Former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Luke Rockhold will have his hands full when he makes his UFC debut later this month at UFC on FX 8 from Brazil. Joe Silva isn’t wasting any time in throwing the young fighter into the fire, matching him up with surging legend Vitor Belfort, and in his homeland. Both Rockhold and Belfort are looking for a coveted middleweight title shot, and the winner of this bout will most likely be on the cusp of that achievement. But is Rockhold ready for the top level of UFC competition?
Rockhold appeared quite untouchable during his Strikeforce run, rising from relative obscurity to defeat Jacare Souza for the belt in late 2011. He was undefeated throughout his tenure with the now defunct promotion, but his competition was of a level that is incomparable to the sharks he’ll be swimming with now. Besides Jacare, who will be debuting on the same card, it’s tough to find an opponent of Rockhold’s that holds any true relevancy right now in terms of the UFC. Tim Kennedy could be mentioned, but it’s yet to be determined how effective he will be in the UFC.
There’s no doubt that Rockhold possesses a unique, dynamic striking game that poses problems for a lot of fighters. But will it be anything that Vitor Belfort hasn’t seen before? That’s up for debate, because ‘The Phenom’ has seen a lot. Rockhold’s jiujitsu, although largely unmentioned until now, is actually quite impressive, as he won a gold medal at the 2007 IBJJF Purple Belt Championship. His time spent training at AKA since that time has no doubt rounded out his overall game and improved on his existing strengths.
However, Belfort is near the top of a short list of top middleweight contenders, earning his keep with a vicious second round TKO of Michael Bisping in his last fight. Had he not been so brutally knocked out by Anderson Silva in their meeting two years back, he might be fighting for the title right now. Belfort’s skills are well-known by now, as he couples lightning-fast hand speed with knockout power and also has world-class submission skills of his own, nearly breaking Jon Jones’ arm last October. He’s fought a laundry list of top fighters, and really the only knock on Belfort has been his ability to remain unfocused and beat himself.
Is Rockhold ready for this challenge? He’ll need to come into the bout completely healthy, as injuries have robbed him of a lot of fight time during his short career, and also kept him out of his two latest scheduled bouts. He’ll also be in hostile territory down in Brazil. But he does have a well-rounded game that features some excellent kickboxing where he relies on his length to keep opponents at bay. Is he ready to supplant himself as a fixture in the top levels of the UFC MW division? I would say he has a great challenge ahead of him now, and most likely every single fight hereafter. I think he can defeat Belfort, but it will most likely via decision in a fight where Rockhold does not allow Belfort to rush him and get close enough to utilize his power. If Rockhold wins, a title shot could be on the not-too-distant horizon for him. Where do you think he ranks among the best at 185?