San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy is about to enter a busy stretch.
Starting on April 18, when middleweight Luke Rockhold headlines the UFC on Fox 15 card against Lyoto Machida, AKA will see its four top mixed martial artists: Rockhold, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Daniel Cormier, and heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez; suit up for competition. And the stakes have never been higher, especially for Rockhold.
A former champion with Strikeforce, Rockhold debuted in the UFC in May 2013, touted as a legitimate contender at 185 pounds. Rockhold, who at the time was in the midst of a nine-fight win streak, was paired with a surging Vitor Belfort. And while Rockhold talked big before the bout, it was Belfort who walked away with the win, landing a stunning spinning back kick to earn the knockout.
The loss silenced Rockhold for a while, who took the remainder of the year off to rehab a torn ACL. But the lingering effects of the knockout, and Belfort’s subsequent trash talk and habitual testosterone replacement therapy left a sour taste in Rockhold’s mouth.
“Vitor isn’t [a respectable person]. It’s a simple as that,” comments Rockhold. “Of course I want the rematch. I don’t hold to it like I used to. I’m curious to see if he comes back, when he comes back, and how he comes back … we’ll see how the chips fall.”
With Belfort slated to contend for the middleweight title on May 23 at UFC 187, Rockhold remains focused on his upcoming fight against Machida, a former light heavyweight champion who has won three of four since dropping down to 185 pounds.
The matchup between Rockhold and Machida should prove exciting, as both southpaws are considered two of MMA’s top kickers, each athlete presenting a myriad of challenges and technical secrets.
And while much has been made of Machida’s karate background, it is Rockhold who has finished three straight opponents, first delivering a devastating liver kick to the midsection of Costas Philippou, next pulling off the rarely seen inverted triangle kimura on Tim Boetsch, and finally becoming the first man to ever submit Michael Bisping, sinking in a guillotine choke on the former The Ultimate Fighter winner.
“I’m gonna come forward … Lyoto’s gonna dance and he’s gonna do his thing and I’m hunt him. I’m gonna track him from the beginning,” offers Rockhold. “We’re southpaws, so the liver kick’s not gonna be there … I have very good counterstriking … I can put him in a bad place and then when he’s prepared to launch his attack, I’m gonna be prepared to counter … I think I pose so many threats to him. I can kick with Lyoto. He hasn’t really had a guy that can kick with him. I can guarantee I’m gonna tag him and I think I can outkick him.”
Adding a little motivation on Rockhold’s behalf is the potential for his bout with Machida to serve as a number-one contender matchup, with the winner set to face either Weidman or Belfort. And although the UFC has been hesitant to name immediate title contenders, it’s likely that with a win over Machida, Rockhold will be in attendance at UFC 187, first to meet a potential dance partner, and also to cheer on teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov, who will fight inside the Octagon for the first time since April 2014, when he demolished new lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos.
Nurmagomedov, who takes on Donald Cerrone at UFC 187, has already gone on record to say the he will wear the lightweight strap by the end of 2015. And with his dominant wrestling and durability, it’s tough to deny his claim as the top 155 pounder in the world. It’s an affirmation echoed by AKA coach and manager Bob Cook.
“He’s just starting to train and finally coming back soon,” explains Cook. “The thing with him is his wrestling, it’s just on another level than everybody else in the weight class right now. So if you can’t deal with his wrestling, you’re gonna be stuck on the ground, on the bottom and it is what it is.”
Wrestling has become a hallmark of the AKA fighting style, and while Nurmagomedov boasts some of the finest grappling in all of MMA, it are his teammates Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez who are routinely lauded for their pedigree on the mats.
Cormier, a former two-time Olympian, Strikeforce heavyweight champion, and UFC light heavyweight contender, will look to return to the win column on June 6, when he headlines a UFC Fight Night against Ryan Bader in New Orleans, Louisiana. Next up for AKA will be Velasquez, who will attempt to unify the heavyweight title at UFC 188 on June 13, taking on interim champion Fabricio Werdum in Mexico City.
Velasquez of course has left on one of MMA’s largest voids during the 20 months he’s been sidelined with multiple injuries. Once on the fast track to becoming the greatest heavyweight of all time, Velasquez has looked tremendous in competition, but his inability to keep his body healthy has led to fierce criticism from punters, many in favor of the UFC stripping him of his title outright.
The criticism has not ended there, however, as many have gone on to lambast AKA’s training techniques and regiments, programs that have left many of it’s fighters, including the aforementioned Rockhold, Nurmagomedov, Cormier, and Velasquez, injured.
“Everybody’s training harder. The guys are getting better and better and tougher and tougher,” adds Cook. “These guys are pushing themselves really hard and training really hard and sometimes pushing themselves too hard and getting injured.”
Cook, along with AKA head trainer Javier Mendez, have attempted to keep fighters from breaking their bodies down with over training. Dating back to their short-lived reality series Fight Factory, Cook and Mendez have been vocal about protecting fighters from themselves.
But one athlete they don’t have to worry about is Rockhold, who has never been much of a gym rat, preferring to take his training outdoors and to the waves as much as possible.
“I’m not a guy you can lock up in a gym all day. I’m an outdoorsman and it’s nice to be able to get some surf on the weekends … it helps my balance, I think my style is definitely different … I get my stance from surfing and skateboarding growing up. I’m goofy foot, I’ve always stood right foot forward, so I’ve just felt comfortable in that fight stance,” states Rockhold. “I’m right handed, so technically I should be orthodox, but because of my stance, wrestling right foot forward it’s kind of adapted my style to that.”
And with his surfing-meets-MMA style, Rockhold will commence one of the most important stretches in AKA’s history.
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