When Luke Rockhold strutted into the Octagon to defend his middleweight title against Michael Bisping in the main event of UFC 199, he was the picture of confidence. His hands were low, his chin was high, and his expression was one of complete relaxation. And really, none of that is especially surprising. Rockhold had handed Bisping a decisive loss just a year and a half earlier, and thanks to a last-minute Chris Weidman injury, the Brit had only had two weeks to prepare this time around. Furthermore, the fans and media were nearly unanimous in the belief that Rockhold would defeat Bisping again, and the betting odds echoed this feeling. Indeed, the champ had every reason to believe he’d blow through Bisping with relative ease.
This, however, is not the way things went down.
With two thunderous left hands and a volley of follow-up ground strikes, Bisping separated Rockhold from his consciousness and reaffirmed in a blink that no competitor is immune to the upset. Fans, fighters and pundits alike rejoiced, as the Brit’s long-standing title dreams had finally been realized in a dazzling twist.
And yet, for every sparkling victory there is an ugly loss, and in this case, that loss belongs to Rockhold. Having lost the middleweight belt just months after he won it—and to a fighter almost everybody thought he should beat—he is likely to be haunted by his apparent overconfidence for some time. Eventually, however, it will come time for Rockhold to wade out of the mire and begin his march back to the title. Which begs the question: what’s next for the former champ?
Well, from Rockhold’s perspective, there is clearly no better choice than a rematch with Bisping. Though defeated champions often call for immediate rematches when they are not necessarily deserved, Rockhold’s being given a do-over with Bisping does make a good deal of sense. The two fighters are, after all, 1-1 in their two previous fights; each holding an emphatic win over the other. And considering their heated back-and-forth at the UFC 199 post-fight press conference, they’re obviously eager to settle their score with a trilogy bout. Really, Bisping vs. Rockhold 3 sells itself. Then again, the MMA community seems to be tiring of immediate rematches, and so the UFC may choose to go other directions with Bisping and Rockhold for now. Luckily, Rockhold has plenty of other interesting options available if things do unfold in this way.
He might, for example, be paired with an old foe in Vitor Belfort. Granted, Rockhold now towers above the aging Belfort in the middleweight rankings, but we know that he is eager to avenge his 2013 loss to the Brazilian, who was enjoying all the benefits of testosterone replacement therapy at the time. Given that Rockhold and Belfort are now both riding losses, the time for this rematch appears to be now. In fact, Belfort’s apparent decline means that the time for this rematch could actually be now or never. So why not book it? The fight would give Rockhold a chance to avenge an old loss, and Belfort a chance to kick off one more title run before riding off into the sunset. Then again, it really is hard to ignore the fact that today’s TRT-free Belfort is on the way out, while Rockhold remains in his competitive prime. So, perhaps this rematch is better left un-booked.
In this event, Rockhold could instead be paired with another top contender in Yoel Romero. Under normal circumstances, Romero would likely be the next man to challenge Bisping for the middleweight crown. Yet having been busted for the use of a banned substance after a controversial defeat of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Romero’s sprint to the title has slowed considerably. When his suspension ends on July 12, he’ll likely need a big win to regain his momentum. Against Rockhold, he’d have a shot at just that, while Rockhold would also have an opportunity to correct his course with a massive win over another top dog.
Yet perhaps the best choice for Rockhold is the fight he was originally supposed to partake in at UFC 199: a rematch with former champion Chris Weidman. The pair first met at UFC 194, when Rockhold scored a TKO win after several back-and-forth rounds. Of course, this rematch would no longer be for the title, but it still makes plenty of sense in the way that it would give both former champions a sorely-needed opportunity to rebound from their recent losses. Perhaps the biggest strength of this potential fight, however, is that it would almost certainly be a thriller. The pair’s first bout ran away with Fight of the Night honors. Now that both of these ultra-competitive athletes are now hell-bent on returning to the win column and regaining the title, we can expect their second bout to be even more wild. Why not go ahead with their high-stakes rematch when the UFC debuts in Weidman’s native New York later this year?
Whatever the future holds for Rockhold, however, there is no denying that he remains one of the world’s premier middleweights. While his jaw-dropping knockout loss to Bisping shook him off the throne, it would not be shocking to see him win the title again in the future. The former champ simply needs to make his next bout count.
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