One random sparring session between Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping that took place over two years ago has managed to spiral into one of the most heated rivalries in the entire UFC.
It happened after Rockhold’s fight against Tim Kennedy in Strikeforce in 2012, while he was traveling through California on the way to Mexico and wanted to get some time in at the gym.
A friend suggested Rockhold should go spar with Bisping, who was preparing for his bout against former WEC champion Brian Stann at the time. Hesitant at first, Rockhold ultimately made the decision to go work with the Brit despite the fact that he didn’t have a very high opinion about the former Ultimate Fighter winner.
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"I was on my way down to go help Dan Henderson after beating Tim Kennedy after about five weeks off due to little injuries. Came down to help Dan out and start getting back in the swing of things," Rockhold explained to FOX Sports.
"I was down in Newport and I was talking to one of my guys from RVCA asking about any places to train down there and he said, ‘Oh, Bisping is training.’ He tried to play him up like he was a better guy than he was."
I’m going to get the title and Bisping’s never going to make it there. So this is the one time I get the opportunity to shut his mouth. I see myself going to the top and I don’t think he’s going to catch up.
— Luke Rockhold
Bisping ended up winning in his fight against Stann, and about a month later appeared on a television show where he was asked about the incoming middleweights from Strikeforce and where they would stack up against the best from the UFC.
"Let me put it like this: I’ve sparred with Luke Rockhold recently and let’s just say I’m the unofficial Strikeforce champion. Sorry, Luke, but these are the facts," Bisping said.
It took about two minutes after Bisping uttered the now infamous phrase before Rockhold, who was the middleweight king in Strikeforce, heard about the comment.
He wasn’t amused.
"I met him and he was a nice guy and he was very grateful for the training and then he goes off and makes some joke. It was a tasteless joke," Rockhold said. "It just shows who the guy is. It’s a good excuse to beat his ass."
The unspoken rule about training is very similar to the popular ads that run about Las Vegas: what happens in the gym, stays in the gym. Fighters will often get the better of one another during the course of a training camp, but inside those four walls is where it stays.
Rockhold trains everyday with fighters like UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and top light heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. There are days Rockhold is the king of the gym. Other times he feels like a peasant.
"It goes unsaid that you don’t go out and talk about each day," Rockhold said. "I’ve done well on some days and I’ve gotten my ass kicked on some days. That’s how it goes with Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier."
On paper this fight is technically a step down for Rockhold, considering he’s ranked No. 5 in the world and might be one fight away from a title shot while Bisping is sitting at No. 9 with a 3-3 record in his last six bouts.
Prior to this matchup being made, Rockhold was rumored for a fight against former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida that could have secured his spot at the No. 1 contender in the division. So why did Rockhold prefer the fight with Bisping?
"The Bisping fight makes sense because it’s the only time it’s going to happen," Rockhold stated. "I’m going to win. I’m going to get the title and Bisping’s never going to make it there. So this is the one time I get the opportunity to shut his mouth. I see myself going to the top and I don’t think he’s going to catch up."
Rockhold goes into the fight as much as a 3-to-1 favorite over Bisping, but there’s still an X-factor looming overhead that can’t be ignored. Bisping’s ability to get under his opponents’ skin has been a classic distraction that has forced many fighters to play his trash talk game before the actual competition. By the time many of them step into the cage with him, they are already mentally exhausted.
Rockhold promises that as angry as he might seem right now, it will all fade away when he walks into the Octagon and settles the score with Bisping once and for all.
"I’m going to be the same guy I’ve been the past two fights. I’m going to wait for my openings. He’s going to do his thing, that herky-jerky style, he’s going to leave an opening and I’m going to make him pay for it," Rockhold said. "I’ll be dead to Bisping. Whether he wants to talk to me or not. I’m going to fight my fight."
UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Bisping airs in the United States on Friday night with the main card starting at 10 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass.