The man I’m talking to could choke me unconscious with frightening efficiency. Nine of Luke Rockhold’s 15 pro MMA wins have come from forcing his opponents – some of the world’s toughest men – to submit to his array of vicious techniques designed to snap limbs or put you to sleep.
Even if you stand up to him you’re not safe. Of his other six victories, four have been knockouts, including the fight in December where he wrested the UFC’s middleweight championship from Chris Weidman. By the time the referee stopped the fight in the third round, Weidman’s face was a gruesome mask of blood. He had the look of a man who’d been set upon in an alley rather than an experienced fighter in his own right.
It might seem out of character, then, to find the 31-year-old Rockhold talking about the best gifts for Mother’s Day. For a man so practised in physical violence, he’s downright charming.
In fact, in many ways Rockhold doesn’t fit the mould of the typical fighter. He doesn’t share the over-exuberance of the showmen, and he’s engaging on subjects other than martial arts. Naturally, he has the work ethic and supreme self-confidence you need to get to the top of any sport, but beyond that, Rockhold is a rule-breaker.
The last time we spoke to Rockhold was in 2014, when he was still making his way up through the ranks. In our feature we pegged him to be the middleweight champion, and as he’s yet to thank us publicly for the support, we can’t resist bringing it up with him…
We feel like thanks are in order…
Picking me to be champ was a good move. Someone knows their stuff.
We’ll take that as a sign of undying gratitude. Don’t mention it. Anyway, you’ve said in the past that London is one of your favourite cities to visit. What stands out for you?
It’s just a beautiful city. There’s so much detail in the architecture and history that’s amazing to see. It puts every city in America to shame. I mean, there are buildings here that are older than our whole country.
Ah, so we’ve got ourselves an architecture buff?
Well… it’s also fun here. It’s a good vibe. Everyone gets off work at five o’clock and just heads into Covent Garden to start drinking. It’s like clockwork. It’s definitely different to America – we don’t all congregate at a certain time. I love it.
That went from buildings to booze pretty quickly…
I like to have a beer or two – a couple drinks here and there on my off time.
Would you say your off time is something you’re careful to protect?
Yeah, I need a month or so to decompress after a fight but I’m more conscious about what I do with that time than I used to be. In the past, I’d do extreme things without thinking about it, but now I ask myself if it’s a good idea. I kind of avoid snowboarding because if you make a mistake on a big cliff, well… that might just be it.
Does that mean surfing and skateboarding are out too?
I like to surf when I can, but skateboarding is a bit of a stretch. That said, if there’s a skateboard in front of me and a little ramp or something, I’m not scared to get back on. I need that time away, but after about a month I really get the urge to get back in the gym.
So making sure you take time to unwind doesn’t just mean letting yourself go?
No. While it’s nice as the champion to stretch out and enjoy myself, I feel like I need to be a bit more proactive than I used to be. This gap between winning the title in December and my first defence in June is quite a long break for me. The money is pretty good, and it’s tempting to get back in and keep earning.
Is that what motivates you?
I want to get paid and I want to live the good life. I want to have nice houses, plural. Nice cars, plural. The fact that there are other fighters out there who want to take this all from me just pisses me off and motivates me even more.
Rockhold proceeds to change into a suit and tie, then starts throwing kicks for the camera. It could easily look ridiculous, especially as between shots he’s drinking coffee from a bright floral mug, but when he jokingly asks if he looks like James Bond, we have to agree.
Was there a moment you knew you could be a champion?
I knew the moment I stepped into my gym AKA [American Kickboxing Academy]. I believe I could have been the best at everything I’ve done if I’d focused my energy enough. It was just a matter of finding what I was really interested in. So the moment I found fighting, I knew. I was like, “I’m going to do everything I have to do to make this my life”.
Almost every fighter has that self-belief, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be champion. You must have something else.
I come from a family of athletes, so obviously I’ve been gifted with a certain number of athletic genes, but it goes beyond that. My dad played basketball, but why wasn’t he drafted into the NBA? From what I understand, he was better than most. My brother was a great surfer but he never made the top 44 [the 44 highest-ranked male surfers who are invited to the World Championship Tour events]. Why wasn’t he there? So I’ve looked at what they could have done, and I’ve focused myself where they didn’t.
So you’re willing to learn from others.
I admire certain qualities of different fighters and I try to reflect on that and why they are so good in that area. I look at what they’re doing and try to implement it in my game. You have to look at yourself from an outside perspective and really try to see what’s working. That and listening to my body and understanding every last bit of it. A lot of people don’t understand their diet, they don’t understand body mechanics, they don’t understand movement – they don’t understand the proper technique in covering all aspects of the game. You need to have that beginner’s mindset where you keep checking yourself and trying to learn. I’ve studied these things a lot.
Can you give us an example?
I do my homework on body mechanics. I analyse how people move, then I film myself and watch how I move. Why am I not like that guy? What do I need to be doing? It’s basic understanding, but you have to be able to see these things.
It sounds as if you control many aspects of your own training. Don’t you have coaches to do that for you?
I’ve clashed with all my coaches in team sports, and I always wanted to find a different way. Some people just need to follow instructions, whereas I reflect and I look and I analyse situations – more so than anybody else, which is obviously what’s taken me to the level I’m at. I’m a perfectionist in everything I do and I’m not going to quit until I have it perfect. Well, there’s no such thing as perfection but there is excellence, and I always strive for excellence.
Do you think you achieve it?
Like I said from the beginning, I believe I can be the best out there. I don’t care who’s in against me, I’m going to find a way to win. I’m going to outsmart them some way. Some people have a ceiling. They beat guys they see weakness in but doubt themselves against others. Not me, I don’t care who the fuck I’m against.
You’ve always been very outspoken about performance-enhancing drugs. The UFC seems to be making strides in clamping down on that. Is it working?
It’s working 100%. You’re seeing guys’ performances drop off. I’ve been in this sport a long time, and I know it’s around and I know who’s on it. People who rely on drugs don’t have the confidence without them. If you don’t have confidence, you won’t do anything right in athletics or life in general.
If you’re not confident in going up to a girl and saying “hi” it’s not going to come off right. Just like with your golf swing: if you don’t believe you can hit that ball, you’re never going to hit it. Steroids give you this supreme invincibility, and you don’t think you can be beaten, so when guys go in there believing everything will be that much easier, it comes true. Steroids have made people win gold medals. There’s a reason why people do these things: they become super-humans on something they shouldn’t be on. I’m happy they’re taking steps to clean up the sport.
While setting up for some more photos, Rockhold decides to teach art director Will how to throw a proper punch.
You’ve opened a can of worms there, Luke… How important is the final week of preparing for a fight?
A fight camp is a three-month process of building up to the fight, and your confidence needs to be at a high. But when you get to fight week, the realisation that you’re stepping into that cage sinks in. You can see people start to second-guess themselves. I analyse every last bit of my opponents, and fighters in general. If you’re a gambler, that’s the week you should make bets.
What about when you’re in the cage – are you as analytical then?
No. That’s when I let go. Of the outcome, of winning or losing. I just enjoy the moment and embrace utter relaxation. You can’t be tense or full of emotion. Those things are going to hold you back. If you can do that, that’s when you’ll have a one-of-a-kind performance.
Luke Rockhold defends his middleweight title against Chris Weidman on 4th June at UFC 199. For more information visit ufc.com
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Matt joined Men’s Fitness in April 2014 as features writer after spending several years writing for a luxury lifestyle magazine, swapping champagne and canapés for cardio and leg days.
Matt is a keen Thai boxer and his interest in fitness took off when he made the decision to compete semi-professionally and had to get in shape. Training aside, he says the worst thing about fighting is resisting the urge to apologise all the time.
Oh, and he’s still on the look out for a decent fight nickname after being told ‘The Best’ was reaching a little bit…
Favourite move: Any kind of squat variation
Favourite sport: MMA and Muay Thai kickboxing
Personal best: Competing in a semi-pro K1 bout
Targets: Sub-1hr 40m half marathon and winning a fight by KO
Scariest MF moment: Writing about myself in the third-person for this profile
Favourite MF website story: Spider-Man workout
Favourite trainer quote: ‘Hands up, chin down’ – every striking coach ever
Biggest gym crime: Avoiding the weights and sticking to the treadmill