- Associated Press - Friday, July 5, 2019

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Luke Rockhold is a successful model with a Ralph Lauren contract and New York Fashion Week experience.

He’s also an elite competitor in a sport where terrible things can happen to pretty faces.

Rockhold has taken remarkably little permanent damage during his 12 years in professional mixed martial arts, but he has dished out plenty while winning middleweight titles in Strikeforce and the UFC.

After getting stopped by an overweight opponent last year, Rockhold decided to do something else to protect his moneymaker: He would no longer starve himself to get down to the 185-pound middleweight limit.

“Feels different,” he said Thursday. “Feels like the old days. I’m not so focused on weight. I can go back to who I am. I’m a hunter.”

When Rockhold (16-4) returns to competition against Poland’s Jan Blachowicz (23-8) at UFC 239 on Saturday night, he will be a 205-pound light heavyweight. The 6-foot-3 Rockhold plans to show his new division he’s a violent force, even if he doesn’t have cauliflower ears.

“My body didn’t want to do it anymore,” Rockhold said. “I’m a light heavyweight. I’ve been a light heavyweight for many years. I stopped killing myself and compromising who I am, just to fight a middleweight. Letting go of that title was tough. I (messed) up. I wanted to get it back, but I needed to let it go, and I needed to move on.”

Rockhold is referring to the loss that will haunt him forever. In his first UFC title defense in June 2016, he got too comfortable against a seemingly overmatched Michael Bisping and allowed the English veteran to knock him out in a shocking upset.

Rockhold felt humiliated by a loss to an inferior opponent, and he spent two years determined to get his belt back. He tried to push through the morass of competitors at 185 pounds, but had injury setbacks before ending up in another miserable situation in early 2018.

Rockhold cut weight yet again for a shot at new middleweight champ Robert Whittaker, who had to drop out with an injury. Rockhold agreed to fight Yoel Romero for an interim belt even after Romero missed weight, but he lost by third-round knockout.

Meanwhile, Rockhold’s modeling career was taking off. He landed a job as the face of Ralph Lauren’s popular Polo Blue fragrance, and he booked a steady stream of jobs that could have pulled him away from fighting for good - but he wasn’t interested.

“I love fighting, and the only reason I do outside what I do is so I can love fighting more,” he said. “Sometimes the business (of fighting), it takes the love away. And when you’re able to come back and leverage yourself, it brings back the love. It’s all about the love. And so I can stand my ground. I can fight when I want. I can have fun doing it, and that’s what it’s all about.”

By finally giving up on his middleweight dreams last year, Rockhold chose a clear path back to the top. He sees the UFC’s light heavyweights as easy pickings - at least below long-reigning champion Jon Jones, the headliner at UFC 239 against Thiago Santos, another longtime middleweight who moved up.

“Skill-wise, the middleweight division is much deeper,” Rockhold said. “That’s the problem with light heavyweight. You see these guys like Santos, they’re not top middleweights. They can’t even crack the top 10. Can’t sniff it, but they’re here at the very top of the (light heavyweight) division. It’s weak. The technique is just not there. The skill is not there. These guys get away on their toughness and their size and their strength.”

Rockhold hasn’t been in a fight that went the distance in his entire UFC career. All nine of his bouts ended in stoppages, including his debut loss to a testosterone-laden version of Vitor Belfort in 2013.

That streak could continue against Blachowicz, one of the UFC’s top light heavyweights. He had won four straight fights before losing in February to Santos, who subsequently got the title shot at Jones.

While Rockhold is respectful to Blachowicz, Jones is the only 205-pounder that impresses him - and he’s not fighting Jones yet.

“I don’t care about anybody but one guy,” Rockhold said. “That’s myself.”


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