From Beach Fights to Belt Fights

By Jack Encarnacao Sep 9, 2011
Luke Rockhold's gaze is cast on 'Jacare' Souza and the Strikeforce 185-pound crown. | Photo: Esther Lin

Luke Rockhold came up as a high school wrestler and jiu-jitsu player. He worked within the rules of those sports, and tried to develop techniques that leveraged his long body and athleticism.

He never formally honed his striking skills. Yet, when he was unrestrained in sparring or in a fight, he found strikes were his go-to.

“For some reason, I’m always throwing punches and trying to take the guy’s head off,” Rockhold said. “It was just a natural instinct for me. Most of my fights, I threw punches, and then I just started throwing kicks. In high school, I had a heavy bag and a speed bag in my garage, and I’d always want to kick it. I thought I was a little ninja when I was a young kid.”

In 2006, a friend invited Rockhold to the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. Then 21, Rockhold found himself in the famed gym’s cage with then-UFC heavyweight Christian Wellisch. Instinct took over.

“I went into the cage with Christian and I just started kicking - big, huge roundhouse kicks to the head,” he said. “I hit him with one and rocked him a little bit, and eventually I did well with my hands. I was really green and rugged, but I took everyone’s attention pretty well. I think the head kick kind of woke people up. They were like, ‘Oh, s---.’”

The display caught the eye of AKA guru Javier Mendez, who is renowned as having among the best eyes for raw talent in the business. Mendez offered Rockhold a spot on the team that day. Seven first-round wins later, Rockhold is set to challenge No. 5-ranked middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the Strikefore middleweight title on Saturday in Cincinnati, Ohio.

It’s the chance to achieve an elusive, amorphous goal. Luke Rockhold has always wanted to be the best at something. Until that day at AKA, though, he wasn’t quite sure what that was.

The telegenic middleweight grew up in Santa Cruz, the Bay Area city that has jockeyed with Huntington Beach for the moniker “Surf City.” The city is known for its coastal beauty and as an incubator for social and liberal activism.

In conversation, Rockhold comes off as laid back as the vibe of his home town. But don’t peg him as one of those affable mixed martial artists who’d never been in a fight prior to taking up formal training.

“I’ve been in a lot of street fights growing up, I’m not going to lie,” Rockhold said. “Santa Cruz itself, it’s kind of a territorial town. People always want to crash parties and stuff like that on different sides of town. People would come on our turf and disrespect our friends or our house. I respected myself and my space. When you get drunk and other people would be bullying people around, I was always the one to stand my ground and not take any s---. If someone was being an a------, I was going to call him out on it. Too many times I had to stand up for my friends or someone else. It was some stuff I probably could have avoided.”

Cautious of this scene, Rockhold’s parents insisted he sign up for an organized sport when he hit junior high school. He and a friend chose wrestling.

Initially, Rockhold had designs on following his older brother’s path into professional surfing. Matt Rockhold is a name in the surfing world, gracing magazine covers for his innovations in aerialist technique, wherein a surfer catches air above a wave and maneuvers while suspended. Luke’s parents were leery of the area where surfers congregated, where drugs were not the hardest thing to find. He still surfed, but his parents ensured it came second to his scholastic sport pursuits.

D. Mandel

Rockhold's prize isn't just "Jacare,"
but the Strikeforce middleweight title.
Rockhold comes from decidedly athletic stock. His father, Steve Rockhold, played a few years of professional basketball in Europe and was brought to a camp for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. His mother was an avid tennis player. Another brother excelled at volleyball and basketball. His sister, today a forensic anthropologist, took to jiu-jitsu along with her husband.

It was Rockhold’s sister who introduced him to jiu-jitsu while he was still wrestling in high school. After high school he worked construction jobs and took liberal arts courses in college. He experimented more with jiu-jitsu, and began to find the gentle art better complimented his style and long, flexible body type.

“I was always a funky wrestler,” he said. “I figure-foured people in wrestling. I was a leg rider. Not a lot of people leg rode like I did in wrestling. It translated really well when I got into jiu-jitsu. I was always putting in legs and getting peoples’ backs and controlling them. I just did really awkward stuff. I make up a lot of my own stuff that just works for my

Rockhold began his formal jiu-jitsu training in Santa Cruz under Garth Taylor, a veteran of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, who holds grappling wins over MMA notables like Ricco Rodriguez, Josh Barnett and Gabriel Gonzaga. The training put Rockhold on track to win the U.S. Open as a blue belt in 2006, and to take second as a blue belt in Pan-American competition.

It was during this period that Rockhold first became familiar with Souza, who at the time was looked up to everyone in the sport jiu-jitsu world.

“I’ve been following Jacare for years, way before I started fighting,” he said. “There’s times where I was trying to emulate his style and doing different things because he was doing it in jiu-jitsu. I know his game from top-to-bottom.”

“Jacare, he’s tricky, he’s fast, but I don’t know if he’s ever been the most technical guy in the sport,” Rockhold said. “He’s so fast, explosive and athletic, and all those attributes have really helped him out in the sport of jiu-jitsu. He’s usually the more athletic, faster, stronger guy in the cage. And this time, I don’t believe he’ll be so.”

Rockhold’s familiarity with Souza didn’t prevent him from engaging in some reconnaissance last fall when Souza visited AKA to train as part of the EA Sports MMA Fighter Exchange.

Stationed in Japan as part of said campaign, Rockhold put in calls to his trainers back home for any insights into Souza’s performance.

Though sidelined with a shoulder injury that cancelled his planned contender’s fight against Matt Lindland, Rockhold still had a sense even then that he might receive a title shot sooner than anyone expected. It was another impromptu opportunity that put him in the spotlight, like that chance to spar at AKA in 2006.

“It was a pleasant surprise,” Rockhold said of the title opportunity. “All of the contenders had kind of beat themselves out, and I felt like I was one of the last guys remaining and it was an option. I thought it was a far-fetched option. When they asked me, it just kind of brought a smirk to my face, and I happily obliged.”

“I’ve got a lot of new surprises coming out.”
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