Luke Rockhold seeks his first UFC victory. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Absorbing perfectly timed and exquisitely placed spinning heel kicks to the face tends to alter one’s course. Ask Luke Rockhold.
The former Strikeforce middleweight champion will return to the Octagon for the first time since his ill-fated encounter with Vitor Belfort when he locks horns with Costas Philippou in the UFC Fight Night 35 main event on Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. The five-round headliner figures to provide further clarity in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 185-pound division.
Rockhold’s loss to Belfort at UFC on FX 8 in May halted a nine-fight winning streak for the American Kickboxing Academy export. The well-rounded 29-year-old Californian has secured eight of his 10 career victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Wins over UFC veteran Keith Jardine, Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts representative Tim Kennedy and 2005 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Ronaldo Souza anchor the Rockhold resume.
Philippou last appeared at UFC 165 in September, when he wound up on the wrong side of a unanimous decision against the Tristar Gym’s Francis Carmont at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The 34-year-old former Ring of Combat titleholder has compiled a 5-2 record since arriving in the UFC in March 2011. Philippou has never been finished as a professional.
The UFC Fight Night 35 lineup provides plenty of water cooler fodder. We discuss some of it here:
Knapp: Rockhold was looked upon as favorably as Chris Weidman in terms of future prospects when he entered the UFC. Did his loss to Belfort knock any shine off his star or was it simply a case of his running into a buzzsaw at the wrong time?
Whitman: If Belfort -- a man notably and primarily known for his blitzkrieg bop boxing -- suddenly and inexplicably becomes a gifted kicker at age 36 and takes your head off with a spinning heel kick from hell, you get a pass. Rockhold should still be looked upon as an elite talent with the potential to be champion. His length, versatility and penchant for rapid improvement between fights provide plenty of reasons to stay high on the Californian. The loss to Belfort was a speed bump, not a fatal blow.
Knapp: Philippou cracked the top 10 for the first time in 2012, but a disappointing performance against Carmont slowed some of his upward momentum. What does he have to do to get back on track?
Whitman: In basic terms, the native Cypriot needs to work on his takedown defense. I’m sure this is something that he has addressed since his grinding defeat to Carmont. While I do not see Philippou reaching the same heights as Rockhold, the New Yorker nevertheless possesses the type of power to spoil any middleweight’s night, and that includes Rockhold.
Knapp: Lorenz Larkin and Brad Tavares are middleweights on the verge of a major breakthrough. How do you see their fight playing out?
Whitman: This fight is no joke. I tend to lean toward Tavares in spite of “The Ultimate Fighter” vet’s underdog status because of his size and power in the clinch. I will concede that Larkin should have the speed advantage, but I think “The Monsoon” could stand to throw more combinations rather than relying on the cobra strikes. Tavares’ defense has improved a great deal over the last two years, and I believe he will prove much harder to hit than Chris Camozzi. I say Tavares earns a third-round stoppage via strikes after Larkin slows down.
Knapp: Mike Easton seems to have all the qualities you look for in a star, but back-to-back losses to Raphael Assuncao and Brad Pickett have left him on shaky footing at 135 pounds. What’s missing for this guy?
Whitman: I say this with all due respect, but I think punching power is the missing piece for Easton. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a man put so much into his punches to so little effect. As far as I can remember, Easton has not hurt anybody since stopping the grossly overmatched Byron Bloodworth in 2011. “The Hulk” is a skilled fighter and a worthy member of the UFC bantamweight division, but I’m not sure that Easton will ever make the jump toward title contention. His bout with T.J. Dillashaw should tell us quite a bit about his chances.
Knapp: Yoel Romero Palacio turns 37 in April. We all know he has the tools to become a contender at 185 pounds. Does he have the time?
Whitman: Man, I don’t know. Anybody who is 37 years old and looks like Romero is a freak of nature. Next to Rick Rude, this guy has the most dazzling physique that I’ve ever seen in a ring or cage. I’m seriously about to break into the Fight Finder and change Romero’s nickname to “Ravishing.” What intrigues me most about Romero is that we really have not seen him use his wrestling offensively, as he has preferred to strike with his opponents and either stave off their takedowns or scramble up from the bottom. I do not want my expectations for the freestyle silver medalist to escalate beyond reason. He is only seven fights into his career. That is insane. Your guess is as good as mine on this one.
Knapp: John Moraga fought for the flyweight title in July. What would a win over Moraga mean for Dustin Ortiz’s career?
Whitman: Big things, at least in my book. Moraga is the truth. I do not see too many 125-pounders having their way with him. If Ortiz can go in there and pull off the upset, I say he is one fight away from a title shot. The flyweight division is certainly not the UFC’s deepest category, and several fighters in the top 10 are probably out of the title picture for various reasons. John Dodson is hurt. Joseph Benavidez just got flattened by the champ. John Lineker cannot seem to make weight. Jussier da Silva has lost two of his three Octagon bouts. Should Ortiz beat Moraga, I would not be opposed to matching him with the winner of Brad Pickett-Ian McCall.
Knapp: What under-the-radar fighter on this card excites you?
Whitman: I have to say Alptekin Ozkilic. The young man is still green, but I think his ceiling is sky high. Darren Uyenoyama is not an easy man to out-grapple, but the former NCAA Div. II All-American did just that, putting in 15 minutes of hard work to outmaneuver the veteran. Once “The Turkish Delight” really finds his footing in the Octagon and tightens his standup and defense, I think he will be a handful for a lot of people. Of course, Louis Smolka could always throw a wrench into my glowing review. Let us hope that does not happen, since it would make me look dumber than usual.