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Ring Leader: Luke Rockhold

Luke RockholdSanta Cruz fighter takes UFC middleweight title

Luke Rockhold, a mixed martial artist out of Santa Cruz, has managed to get one of the greatest fighters in the world trapped between his legs, as he relentlessly pounds his opponent’s face with vicious blows. It’s the Ultimate Fighting Championship Middleweight Title in Las Vegas on Saturday, Dec. 12, and Rockhold’s opponent is Chris Weidman, the reigning champion—though not for much longer.

As Rockhold buries his fists and elbows in Weidman’s nose, eyes and forehead, blood splatters into the ring and even onto Rockhold’s face. Weidman is helplessly holding both hands up in front of him, wincing and rolling from side to side, with absolutely nowhere to go. Finally, the referee calls the fight with a technical knockout, or TKO, making Rockhold the new champion. Rockhold tumbles off Weidman and rolls to the side, lying face down in the ring with his head resting on his forearm, overcome with emotion.

The fight went three and a half rounds, with Rockhold winning each of them. By the end of the third round, many were surprised the referee hadn’t already called a fight that was growing increasingly one-sided. Even Rockhold would later say he thought the fight should have been over in the third, as would UFC president Dana White.

Rockhold has recently established himself as one of the UFC’s more entertaining fighters, not only for his dominance inside the ring—called “the Octagon” in ultimate fighting—but also for the man he is outside of it.

Before each major event, UFC follows its leading fighters with camera crews and posts installments of a video series called “Embedded.” The most recent edition features Rockhold, Weidman and two other mixed martial artists who fought this past Saturday.

Episode 2, posted on UFC.com, opens with a lesson in marijuana 101 from Rockhold himself. In it, Rockhold recalls his ceramics class at Santa Cruz High School and the days his teacher would scour the firing shelf looking for project bongs and then shatter them in front of the whole class. “My goal was to make the most intricate, disguised bong [so] that he would never know,” he says, holding up his grotesque, weed-smoking creation.

So Rockhold began his project by sculpting an alien head, he says. An arm comes out from the alien’s crown, extending through the body of a helpless victim and holds up the head of an old man. The alien head, Rockhold explains to the camera, is the bubbler, which holds the water. Ta-da: a secret bong.

“The smoke comes up the chamber,” he says, “and then you have to take a toke out of the old guy’s mouth. The shit you come up with—Santa Cruz High School days. Won the high school county art show with a bong.”

The next episode shows Rockhold getting a simple haircut, because he doesn’t want to be a pretty boy with some fancy ’do. After that, he promptly leaves to get a pedicure, because, he’s a nice guy, and, as he puts it, “If I’m going to kick Weidman in the face, I’m going to kick him with clean feet. Nice clean, sparkling toes, right in the face.” Then he blows a kiss.

After getting his new belt on Dec. 12, Rockhold looked more distracted than jubilant about his big feat. Maybe the gore of a strangely drawn-out fight had gotten to him, or perhaps he was just tired and overwhelmed. Backstage, a UFC television reporter called him “subdued,” and in the profanity-laced interview, Rockhold tried to explain to her that the whole experience was difficult to take in.

He said he had been suffering from cellulitis in his foot and that the antibiotics had affected his stamina. He had also worried that if the fight had gone on much longer, his foot would have swelled up. Additionally, he had been taking a bunch of anti-inflammatories for pain in his knee, he said. “My body’s calling for a little time off right now,” he told the reporter, but that didn’t stop him from calling for his next opponent immediately after. Rockhold said he wants to fight Vitor Belfort, a mixed martial artist who beat him in 2013.

As impressive as Rockhold’s skill in the Octagon was, it was overshadowed by that night’s main event, a fight featuring Conor McGregor, who knocked out his opponent, Jose Aldo, in a UFC-record of 13 seconds. It could be said that some of the appeal of the sport lies in unexpected moments like these—as well as underdog stories, a theme Rockhold feels comfortable with.

In the first episode of “Embedded” previewing Saturday’s fight, Rockhold explained that much of what he is trying to do is overcome people’s expectations of him. “People underestimate me. They look at me, and they see this surfer kid. It’s fun. I do all these things. This isn’t a game for me,” Rockhold says. “This is what I fucking do for a living. This is what I love to do, and I don’t fuck around.”

The underdog “surfer kid” factor may be a great motivator for Rockhold, but that doesn’t mean it reflects the way Ultimate Fighter fans actually see him. “Nobody sees a surfer kid when they look at Luke Rockhold,” one viewer wrote in the comments below the video.

“Surfer Kid?” wrote another. “I see a kook!”


SPAR AWAY Luke Rockhold, out of Santa Cruz, took the UFC Middleweight title over the weekend, despite suffering from cellulitis in his foot, as he explained after the match.

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