Issue 163

January 2018

Back in the Octagon and the win column, the ex-185lb champ makes his case to be next in line for a title shot.

It was only 18 months ago that Luke Rockhold seemed to be unstoppable. But one lapse in judgment saw the UFC middleweight champion and pound-for-pound powerhouse lose his belt to Michael Bisping. Since then, injury and a turbulent time in the 185lb title picture – where rankings often seemed to fall by the wayside – the American Kickboxing Academy star has seemed to fall away from contention.

Don’t forget, however, that we’re still talking about one of the very best fighters in the world, in any division. One setback hasn’t changed that, and now he’s back on the winning track after beating David Branch. However, with Georges St-Pierre installed as the new champion in his weight class and interim champion Robert Whittaker next in line, his place among the contenders still isn’t clear.

In an exclusive new interview, the 33-year-old explains where he stands in the pecking order, as well as the pros and cons of going from coast to coast to switch up his training with a new team.

How happy were you with your performance against David Branch?

I was content with how the fight went. I didn’t expect him to run forward and fight in that fashion. I fight five-round fights. I fight technical, longer fights. I try to be precise. I didn’t expect David to run forward, guns blazing the way he did. He must have figured it was his only shot. He gave it a shot and I took it and put him away. I wanted to be looser on the feet and engage more, but he kept forcing the clinch. Once I felt his clinch, it was too easy for me to take advantage.

There was a moment early on where he touched you and there was a moment of concern. You even signaled to your corner that you were good. What do you remember from that exchange?

I didn’t expect it – it was a little overwhelming right off the bat. I like to start slow and be technical. I think when you run forward, it leaves room for error. I have been there and done that. That’s not the way I fight. Once I felt him and he hit me a couple of times and engaged with me, it’s a very telling moment. That first exchange, that first encounter, I just didn’t feel like he had anything to give me. I knew he didn’t in the first place. It’s the same thing with Chris Weidman. It’s telling how they approach the fight: the mannerisms and how they carry themselves into the fight.

What are your thoughts on the was GSP vs. Bisping went?

I don’t take anything away from GSP. He is a legend but he saw an opportunity in Bisping and he came up and took it. I thought he was in the deficit. I didn’t favor him in the fight, but I outwardly said he had a chance.

Do you think GSP will hang around at 185lb?

The fact is, he is not going to f**king fight any of us. He is not going to fight me. There is no chance in hell GSP steps in there and fights me. The likelihood of him fighting Robert Whittaker and anybody else is very slim. He has proven that in how he carried himself after the fight. It’s unfortunate they went down that road. I think if you want to fight for the title you should be the best guy in the division. There are all these guys jumping straight to title shots and not earning their way.

What are his chances if he drops to welterweight?

I think he has a better chance at 170lb (laughs). He got the title, I think it’s time to step away. I have been outspoken in saying Whittaker is the true champion. He has been the champion for the past year. GSP got his second title, he is a two-division champion, congratulations. You have to go back to where you belong. He found the one opportunity where he could sizably match up with Bisping but that is not going to be the case with the rest of us.

Do you still believe that Bisping’s title reign was the worst in history?

It’s nothing to write home about. He earned the title – he beat me fair and square, yes – but the moment he starts fighting guys outside the top 10 and starts picking on that bad-blood fight with Dan Henderson... As a champion, you don’t fight guys outside the top 10. You have a small pool of guys to pick from, the top five guys, and so that’s pretty much how it should work. On rare occurrences, you should fight outside of the top five. Bisping held tight, avoided every fight he could, claimed injury and somehow got two fights. It bit him in the ass in the end.

You have said Robert Whittaker is the true middleweight champion. Should you be booked to fight him next?

Whittaker has proven himself. He came up nicely. He carried the weight and has done really well for himself. Back when I fought Bisping in Australia, his first fight up was under me on that card. He fought Clint Hester and he looked really good. I thought right then and there that he was legit. He has definitely proven himself. At this point, I think it is the fight to make. I don’t think anybody else has put themselves in position and done what we have both done. It’s the fight to make.

What are your thoughts on Derek Brunson after he called you out?

He hasn’t done anything his whole career and he doesn’t deserve to run his mouth about anything. A win over a broken and practically retired Machida? The kid needs to shut up. He didn’t do anything in Strikeforce back in the day when he used to run his mouth then. He got knocked out by Jacaré after he was running his mouth. There are people in this game that just don’t understand. He gets ahead of himself and he gets set back real quick. It’s going to happen again real soon.

How do you feel about the amount of trash talk people are using to try and get title fights?

Everyone has got to try to make it in the world. Some people try to jump in front of the line and some people earn their way. Some people have the skills to do so and some people don’t. I would say the Darren Till type – the kid is good. He has a reason to run his mouth. The Derek Brunson type, not so much.

You are an AKA guy through and through, but you have been spending more time with Henri Hooft in Florida. How did that start?

I first met Henri in Brazil when he was cornering Vitor Belfort against me. He came up to me in the back after the fight and he was very genuine and honest. He told me that we had him worried and that he saw great things in me. He picked me up at a very low point. He told me I was going to be a champion, to keep my head up. Going along, I had a good feeling about the guy. I saw him from event to event over time. He kept joking with me telling me he’d told me. I kept watching him and seeing all the guys he was working with and his style. Sure enough, in one of those cities at one of those events, we decided to work together a little bit. We had chemistry together. It worked well. Eventually, I came out to Florida a few times here and there. I liked the style and the format he brought. Gradually I started testing it out. It felt comfortable. I knew a lot of the guys out here. It was easy for me when we weren’t looking so good at AKA. A lot of guys were injured, there wasn’t a lot of talent to feed off at the time. It was an easy choice for me to come over here to work with Henri and mix it up.

Your AKA teammate Daniel Cormier said you should do what’s best for Luke Rockhold, but you’re now training at the same gym as Volkan Oezdemir. Has that complicated matters?

It doesn’t make life any easier. I dealt with the situation before when it was Anthony Johnson and DC. I thought I could come and train here freely, then f**king Oezdemir comes out of nowhere and throws a wrench in my f**king plans. I was training here before Volkan, so that will tell you something. It’s not about that. It’s about my relationship with Henri. There are no secrets to be told. Everyone knows my plan and what my game is about. I’m tired of all this sensitivity to switching camps. Everybody let Conor McGregor get in their ear with this ‘snake in the grass’ bulls**t. Cody Garbrandt took it way too far. You can’t let that stuff get in your head. You have to focus on being you. Sometimes people need different avenues to train. You have to let go sometimes. People just need to stop believing in all that bulls**t. I believe there is loyalty in this game. I still have my love and loyalty to my team but right now, it’s healthier for me to be in Florida. I was too close to home and I got too complacent. I have a good avenue here now. People are getting older back home. I don’t know. For now, I just play it by ear.