. Then a knee injury delayed his return.
By the time he re-entered the cage against Philippou this week, Rockhold’s fortunes seemed far less secure—at least for two minutes and 31 seconds.
That’s how long it took him to end Philippou’s night with a wicked kick to the midsection and re-establish himself as a force at 185 pounds. As Philippou crumpled to the canvas at the base of the fence, Rockhold approached a cageside camera with a very simple message: “I want Belfort.”
He repeated his request for another opportunity against the current middleweight No. 1 contender when play-by-play announcer Jon Anik tracked him down in the Octagon for his post-fight interview.
“I’m not here to be good, I’m here to be great,” Rockhold told Anik. “I want my rematch with Vitor, and I would like it here in the states. I’ll go through anybody I have to to get that, especially if it’s Michael Bisping.”
After the night that Rockhold had, the Bisping call-out seemed superfluous, but it was hard to blame him for being excited. He had waited a long time for his first UFC win.
His resolve showed from the opening bell, as he patiently stalked Philippou around the cage before dropping him with a counter right hook one minute and 30 seconds into the opening stanza. Philippou recovered from that shot but accepted a series of knees and kicks to the body during the next 60 seconds, until Rockhold landed the one that put him down for good.
It was a 180-degree turnaround from his UFC debut, and even Rockhold seemed to recognize that.
“As long as I don’t rush things, I’m a lot better fighter,” he said to Anik. “You saw me tonight, I was a lot more reserved, waited for my opportunities.”
Opportunities will not be scarce for Rockhold in the coming months. This, despite the fact that Belfort is already slated for the next 185-pound title shot and Bisping has been publicly called out by Tim Kennedy.
Nonetheless, there’ll be no shortage of middleweight contenders for Rockhold to choose from. Lyoto Machida takes on Gegard Mousasi in the main event of next month’s UFC Fight Night 36 and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza fights Francis Carmont at the same show.
The winner of either could potentially make a good match for Rockhold, now that his star is on the rise again.