Luke Rockhold, after having lost himself, finds himself back in the Octagon doing what he loves

The best night of Luke Rockhold’s professional life is probably also the worst. On Dec. 12, 2016, in Las Vegas, Rockhold stopped Chris Weidman in the fourth round of their bout at the MGM Grand Garden to capture the UFC middleweight title.

There was no question that Rockhold was the greatest middleweight fighter in the world on that night. It was his second championship, following a run in 2011-12 as the Strikeforce middleweight king.

Rockhold was arguably the best pure athlete in MMA and after beating Weidman, was 15-2 overall and driving toward becoming the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world.

All of that seems so long ago, now. It’s a long time since Rockhold was even in the Octagon. Saturday’s bout is his first in more than three years, since he lost a light heavyweight match to Jan Blachowicz at UFC 239 on July 6, 2019, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

The loss to Blachowicz was Rockhold’s third in four fights since he won the belt. He lost his title in his first defense, getting knocked out by bitter rival Michael Bisping. After defeating David Branch, Rockhold was knocked out by both Yoel Romero and Blachowicz. The loss to Blachowicz broke his jaw and his nose and left him with loosened teeth.

“I feel like I lost my way the moment I won the title,” Rockhold told Yahoo Sports. “You could see it in my performances. Before I won the title, I was growing up into it and the freeness I had in my mind with what I was doing. I was doing it with love and then it changed. Once I reached the mountaintop, it was a ‘What’s next?’ kind of a thing. I was chasing money and I was chasing numbers.”

He’ll return on Saturday at UFC 278 at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City when he faces Paulo Costa in the co-main event.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 11:  Luke Rockhold enters the Octagon before facing Yoel Romero of Cuba in their interim middleweight title bout during the UFC 221 event at Perth Arena on February 11, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Luke Rockhold is 16-5 including three losses by knockout in his last four fights. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

His life changed dramatically since he won the title and, since his three-year absence. He lost a modeling contract he had with Ralph Lauren when he was unable to make a photo shoot that was scheduled after his fight with Blachowicz because of his injuries.

He said he was burned out having done the sport so long and bugged by what he referred to as corruption in the sport.

He got caught up in his own celebrity. He dated singer Demi Lovato and often partied hard. He admitted he developed a drinking problem. He lost the goals that had made him a great athlete and was stuck in the celebrity lifestyle.

That’s fine if one is walking the red carpet or posing for pictures, but it does nothing for you if you’re preparing to face one of the best fighters in the world.

“I needed a deeper reason [to fight],” he said. “It’s beautiful, a testament to life. I lost that test and three years out, just chasing, doing what I wanted when I wanted, drinking too much, partying too much and I kind of hit a low point. I lost those goals, those tests and the things that defined me.

“What defined me as a person were taking on those tests, and I always saw it as, the bigger the risk the greater the reward.”

Fortunately for him, he could see that he was heading for trouble even as he was in the midst of it. He knew he had to make changes and it led him to rekindle his passion for the sport that made him rich and famous in the first place.

He knew he had to do a U-turn and change the way he was living his life.

“I wanted to get my body back,” he said. “A lot of bad things happened and I needed to change. I got sober, I got in the gym and, you know, funny, but things started moving in the right direction for what I wanted. The thought process wasn’t to fight right at that point. It’s been seven months now and truthfully, the first couple of months were just to see if I still had it and still wanted it.”

Luke Rockhold, right, reacts after defeating Chris Weidman, left, in a middleweight 

championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Luke Rockhold on the night he says he lost his way. (AP Photo/John Locher)

He referenced corruption as one of the things that bothered him even before he became the champion. He fought Vitor Belfort in Brazil before the UFC had implemented a 24-7-365 drug testing program. It came at a time when many believed Belfort was using PEDs.

He essentially said he felt he was being sacrificed to Belfort when he wouldn’t play ball with the UFC’s contract demands.

Asked what he meant when he referenced corruption, Rockhold said, “It’s negotiations, it’s worth. They play a very hardball game. You know that. You know how it works. They have their negotiation tactics and cornering you and belittling you and sidestepping your managers. Then they play hardball with your managers, too. You have to put your ass on the line.

“Making me fight Vitor Belfort on steroids when they’re protecting him in Brazil is … If you don’t sign a new contract when you come to the last fight of your contract, if you don’t sign then so they could lock you into a smaller contract, they’re going to f—- you and put you in the hardest place possible to make you fight against someone who is probably on steroids.”

The UFC, through spokeswoman Lenee Breckenridge, declined to comment on Rockhold’s corruption comments. But that was a small part of a long story in which Rockhold told the tale of a guy who loved what he did, lost his way and has found his way back.

He’s eager to make a statement against Costa.

“I’m a better fighter everywhere,” he said. “I think Paulo Costa is very one-dimensional. He’s very driven off of emotion. If you challenge him and show him who the bigger man is, and he knows the threat, he’ll question himself.

“If you make him question himself, he’ll hesitate and if you stand your ground against that guy and show him what’s up, he’s going to hesitate. And hesitation is the weakness and the downfall of every non-champion. He who hesitates is lost.”