There was never a time when people should have doubted Luke Rockhold’s ability inside of the cage.
The former Strikeforce middleweight champion has always been on the fast track to a UFC title shot, whether that prophecy was derailed by a Vitor Belfort spinning heel kick or not. His top-level ground game and unparalleled athleticism was always going to land him opposite a UFC champion.
At UFC 194, an event taken over by a 13-second knockout by Conor McGregor of former featherweight mainstay Jose Aldo, Rockhold finally got his chance to win his second world championship. This time it would be for the UFC, a promotion which has arguably been taken over by erstwhile Strikeforce standouts.
In dramatic fashion, the American Kickboxing Academy lifer stifled former undefeated titleholder Chris Weidman via a fourth-round TKO. While Rockhold’s historic finish came on the heels of a misplaced and mistimed spinning kick by Weidman, a victory for the challenger seemed likely prior to that moment in the fight. Rockhold’s unfathomable top game, heightened by his natural strength and flawless movement, ultimately proved to much for a champion who prided himself on his wrestling and grappling capabilities.
But as pristine and ferocious as Rockhold was, it is Weidman’s inability to power through adversity that remains the most surprising takeaway from this bout. Like Cain Velasquez succumbing to altitude, or Anthony Pettis unable to land strikes, “The All-American” didn’t quite look himself at UFC 194.
This is the same man who famously ended Anderson Silva’s historic middleweight reign with one punch, then finished him a second time by checking a kick, following that up with title defenses over Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort.
Needless to say, Weidman’s previous undefeated streak in the UFC (9-0) mirrored unstoppable perfection. He had dismantled Brazilian legend after Brazilian legend, en route to claiming a 185-pound throne that looked to be his for years to come. He had rag dolled opponents on his way to the top, channeling super athleticism and conditioning to capture victory by any means necessary.
Yet at UFC 194, pitted against a stronger opponent who chewed the champs pressure and spit it out, Weidman folded. Like a champion who wanted to sneak away into the shadows and live the family life, the New Yorker didn’t find a way to win. He was unable to ward off a hungrier wolf.
So what do we take from such a dismal performance by a champ formerly considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet? Can Weidman in fact rebound from such a disappointing loss and recapture the aura of invincibility he once carried?
At this point in his career, there’s no reason to doubt a return to greatness. Even on the heels of a bloody defeat to a fighter who he believed he’d toss around the cage, Weidman can reclaim excellence and recapture gold.
With easily one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the division, one that could be enough to beat Rockhold if all hands are played accordingly, Weidman should have no issues locking down another title shot in 2016. There’s really nobody on the middleweight roster who can beat him. It is basically a two-man show, with Rockhold currently looking down at Weidman.
Not much has been said about the former champion’s weight cut leading into UFC 194. Unlike any of his other fights in the UFC, Weidman was seen walking around at a much lower weight. While beneficial when it comes to shedding off those final few pounds in preparation to make the 185-pound benchmark, Weidman seemed too small on fight night. He seemed like a thin, watered-down version of the “big” middleweight who was once in discussion to move up and fight Jon Jones at light heavyweight.
To make such a change in diet and physique, Weidman’s strength and ability to fend off Rockhold in top position had to have been affected. He just didn’t seem like the same athletic dynamo that had never been taken down before. While Rockhold’s timing, consistency, and technique should all be accounted for, Weidman’s performance certainly suggested he hadn’t put everything together in training.
A rematch should be in store for 2016, hopefully UFC 198 on Apr. 23 in New York City, which will give Weidman his chance for redemption. And even though a better and more confident Rockhold can be expected, we should all see the old Chris Weidman back to his usual form.