Get Motivated by Learning What’s in This Fighter’s Head
Written By: Jordan Ligons
Photographed By: Corey Wilson Luke Rockhold
Cage /kāj/ noun: a structure of bars or wires in which animals are confined. Luke Rockhold is a MMA animal. His cage is eight sides, usually located in Las Vegas, and is surrounded by chain link fence. The 30-foot mat is marked with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) sponsors like Monster Energy Drink and Reebok, accessorized with drops of the previous card fighters’ blood. This cage is more like a stage, with a high-paying audience surrounding it chanting, booing, or cheering as more blood gets added to the floor. This cage is where Rockhold calls home.
Once you step into this cage, there is a person standing across from you that has been doing their homework and training for months to destroy you; they grind their mouthpiece and pierce into the depths of your soul. Once the referee’s handclap gives them the go ahead, their only agenda is to knock your lights out. Sound fun? Rockhold believes so. “I fucking love what I do,” he says.
This self-proclaimed rough kid first fell in love with mixed martial arts through the way of wrestling in his hometown of Santa Cruz, CA. With a former CIF Championship-caliber wrestling career and a newfound love of jiu-jitsu going for him, Rockhold showed up one day on the doorstep of American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) ready to work. After a couple hours of sparring in that controlled, high-tempo environment with some of their best guys, Rockhold was hooked. “The moment I got in there and mixed it up, from then on I was like, ‘I’m going to make this work no matter what it takes,’” he said.
“I had always known that I was more talented than others, more driven, more disciplined. I was a perfectionist in everything I did. I loved athletics and I knew I was athletically gifted like none other,” Rockhold explains. The genes were definitely in his favor. With a former Golden State Warrior for a dad, a tennis stand out for a mom, and a professional surfer for an older brother, he had a clear path to a career in sports. “I always knew I would be a professional athlete. There wasn’t really a professional outlet for wrestling, so I was kind of stranded.”
Denying a couple college wrestling offers, Rockhold wanted to ultimately follow the money, so he quit. He started attending general education college, but wasn’t feeling inspired; the sheer thought of becoming a nine-to-fiver freaked him out. The Santa Cruz lifestyle of kick flipping and shredding the gnar of the Pacific Ocean became a tentative cure. But, he had vibes that the people he was surrounding himself with were limiting themselves. Rockhold wasn’t about that. “It’s about separating yourself from the pack,” he explained. So he moved from Santa Cruz to Gilroy, right outside of San Jose, to his manager’s garage and completely immersed himself in the fighting culture: “After a lot of sacrifices, trials and tribulations I made it.”
Nothing, he said, took the demanding attitude, technique, commitment, and mental toughness that fighting did. It was the ultimate sport for him. With Rockhold being the risk taker he is, he took a big one and went head first into training.
“There’s nothing like fighting. Nothing else plays mind games with you like fighting on a certain date, with all the hype, and promotions that leads into it. You have to demand more of yourself,” he said.
When leading up to a fight, he breaks down training camp in weeks, he says that you have to be real with yourself and ask, “Are you getting better every week?” The answer better be yes.
“You can’t cheat yourself in this game. You have to have every element to the game on point,” Rockhold said. Not only does your cardio, technique, and weight have to be as flawless as possible, but your mental state of mind has to be out of this world.
“[Mentality] is everything. You could be the sharpest, the fastest, and the most powerful in the gym, but if you’re not mentally prepared and ready to step into [the cage], it can all fall apart,” Rockhold said. “This is not basketball, this is not football; we don’t have another quarter, another inning, this is not a series. This is everything on one given night. It could end in seconds or it could end in a half-hour. You can’t have an off day.”
Five to 10 days before Fight Night, Rockhold likes to hit the cool down button. The mind game toggles between confidence and doubt. He begins meditating and visualizing the fight that is to come, mentally picturing what moves his opponent is going to make so he’s already one bob, weave, or kick ahead. Throughout this process, though, a lot of negativity intensifies, Rockhold says. He takes this time to refocus on the positives; you have to come to terms that you have done everything that you could do up until this point, he says, “Relaxation is confidence. The more relaxed you can be, the more you can let go.” Once the ding, ding, ding sounds, he relies on instinct—less thoughts, more reacting.
The week of the circled calendar date, Rockhold explains how you have to come face to face with your opponent almost every day due to the promotional aspect of the job. “You’re looking at this guy, and you’re watching him and seeing how people carry themselves during fight week. It’s a big tell. Or it can’t be,” he says. “Some people believe in themselves so much that you know it’s going to be a fucking fight. You know this guy is bringing it. You can [also] see doubt sometimes from people…You know he has a breaking point, so you just have to focus on getting there.”
When they shut Rockhold in the cage, and it’s go-time, that’s when all the pressures ripple away like beads of sweat. The gloves are on, and it is time to separate the competitors versus the true fighters. At this point, the attending crowd, or even the pay-per-viewers, are standing, anxiously awaiting this modern-day gladiator scenario unfold. This is where the fun starts.
Rockhold is a Strikeforce Middleweight Champion and a former UFC Middleweight Champion, but till only recently had his title stripped in a fight to Michael Bisping last June; so it seems the word “champion” has a slightly bitter taste in his mouth. He says that he sits back and analyzes the people he admires most and takes note of what makes people great. To be a champion, and to stay a champion, Rockhold believes that you have to be more: do more, give more, sacrifice more, and risk more.
When life throws a jab and knocks you down, you have to be able to get back up. Rockhold says that failure is all a part of the process. “When you fail, there’s so much more to learn than when you succeed,” he says. “You can succeed, succeed, and succeed and become blinded by it… When you fail, it hurts. It makes you really analyze, ‘Why did I fail? What did I do wrong?’ and if you’re not doing that, I feel sorry for you.” Rockhold roots this attitude to how he was raised. He says that there’s failing, learning, and improving, and more importantly, not letting it happen again.
But, the fact is, this is a brutal profession. Rockhold finds it a necessity to find balance. His remedy? Traveling. “I believe you have to get away,” he says. “I’m 32 [years old], I’m in my prime and I want to enjoy life, but I want to give everything to this sport at the same time.” Through trial and error, he’s found that he works better this way. He adds that the fire builds up when he takes a break, allowing him to get back after it with a new frame of mind. This year, an ACL injury forced Rockhold to rest, but with appropriate rehab and not overdoing it, he feels ready; he’s got the itch.
Rockhold’s social media profiles don the simple bio line of “Prize fighter on the quest for glory.” He believes that this equates with being the best you can be, and living the dream. “At this time in my life I am focused on being the best fighter in the world,” he says. “I’ve achieved that and I will achieve it again.”
This is a critical point in his career coming off a loss in a world title, and trust me, he’s aware. “I know what I did, I know I screwed up,” he says in regards to getting back in the octagon after the Bisping loss. “I was overconfident and I took too much of a risk; I didn’t respect the situation…I learned from it, and it’s time to go back out there and take what belongs to me.”
He’s aiming full steam ahead with the target month of July, and he’s looking to make some moves. “I’m not looking to dance around…I’m not looking for paychecks or for easy fights. I’m looking to achieve greatness.”
Rockhold is salivating at the thought of getting that gold plated UFC Middleweight Championship belt wrapped around his waist again, while hearing Octagon Announcer Bruce Buffers’ voice yell, “And new…” He’s had the taste of being a champion and now he’s starving.
“I am hungrier than ever,” Rockhold says. “I’m waiting in the woods, ready to fucking pounce.”
Grapes the Cat: Rockhold is also a businessman. His latest venture is Grapes, a fresh take on portable chargers that’s fit for the extreme athlete lifestyle. Get #OntheGrapes and buy yours at www.grapesthecat.com.
Model Behavior: Being in fight shape, snapping a couple pictures, and traveling the world doesn’t seem like a bad side gig. Rockhold has signed with Soul Artist Management for his newest adventure: modeling. “I don’t mind it. I’m getting paid handsomely to be handsome,” he says with a laugh.
YOLO: Rockhold stays true to the phrase, “You only live once.” He aims to focus on chasing what makes him happy and living the dream: “I’ve been blessed that my work is what I love.”
Surfer Bro: Matt Rockhold, Luke’s older brother, is a professional surfer sponsored by the likes of O’Neill. These Santa Cruz-natives spent a lot of time in the ocean growing up in the surf capital of NorCal. Luke is still an avid surfer and skateboarder.
Hometown Hero: Santa Cruz declared Dec. 18 “Luke Rockhold Day” in honor of his championship title win.
Bali, Indonesia and Queensland, Australia
Wonder What Goes on in Luke Rockhold’s Head?