After building a respectable winstreak through late 2017 and 2018, Jan Błachowicz’s hopes of getting the next title shot went up in smoke with an ill-advised rush at Thiago Santos. Still ranked just outside the top 5, Błachowicz could afford a misstep at a division as bereft of contenders as light heavyweight; however, two losses in a row would be far direr for his title hopes, especially considering that a few fighters around him in the rankings have the momentum for an eliminator (Anderson, Reyes). To stay in that conversation, he needs a win at UFC 239.
His opponent is Luke Rockhold, a possible shot-in-the-arm for a division on life support. In a sort of break from tradition, Rockhold’s move up to 205 wasn’t a result of being mediocre at 185 and hitting a dead end; while he’s off a few losses, Rockhold was one of the most dangerous middleweights on the planet and won the championship after a spectacular winstreak. With his body no longer able to comfortably make the grueling cut to 185, Rockhold has pulled the trigger on the move up, and a win over the #6 contender would be a great way to restart his run to the top.
Prince of Cieszyn
Jan Błachowicz has long been overlooked as a true light-heavyweight contender, mostly because of a few losses that contenders shouldn’t really have (Patrick Cummins and pre-contender Corey Anderson), but he’s made a few concrete improvements to be able to compete with the elite-adjacent at 205. In a division that has proven woefully stagnant, Błachowicz doesn’t need much momentum to get back in the talks as a potential challenger to Jones; in fact, one great win might do it, and Rockhold would probably qualify.
While even his previously less-refined skillset was enough to fluster top contender Alexander Gustafsson, Jan Błachowicz’s recent improvements have turned him into the best boxer at light-heavyweight (even before Gustafsson’s retirement). Previously, Błachowicz’s boxing was mostly the sort of shifting flurry that would seem to lend itself to being countered (and in his last fight, it did); Błachowicz would sprint forward alternating hooks and uppercuts, and it would work because there aren’t many great counterpunchers at the weight class.
With his more recent introduction of a jab into his game, Błachowicz doesn’t have to fully commit to an attack if he doesn’t want to; while his jab doesn’t set his flurries up particularly well, he can use it to land on an opponent pressing towards him and set up shots around the guard (as he did against Manuwa). For the most part, however, Błachowicz’s meaningful offensive work still largely comes in the blitz, and he’s offensively fine (although not noteworthy defensively) when he gets to the pocket.
The biggest issue for Błachowicz has generally been a lack of reliable takedown defense, which is what sunk him against Gustafsson. Błachowicz’s rushes can leave him with few options if his opponent changes levels reactively as he squares up in a shift, and his get-up game didn’t look good in the Gustafsson fight (where he played guard to no effect, for the most part). Błachowicz has leaned on his grappling in a few of his last fights, he’s a good top player (as he showed against Krylov), but as a whole, his strongest moments come on the feet.
After his loss at the hands of Yoel Romero in February 2018, the public seems to have latched onto the notion that Rockhold has been conclusively figured out; between his massive upset knockout to Michael Bisping and his loss in Australia, as well as the trouble he had with Dave Branch, it seemed unlikely that he’d get back to the belt that he lost at UFC 199. Combined with a weight cut that seemed to grow more brutal on him with each fight, a move up was the obvious choice; where middleweight was top-heavy, light heavyweight was sparse, and any durability issues could possibly be ironed out by not dehydrating himself to death’s door on the day prior. The Blachowicz fight will serve as the first test of that notion, but also as a way for Rockhold to jump straight into contention with a win.
Rockhold doesn’t bring too many tools as a striker, even in his sort of fight, but he uses those tools to their full potential and he’s extremely potent offensively. Rockhold was a gigantic middleweight, which likely translates to being a well-sized light heavyweight, and his range plays a large part in his success as a striker; as a rangy southpaw, Rockhold can fairly easily hop back as his opponent chases him and punish charges with a backstepping right hook (which is by far Rockhold’s most polished punch, and definitely the one he throws the most). If his opponent is content to stand at range, Rockhold pushes forward behind a strong kicking arsenal off his rear leg. Rockhold has shown the straight-left to set up the left head kick at times (to convince his opponent to slip as the straight comes and lean into the head kick, or narrow their guard), but his more common setup is just the changeup between the body and head kick; Rockhold is an avid body kicker, and against orthodox opponents, he can back his opponent up and force them to circle into it (Philippou) and use the threat of the body kick to open up the head (Bisping 1).
Rockhold can win fights with just his striking, but his best asset is unquestionably his top game; Rockhold is not only as sound positionally as anyone on top and an extremely talented scrambler, his striking from on top is arguably the best in the promotion. Even if they survive to the end of the round (Weidman, Machida), the victims of Rockhold’s ground assault aren’t the same afterwards, but his lack of a dedicated wrestling skillset introduces some issues in accessing his A-game. Rockhold has a solid takedown from the bodylock, but he generally relies on his opponents either initiating the clinch themselves (Branch) to use it, and he otherwise just takes takedowns as they’re given to him (such as with catastrophic mistakes like Weidman’s spinning kick). Rockhold’s ideal scenario looks something like the Machida one, where he dropped his opponent with a check hook and brutalized him on top, but his lack of a system for getting fights to the ground means that his grappling isn’t used as much as it should be.
Rockhold depends heavily on giving ground as his defense, and while the fight against Romero showed a developing jab, his boxing is still quite underdeveloped past the check hook; this means that an opponent who can press into the pocket will give Rockhold serious issues, and the predictable check hook on the way in can serve as a liability if Rockhold’s opponent is expecting it. Dave Branch was able to duck under the hook he knew was coming when he pushed inside, which allowed him to flurry in the pocket as Rockhold backed to the fence and had no other pocket options, and Yoel Romero served as the best example of the limitations of his check hook; Romero pushed Rockhold back to the fence, double-jabbed in to trigger the hook, and countered with a left-straight inside it. Rockhold’s game isn’t cohesively-built and he does have a weak range, but taking advantage of that requires some craft on the part of a pocket boxer.
Conclusions and Capping
While “the best boxer at 205” should cause Rockhold issues in a broadly conceptual sense, Jan Błachowicz’s approach seems decidedly suboptimal for dealing with Luke. Błachowicz generally relies on the jab at range, which is difficult to leverage against a southpaw who keeps distance as long as Luke’s; not only are the applications of the jab totally different when the lead hand has to contend with the opponent’s lead shoulder, Blachowicz will need to close Rockhold down to find much use and will be conceding kicking range in the meantime.
Błachowicz’s flurries work well against fighters who aren’t comfortable on the counter, such as Gustafsson, but that sort of shifting on the front foot hurts him massively against capable counterpunchers; while Rockhold isn’t the most diverse in that respect, Błachowicz doesn’t put himself in position not to get check-hooked as he sprints forward, as the Santos finish showed.
In addition to Rockhold’s ground game (where Błachowicz isn’t particularly strong from the bottom), Błachowicz has no margin for error; while it’s entirely possible that Rockhold just whiffs on the check hook and runs into the fence to get beaten up, Błachowicz hasn’t shown the craft in closing distance to make it particularly probable.
Prediction: Rockhold via SUB2. This writer caps Rockhold at -170.
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