Saturday night on Fox, two fighters collide in a battle with key implications in the UFC middleweight title picture. Luke Rockhold, one of the division’s best fighters but not yet one of its biggest stars, looks to capture the public imagination and generate interest in a showdown with Brazilian karate specialist Lyoto Machida. The combination of the stage and the opponent makes this the biggest opportunity of Rockhold’s career, as the chance to transition from high-level fighter to star doesn’t come along often.
Machida is one of the UFC’s most well-known and highly respected fighters, thanks to his unique style and aura. He doesn’t need to make a name for himself in the way that Rockhold does. However, Machida has two things working against him. First, at age 36, he is in the age bracket where fighters tend to decline. Second, he lost to champion Chris Weidman last year. While it was an exciting fight and a courageous performance in defeat, he can’t afford losses if he wants another title shot. The stakes are high, a recipe for an intriguing showdown.
Rockhold, the former Strikeforce champion with an impressive 13-2 record, is one of the sport’s most well-rounded competitors. But in spite of a series of dominant stoppage wins, he is still searching for a signature performance that can resonate in the minds of casual MMA fans who make the difference in the biggest pay-per-view fights.
That moment could have been his last fight against Michael Bisping. Bisping, the cocky and entertaining Brit, tends to attract a lot of attention when he competes. The Bisping-Rockhold bout was no exception, as the fighters engaged in a war of words leading up to the fight. Rockhold then turned in a tremendous performance, becoming the only man to submit Bisping in MMA competition. Unfortunately for Rockhold, UFC elected to put the fight on its Fight Pass subscription service. It was a big fight for those subscribers, but did not capture the eyeballs of a major pay-per-view or Fox event. Now, Rockhold will look to impress again, this time in front of a much bigger audience. Rockhold is well aware that the stakes are much higher.
“Of course it matters,” Rockhold says. “We’re athletes building a brand. The bigger the stage, the better it is. Popularity is leverage. I want to make it on a bigger stage, get fans talking. I wasn’t excited for Fight Pass. I would have liked to fight Bisping on Fox too, but it happened on Fight Pass, and that’s behind me. Now I’ve got a big stage to take advantage of and get my name out there. There’s nothing I can imagine that’s better. And I have the perfect opponent, too.”
One of the advantages Rockhold has in fighting Machida is Machida’s status within the sport. Not only is Machida a big name, but his distinct manner of fighting makes him a target for game planners and strategists near and far. Machida is a riddle just begging to be solved. While Machida probably hasn’t paid Rockhold much attention over the years, Rockhold has thought about what it would take to beat Machida for some time.
“I’ve always analyzed certain guys and how I’d fight them,” Rockhold says. “I’ve been watching him since Japan, and he’s always been a puzzling character. I’ve always imagined fighting him, and here we are. I’ve been doing my homework for many years. I just fine-tuned some things, and I’m ready to dance that dance.”
Rockhold, as a fresh opponent and exciting fighter, is being groomed for the next title shot against Chris Weidman if Weidman beats Vitor Belfort and Rockhold beats Machida. That makes the location of Saturday’s fight interesting. Rockhold and Machida will square off in Newark, near the New York home of Weidman. If the West Coast surfer Rockhold wins, he will have the chance to drum up interest in a bout with East Coaster Weidman in front of Weidman’s family and friends. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that New York appears close to legalizing MMA and a Weidman-Rockhold tilt could take place in the first UFC at Madison Square Garden later this year.
While there may be some big possibilities surrounding a potential Weidman-Rockhold bout, MMA isn’t forgiving to fighters who overlook the opponent in front of them. Rockhold has to know what a formidable challenge Machida presents to him Saturday night. Machida’s cautious counter-based karate style makes him very difficult and dangerous to attack. One mistake and Machida can finish a fight in a hurry, as he did with a head kick against Mark Munoz or a body kick against C.B. Dollaway in his last contest.
Machida isn’t the only combatant who presents unique challenges in this fight. Rockhold is a tricky opponent in his own right for Machida. Rockhold has few vulnerabilities, making him unpredictable to deal with and hard to target. He’s also a tall, rangy fighter, something Machida hasn’t dealt with all that often. For his part, Machida doesn’t seem concerned with that particular wrinkle.
“I have been training with taller guys than me for this fight,” Machida says. “I fought with Jon Jones, and he’s very tall. Even though I lost that fight, I thought in the first round I could keep my distance and throw my punches and kicks. I thought I did a great job. I can train and fight against someone like that.”
Machida’s ability to adapt and deal with adversity was never more apparent than in his title fight against Weidman last year. Machida was losing the fight in the early rounds and had to know he was down on the judges’ scorecards. This was a tricky predicament for a counter fighter like Machida, used to exploiting opponents’ mistakes and not accustomed to taking risks and potentially leaving himself open. But Machida knew he needed to attack, and attack he did.
Machida went all out with offense in the late rounds against one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, gunning for a knockout to recapture UFC gold. While he couldn’t get that finish and lost the decision, he showed a champion’s heart, mettle and adaptability.
“That’s the thing you have to respect,” Rockhold says. “He’s going to start as a tactician and try to be perfect. But when his back is against the wall and he’s cornered, he’ll come out fighting. When he feels like he’s down, he’ll risk it. He could read that Chris was getting tired, and he went forward when he sensed that.
“My strategy was to start a little slow and then after that to increase the pressure,” Machida adds. “When in the third round I heard I was losing the fight, I decided to go forward all the time and look for the knockout. The fight became more aggressive and more exciting.”
As Machida approaches the final stages of his career, he is still adding wrinkles to his game. It makes him an ideal test for Rockhold. If Rockhold can defeat Machida, he will have definitively staked his claim to a title shot. If he can’t, Machida would be right back in the mix for a future title shot. It’s no cakewalk for either man, but the rewards make the challenge worth it.