Amidst the record-breaking finish by Jorge Masvidal, the further expansion of Amanda Nunes’ legacy and the first split decision of Jon Jones’ career, Jan Blachowicz’s emphatic knockout victory was overshadowed.
It’s easy to see why. Masvidal’s near decapitation Ben Askren alone is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that deserves to bask in the spotlight.
But in the second fight on UFC 239’s pay-per-view main card, we may have all witnessed the end of Luke Rockhold. The bruised, battered former middleweight champion stared lifelessly at the mat after suffering his second-straight knockout loss.
All of the hope for a boisterous debut at light heavyweight vanished as Blachowicz connected with a devastating left hand and followed it up with a few punches more to make the outcome clear: the clock on Rockhold’s career quite possibly just struck zero.
Luke Rockhold arrives on the scene
The former champion has had a full career by MMA standards.
Rockhold joined the UFC having already established himself as one of the world’s best fighters at 185 pounds. He came from an elite jiu-jitsu background as an IBJJF purple belt no-gi gold medalist.
Largely leaning on his ground game, Rockhold quickly rose from prospect to contender in Strikeforce. He signed with the organization after going 1-1 on the regional circuit, winning his debut by armbar before losing his second bout by first-round TKO.
Rockhold strung together a six-fight winning streak in Strikeforce’s middleweight division as the level of competition gradually increased as each fight passed. He then got his first shot at gold.
Taking on Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Rockhold went to the scorecards for the first time in his career. At age 26, he was crowned the Strikeforce middleweight champion with a unanimous decision victory.
Rockhold defended the belt twice, stopping Keith Jardine in the first round with strikes before defeating Tim Kennedy by unanimous decision. But after Strikeforce was shut down by Zuffa in 2013, the middleweight champion once again adopted the role of contender, this time in the UFC.
Luke Rockhold joins the fold in the UFC
Rockhold’s debut was a disappointing one. The speedier Vitor Belfort outclassed Rockhold on the feet before ending him in round one with a spinning headkick and subsequent ground and pound.
At the time, the result said more about Belfort than the UFC newcomer. Belfort made a statement in the fight, showing that he could still hang with the best fighters at the top of the weight class.
The 28-year-old Rockhold stumbled, but losing to a legend didn’t raise any red flags about the up-and-comer. He still had a shot at making a name for himself in the UFC’s middleweight division.
And that he did.
Rockhold proceeded to go on a four-fight tear against middleweight mainstays — Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch, Michael Bisping, and Lyoto Machida — to solidify his title shot against then-champion Chris Weidman.
Weidman and Rockhold fought a close fight through two and a half rounds, but an ill-advised wheel kick spelled the end of the champion. Rockhold took Weidman down and unleashed his offense from the top, landing numerous elbows to bloody Weidman’s face.
The champion survived the third round, but the damage was done. Rockhold finished the fight in the fourth round, again reaching the pinnacle of his division; Rockhold was a UFC champion.
The beginning of the end
Rockhold’s reign wouldn’t last. His originally scheduled rematch with Weidman fell through after Weidman pulled out with an injury less than three weeks before the bout. In his place, the brash Brit Michael Bisping, whom Rockhold had submitted just a year and a half ago, stepped in to challenge for the title.
Bisping shocked the world with his first-round knockout over his rival. On the losing end of that historic upset was a flustered Rockhold. The fight was just the start of his plummet back down from the heights he’d once reached.
The fight brought on questions about Rockhold’s chin. Bisping was always known as a grinder and a volume puncher, so flattening Rockhold with a left hook came as quite the surprise.
Rockhold’s defense itself became an even larger issue, a problem that never went away. In previous fights, he was able to get away with sub-par striking defense. Rockhold would move backward in a straight line when pressured as well as keeping his hands low, but Bisping was able to capitalize it with a finish.
The loss wasn’t the end of the world for Rockhold though. He had a chance to bounce back and keep his name in the title picture, but first he had to get healthy. The 15-month layoff before his return against David Branch was the second-longest of his career, and it marked one of the first signs that Rockhold’s career was on the downswing.
In his return, Rockhold won by second-round TKO over Branch, but it wasn’t without a struggle on the feet. Once again, Rockhold was tagged while retreating with his hands down. Regardless, the win kept him at the top of the division and firmly in the title picture.
His first losing streak
The hard times weren’t eliminated by his win. Rockhold stayed healthy and was then scheduled for a crack at Robert Whittaker’s belt. When Whittaker was forced out, Rockhold accepted an interim middleweight title bout with Yoel Romero on short notice.
Romero missed weight, but Rockhold went on with the scheduled fight, as he would still win the belt at a shot at Whittaker if he defeated Romero. Rockhold was then knocked out in the third round of the fight.
What followed for the former champion was a hellish battle with injuries. His shin, which was covered by tape and a sleeve for his fight at UFC 239, required numerous surgeries and throttled multiple attempts to return to the cage.
When he was able to return, the move up to light heavyweight was supposed to be a rebirth of sorts.
The expectation was that a smaller weight cut to 205 pounds would fix the problems Rockhold faced at middleweight, most notably his chin. He looked muscular and healthy at the weigh-ins, reinforcing the idea that we were going to see a new fighter on Saturday.
That, of course, did not happen.
For the second fight in a row, Rockhold was on the receiving end of a brutal left hand that sat him down on impact. For the first time in his 12-year professional career, he is on a losing streak.
Luke Rockhold vs. Chris Weidman II
Now, the veteran has a huge decision to make.
If Rockhold makes an attempt at returning, possibly to just go out on a final win to close out his career, an old foe would be a good man to meet him.
The Weidman rematch has been scheduled numerous times since their first meeting, yet the two have never met in the Octagon a second time. Now that Weidman intends to fight at light heavyweight, the fight makes sense once again.
Weidman himself faced similar issues to Rockhold after their fight. He has competed just four times in the last three and a half years and sports a 1-3 record in those appearances. Along the way, injuries have plagued him.
For this fight to take place, Weidman must be willing to wait for Rockhold’s recovery.
In the UFC 239 post-fight press conference, UFC president Dana White revealed that Rockhold suffered a broken jaw, an injury that typically takes six weeks to come back from with surgery, but one that must be treated with caution for a significantly longer time before jumping into a training camp. At 34-years-old, his ability to return to a fully healthy form isn’t getting any better.
Rockhold’s most recent loss pushed him well out of the title picture for the time being. Defeating Blachowicz would’ve likely spring-boarded Rockhold into a title fight against Jon Jones.
Now that that obviously did not occur, the climb lengthened. Rockhold would need multiple wins over top competitors while also remaining healthy. In recent years, neither of those goals have been attainable for the former champion.
The alternative — and more easily attainable option — is retirement.
Retirement is calling
The UFC president urged Rockhold to consider retirement when he spoke to the media after UFC 239.
“I think Luke Rockhold should talk about hanging it up,” White said before going through the list of injuries Rockhold has dealt with over the past few years.
“He’s had a good career. He’s been a great fighter. I’d like to see him hang it up.”
While White has had his fair share of outlandish takes, this one is grounded in logic.
Rockhold has delivered a career worth remembering. He is one of just 10 fighters to hold the undisputed UFC middleweight belt. He produced a number of exciting fights and added big names to his resume in the process.
To make a comeback, Rockhold would have another uphill battle ahead of him. He still has very clear holes in his game. On top of getting back to full health, he’d need to make drastic strides in training in order to compete with the best fighters at 205 pounds.
The question Rockhold now has to answer is what does he want out of the sport?
Is it money? There’s more to be made outside of it while not getting punched in the face as a Ralph Lauren model.
Is it the hunger for battle? Possibly, but there are opportunities to compete outside of MMA, and as we all know, no one fights forever.
If it’s legacy fights and more titles that Rockhold is chasing, his time appears to be up.
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.