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Unheralded Rockhold thrust into spotlight

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SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Luke Rockhold challenges Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight championship Saturday night, the first response from an awful lot of MMA fans will likely be, “Who is Luke Rockhold?”

Usually a title shot is reserved for someone with a string of consecutive wins against name fighters, or a victory over someone with a star name.

The 26-year-old from Santa Cruz, Calif. comes in with a 7-1 record, and while he looked spectacular in his last fight, that was more than 18 months ago in a sport where for prospects, “out of sight” means “out of mind.”

He’s had three wins on developmental Strikeforce Challengers shows, none of which were the main event. And with the exception of former “Ultimate Fighter” winner Jesse Taylor, even ardent fans would have trouble picking his other opponents out of a police lineup.

But those inside MMA have talked about Rockhold for years. He’s a 6-foot-3 middleweight with a complete striking game, strong wrestling and jiu-jitsu, who holds his own in the gym at San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy with the biggest names in the sport.

But even so, Saturday’s bout in Cincinnati brings about questions of Rockhold’s experience, quality of opposition, and potential ring rust.

Oddsmakers have tabbed Souza (14-2, 1 no contest), a five-time world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as a 9-to-2 favorite.

“When the first was first announced, I was concerned because of the long layoff and the mental preparation you have to do to go from decent fights to a high profile, five-round championship fight,” said Javier Mendez, Rockhold’s trainer. “He’s still kind of raw. I didn’t like the fight at the beginning. He got the title shot because there were no other options.

“But as time went on, he started overcoming my fears. He’ll be 100 percent ready. It’s fight week and now I’m very confident, while at first I had my concerns. There are no concerns now.” Rockhold dismantled Paul Bradley, a two-time All-American wrestler at Iowa, in just 2:24 with an impressive offensive attack of punches, kicks and knee on February 26, 2010, in a show in San Jose, which, at least to those who saw the match, placed him firmly in the “rising star” category.

Rockhold is mentioned several times by Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker as a future star and on the short list of title contenders. Rockhold himself was told if he could win a couple of more fights against steadily higher level opposition, he’d be in line for a shot.

Then the injuries started happening. The key was a separation in the AC joint of Rockhold’s shoulder. That put him on the shelf for months. Then, in training for a comeback fight against Tim Kennedy on short notice, he rushed his training, picked up the intensity too fast and quickly realized there was a problem. But he made the mistake of ignoring it.

“I went back to hard punching, hard wrestling, and the shoulder felt like a ticking time bomb,” Rockhold said.

The time bomb exploded and he had to pull out of the fight. Later, Rockhold had another fight scheduled, against Matt Lindland, that he also had to pull out of.

“He had the shoulder injury, leg problems, foot problems, elbow problems, one after the other,” said Mendez. “The shoulder was the longest, but then his foot was broken. He went through a lot and he never quit mentally. He was always in the gym working the other parts of his body.”

With his left side thrashed, Rockhold continued to come to the gym, training punching techniques with his right hand, and also, being so limited physically, he spent the time studying MMA.

“I’ve been healthy, training for four months, almost five, and I’ve been shaking the rust off in the gym every day,” Rockhold said, and noted he stopped worrying about what will happen to his shoulder nearly four months ago.

Rockhold dismisses ring rust as potential factor Saturday, noting that he’s in the gym three days a week now fighting for his life against people like Cain Velasquez, Mike Kyle, Daniel Cormier, Kyle Kingsbury, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, “King Mo” Lawal and others, some a lot bigger than he is, others a lot quicker and more experienced. “I’ve sparred with Cain countless times and we’ve tried to take each others’ heads off,” he said. “I’ve sparred with a lot of big guys and good lighter weight guys for speed. A lot of gyms don’t spar like we do.

“I get butterflies every sparring day having to step in with guys like Mo or Cain. Anything can happen. You can get hurt if you’re not on your game and it prepares you for real fight.”

Rockhold’s sports background hardly looks impressive when compared with so many of the athletes that come into MMA. He wrestled in high school and was good, but not state-champion caliber. He did better in jiu-jitsu competition, winning the U.S. Open in 2006 as a blue belt and even competing in the world championships in that division in Brazil.

But when Mendez first saw him, he immediately noticed something positive. Rockhold was a jiu-jitsu guy who came to AKA, and they put him through sparring. With no experience at all, his athletic ability and aggressiveness surprised everyone.

“He was a jiu-jitsu kid, and he impressed me when he attacked with no fear,” said Mendez. “Immediately, I thought that kid was special. I told [fight manager Bob Cook], `I want him on the team.’ It took Bob a little while, but he believed in him shortly thereafter. I thought he could dominate with the right amount of time, and I believe my prediction is going to come true.”

“They threw me in the ring,” Rockhold, who was working a construction job at the time, remembered back to his first day in the gym. “I didn’t expect to spar. I ran down the street and bought a $2 mouthpiece, and Javier liked the way I performed and asked me to be part of the time and told me he thought I could make it in the sport.”

But despite the lack of credentials in football, wrestling, basketball or track, Mendez rates Rockhold as the second-best natural athlete he’s ever trained for fighting, behind only Herschel Walker.

“I mean athlete, not fighter,” said Mendez. “Cain is the best fighter I’ve ever trained, but Luke is the best pure athlete, except for Herschel, who is one of the greatest athletes of all time. It’s his overall agility. If he wanted to be a pro basketball player, he’d have been one. If he wanted to be a pro football player, he’d have been one; track, he’d have found an event to excel in. Some guys are great at certain sports. Luke is like Herschel, or slightly under. He can do anything.”

Rockhold and Walker gravitated to each other as training partners, and when Walker would go on the road for media, it was Rockhold who he chose to bring with him to train. The two have stayed in contact, and Walker is coming to Cincinnati for the fight.

“It was an amazing experience,” Rockhold said. “I look up to him. I traveled with him a lot and cornered him in both of his fights. He reached the pinnacle in his sport and stayed that humble and down to Earth. He’s an amazing guy and I try to model a certain aspect after him. We travel and he’d always want to carry your bag. If we travel in the car, he always goes into the back seat and lets you sit up front.

“He was so dedicated, a natural athlete at his age picking up MMA as fast as he did was crazy. I’m sure he could still fight if he wanted to. He’s an incredibly busy guy but he puts all his stuff on the back burner for friends and he’ll be here.”

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