Luke Rockhold had a point to prove at UFC 278.
The former UFC middleweight champion may not have defeated Paulo Costa, but he still walked into retirement with his head held high, having put on a tenacious back-and-forth duel with the Brazilian contender. The performance capped off a fight week that saw Rockhold publicly spar the UFC at every turn. He spoke openly about the organization’s need to improve conditions for its athletes regarding health care, fighter pay, and more, because there was more on Rockhold’s mind than simply leaving the cage with a win.
“I was here to fight, dude. And people lose track of who I am, who I was, and what I’ve done,” Rockhold said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “Everyone was asking me, ‘If you don’t need this and you want this, what’s going to get you up in those moments.’ It’s f***** up — it’s f***** up to say, why do you think I was so mad at Dana [White]? Because Dana never gave me a chance. From the moment I came into the UFC, he never gave me af****** chance. Wrote me off, never highlighted my years in Strikeforce or anything that I did, all the wins. Only my losses. Dana White controls the narrative of what the public perceives. And he f***** me from the start, and it took me 16, 17 years to come back and give a fight like that, to earn my respect. Nothing I did in the past mattered until now.
“That’s why I feel the way I feel sometimes. And that’s why I said things I say. You’ve got to understand the power that you have in that situation, with the narrative you create — the public believes what they want to believe and what you tell them to believe.”
Rockhold joined the UFC in 2012 following its purchase of Strikeforce and ultimately spent 10 years with the promotion. At the time of his transition, he reigned as Strikeforce’s middleweight king, having captured his title with an upset over Ronaldo Souza then twice defended it with wins over Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy.
But Rockhold’s first UFC fight was an infamous one — he was immediately thrown into a matchup against Vitor Belfort in Brazil during an era when Belfort was abusing a loophole in combat sports regarding testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). And it didn’t end well, as Rockhold joined Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson among the trio of fighters to suffer brutal knockout losses to Belfort at Brazilian UFC events during a dubious period for the sport.
“Everyone else out there garnered their attention coming in, and I looked like this kid,” Rockhold said. “I do not know. This kid that no one wanted to respect, I guess, from him and so on. And they made me go down to f****** Steroidville in f****** Brazil and fight Vitor. Everybody else got respect and was going into world championship fights and consideration for. I got nothing. Two-time defending Strikeforce champion coming in there and you haven’t done s***, and I had to go fight Vitor when they knew what they were doing back then, protecting him and the motherf***** is juiced to the gils.
“I had to get cleaned by him and knocked down and belittled by everybody, and then build myself back up. I’m good at building myself back up. That’s what I came here to try to do.”
Rockhold ultimately rebounded to pick up five consecutive wins en route to a UFC title victory over Chris Weidman in 2015, but then dropped his title in an upset loss to Bisping at UFC 199. From that point on, he competed just four times over the final six years of his career.
Rockhold attributed that end-of-career slide to several factors, admitting that for a time he lost himself in alcohol abuse and the late-night partying scene. Repeated injuries didn’t help matters either, but perhaps the biggest factor that contributed to his rough final chapter was a “misguided” leg surgery in 2018 that nearly led to his leg being amputated.
“I think a lot of things shortened my career. I think the leg, the misinformed leg surgery — I think they f***** me on that one pretty good, the UFC,” Rockhold said.
“It was a misguided surgery and not necessary and took years off my life, took my biggest weapon out of the game. My leg, we’re talking about muscle grafts and s***. Like, it was the easiest surgery — it could’ve been, which was supposed to be, and it set me back so many years, questioned me and everything. There’s a lot of different things that played into factoring how it was, but it is what it is and I wouldn’t change it. Here we are.”
Even despite the way Rockhold’s career ended, the 37-year-old leaves the fight game as one of the most decorated middleweights of his era — a multi-time champion who held two of the most prestigious belts available at 185 pounds during his 15- year career.
Even White was left singing his praises after his gritty retirement fight with Costa at UFC 278, with the UFC president stating that he had “nothing but respect” for Rockhold.
“I think everything is very public and I know Dana gave me his piece, and I do appreciate that from Dana,” Rockhold said. “I appreciate that respect after all these years, and I think [UFC executive] Hunter [Campbell] and everybody else—I needed that fight. I needed that fight for myself. I guess the world needed that fight, so it just happened to be the way the way it be. I’m happy with myself. I proved it to myself that I’m still better than the best of them, after all these years and coming back at that percentage of me and I can still do what I did.
“I did it. I did it, and now it’s like everything hurts more than it used to hurt. Everything hurts. So it’s like, goddamn, it just takes more time and there’s other worlds to conquer, there’s more things to do. And I’m excited to go on to the next journey, the next step.”