GSP controversy unfair to Rockhold, burying his breakout performance

Luke Rockhold destroyed his opponent, yet somehow the post-fight talk had nothing to do with him.


Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Returning from another injury, Luke Rockhold looked every bit a UFC middleweight contender at UFC Fight Night on Wednesday in Duluth, Ga., using his reach advantage to keep Costas Philippou at a distance, then smashing him with kicks to the body that left his opponent crumpled over and gasping for air.

The first-round TKO in the main event was a performance worthy of attention and headlines, but alas Rockhold could only keep the spotlight for those few minutes. It has been a recurring theme in the early part of 2014 — the focus of the MMA world quickly shifting from the future to the past. And even in the minutes after a live event, Wednesday was no different.

This time we pivoted from Rockhold to Georges St-Pierre in a blink. Earlier this month in Singapore we went from Tarec Saffiedine to Anderson Silva and his recovery from a shattered leg — or Brock Lesnar and his possible comeback, take your pick. This is a problem, because neither St-Pierre nor Silva will be fighting in the octagon anytime soon, and Lesnar is a longshot at best to return. Rockhold and Saffiedine, on the other hand, are actively working their way toward prominence.

Wednesday night’s event was bound to end this way. As soon as St-Pierre spoke to the Canadian media on Tuesday afternoon, voicing a disappointment in what he perceived to be the UFC’s failure to support his quest to increase the stringency of drug testing, that was sealed. Dana White was never going to be able to let the story pass without comment, and so within eight minutes of the start of the post-fight news conference, we shifted from the men on the stage to the man in Montreal, and really never found our way back. Rockhold wasn’t asked a single question for the rest of the night while White spoke at length, sometimes even unprompted, about GSP.

Of course White’s opinion on the St-Pierre drug-testing debacle is newsworthy, but it’s also straight drama. Everything between them is in the past. It can be corrected any time before St-Pierre returns, but right now it’s turned into something of a public breakup that would be better left behind closed doors. That’s not to suggest that the underlying cause of it all — drug testing — isn’t a worthwhile topic to publicly explore. In fact, it’s one of the most important subjects in sports. But let’s call a spade a spade: the way most of us are consuming this particular he said-he said is as straight tabloid fodder. So in effect we’re killing two birds with one stone: we’re not solving the drug testing issue and we’re sucking the air out of the excitement over what’s actually going on in the cage.

In case you need a reminder, Rockhold was fairly awesome Wednesday. He also, it must be noted, has the raw tools for becoming a star. He fights like a savage, has a charismatic presence and looks like he belongs on the poster of an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster. In other words, he has the kind of “it” factor that could translate to stardom if a few things go his way.

The concept of “making stars” is often discussed in the MMA world, but it’s really neither art nor science. It’s more like alchemy — a magical, unexplainable transmuting from ordinary to extraordinary.

To be fair, I’m jumping ahead in projecting Rockhold in this kind of role. He’s exactly one win into his UFC career, but then again he is already ranked No. 6, so there is not much space between him and the keeper of the gold, Chris Weidman — another possibly transcendent star being haunted by ghosts of the past. However, it does so happen that any of the guys in front of Rockhold (with the exception of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, who he already beat in Strikeforce) can offer him a larger platform. Aside from Souza, there is Michael Bisping, Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort and Anderson Silva. That’s it. A win over any of those names casts Rockhold in a new light.

“He looked awesome tonight,” White said. “Obviously, going in against a very tough guy and finishing him the way he did, he looked unbelievable. You see this happen sometimes when guys come in from organizations where they were champions, it takes a while to make them feel like they’re home here. It looked like he felt at home tonight.”

At least in the cage that was true. As the news conference wore on and the UFC-GSP situation continued to generate more interest than the men who had just fought, Rockhold buried his head in his phone. The moment had passed and he owned it, and then it had been taken away. It all seemed so unfair and unjust, the past intruding on the future, refusing to cede the spotlight.