Champion fighter Luke Rockhold won over UFC fans with his steely resolve and deadly submissions. His movie-star looks didn’t hurt, either…
As mixed martial arts, once maligned as “human cockfighting” by Arizona senator John McCain, has been accepted as a more mainstream sport, its most ferocious fighters have become household names. But it is Luke Rockhold who could become MMA’s best-known face. Raised in a surfing community in Santa Cruz, California, the 33-year-old Rockhold speaks with the nonchalance of a West Coast beach bum, but his track record reveals an unrelenting determination to be at the top of his sport. After training in judo as a kid and in Brazilian jiujitsu after high school, he made his MMA debut in 2007, at the age of 23. He became the Middleweight Champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2015 after defeating previous titleholder Chris Weidman in a fourth-round technical knockout. “I was always driven, and I was passionate to achieve and to be the best,” Rockhold tells MAXIM. “I never thought I would ever be second best in anything.”
It was not only MMA fans who took notice of the rising UFC star. Modelling agent Jason Kanner, founder and CEO of Soul Artist Management, saw potential in Rockhold’s 192cm stature, rugged good looks and fortunate lack of cauliflower ear (an all-too-common side effect of his sport) and he approached the handsome fighter about a potential side hustle modelling. The fashion world had unofficially given MMA its blessing, but Rockhold was hesitant. “I was just more focused on my career at that point,” he says of his early trepidation. “At a certain point, when I had achieved the pinnacle of the sport, won multiple world titles, I didn’t think it could hurt.”
Before the UFC, Rockhold was one of the top-ranked fighters in the now-defunct MMA organisation Strikeforce, earning the most wins by submission in its history. During his nine-fight win streak, he defeated Ronaldo Souza to become the middleweight champion, a title he defended twice before the organisation folded in 2013.
Rockhold was among the few Strikeforce alumni to be taken in by the UFC, the largest MMA organisation in the world. It was a windfall for the then 28-year-old fighter, but his start was not an auspicious one. At his debut in May 2013, he was defeated in the first round by Vitor Belfort with a swift head kick — a loss Rockhold later attributed to high emotions leading to a lack of technique. He quickly redeemed himself, winning his next four fights and steadily pushing his record to its current 16-3. Of his UFC victories, seven have come from submissions and eight from knockouts, including his first-round TKO, of Costas Philippou, at UFC Fight Night 35 in 2014 in Duluth, Georgia, his first UFC victory.
In November 2014, he faced Michael Bisping at UFC Fight Night 55 in Sydney, Australia, setting off his famous rivalry with the bullish Brit. Bisping preceded the headlining bout with his typical trash-talking, which prompted Rockhold to issue fighting words of his own: “I am going to make him suffer.” It was no empty threat. Rockhold took Bisping down in a second-round head kick, but he did not relent. He followed up with a guillotine choke, forcing Bisping to submit for the first time in his career. “Some fighters deserve to be trashed,” Rockhold says. “There’s a certain level of respect when you get into that cage and you share that space with somebody. When people break that code, I don’t think they deserve any respect.”
A world away from the ring, Rockhold’s first major modelling coup came in September 2016, when he appeared on the cover of independent men’s fashion magazine At Large. In February 2017, his work for boot company Frye’s Spring/Summer campaign alongside supermodel and MAXIM girl Devon Windsor was met with some jeering on Twitter. “Are you starring in Zoolander 3?” one UFC fan wrote. “How about you focus on getting back into the cage?” another scoffed.
The online derision came after Rockhold’s biggest career setback: a stunning loss to his old foe Bisping at UFC 199 in June 2016 that stripped him of his championship. “You’re always going to have haters,” Rockhold says. “You can’t lock me down in a gym 24-7. Doing some fun stuff in the modelling world, going to tropical locations and shooting with beautiful women, is fun. It reinvigorates me to get back into the gym and learn more.”
Ralph Lauren found Rockhold’s cool resolve to be a perfect embodiment of Polo Blue, its top-selling cologne, which evokes the calm and power of the sea. He asked Rockhold to serve as the face of Polo Blue and the new Polo Ultra Blue, a lighter, citrusy interpretation of the scent. Rockhold described shooting the campaign, in which he is straddled by Victoria’s Secret model Romee Strijd (yet another MAXIM star) on a sailboat in Montauk, New York, as unexpectedly gruelling.
“These were intense. I haven’t had a problem with many shoots that I’ve done, but we started at the crack of dawn and ended at dusk. It was almost five days,” Rockhold says. “I can torture myself all day and still have energy in the gym, but it absorbs a lot of energy when you’re posing and running back and forth between different shoots and looks.”
He has since rebounded. While promoting Polo Ultra Blue last November, Rockhold spoke with unmistakable enthusiasm about his fight with Aussie middleweight champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 221 in Perth, only for Whittaker to pull out of the match-up. Rockhold ended up facing Yoel Romero and was dealt a devastating end to his title run. Instead of a match up with the real champion, Rockhold wound up getting violently knocked out in an interim title match.
Rockhold spent much of the past year convalescing from a knee injury and bad-mouthing Michael Bisping from the sidelines, notably calling his title reign “the worst in UFC history.” But he insists he does not dwell on his setbacks. “It hurts, but that’s part of life,” Rockhold says of his title loss. “If you just won all the time, you wouldn’t know what that feeling was like. I’m very focused on being the best that I can be.”
An endorsement from Ralph Lauren has surely lent the fighter fresh confidence. “I see myself at the very top. I don’t think I’ve ever been better than where I’m at now,” Rockhold says. “I’ve always said, ‘Look good, feel good, fight good.’ It’s part of the program.” ■
BY THOMAS FREEMAN