UFC 194 is set to be an absolutely epic fight card, starting at the top with the long awaited main event of UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo taking on the Interim Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor. But, just before that fight goes down, In the co-main event, UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman is set to face challenger Luke Rockhold in what could be the most intriguing match up on the fight card.
A previous Judo Chop examined the old school inspired, pressure passing ground game of Chris Weidman. Now we turn to Luke Rockhold, who is, quietly, one of the most accomplished grapplers in MMA. Despite the fact that nine of Rockhold's fourteen professional wins have come by submission, he is rarely thought of as an ace grappler. This is primarily because Rockhold's game is that of a fighter comfortable to fight anywhere and he rarely imposes his ground game on his opponents. Rockhold's ideal fight is spent largely at range using his outstanding kicking game to wear down opponents and set up his hands.
But when it comes time to grapple, few do it better than Rockhold. A black belt under CheckMat co-founder Leandro Vieira, Rockhold trains with some of the very best from the sport Jiu-Jitsu world including Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida. At a cursory glance, Rockhold seems like another wrestler turned MMA fighter, having wrestled in high school and then lost interest in the sport in community college. But, he also learned Judo and Jiu-Jitsu at a young age and following the latter into to MMA. As a result Rockhold has a long practiced and well established ground game that is very well adapted for the demands of the MMA rule-set.
The first important point when looking at Rockhold's game is that his best wrestling is employed defensively. Rockhold trains out of the American Kickboxing Academy with far more accomplished wrestlers in Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, and Khabib Nurmagomedov to name a few. Rockhold's game has developed, seemingly, as a counter to the grinding, pressure approach that is the predominant AKA style.
Rockhold strikes on the outside and doesn't really seek to shoot in for takedowns, rather he defends and attempts to break opponent's posture, forcing them to the turtle and then attack. Rockhold rarely seeks a takedown that puts an opponent on their back ending up in the full guard, where from he might progress through the positional hierarchy. When on the bottom Rockhold is one of the very best at cage walking his way back to his feet, a skill he showed against one of the very best top players in his 2011 Strikeforce title win over Jacare Souza.
Now Rockhold certainly can take opponents down, but not in the typical takedown attack one would suspect from a fighter generally considered a wrestler. For a quick example here is a takedown from his fight with Lyoto Machida.
Rockhold and Machida are at range a few minutes into the first round of their fight (1) and they throw simultaneous left crosses while taking their heads off line (2). Neither punch lands but they both come forward with their punch and find themselves in the clinch (3). Now Rockhold and Machida had come together a few times and this time Rockhold ended up in a good position under Machida's left arm. Rockhold posts his left leg blocking Machida's right knee and begins to spin Machida over his leg. Rockhold's knee blocks Machida from taking a step to save his balance and he tumbles to the mat (5&6). It is very similar to a takedown that Machida himself prefers.
This typifies the type of takedowns that Rockhold tends toward; it's low risk, it doesn't give an opponent a chance to sprawl their weight on him, and it doesn't necessarily result in Rockhold landing on top of his opponent. Rockhold's takedown game isn't heavily influenced by the scoring system of a sport grappling rule set like wrestling which requires putting an opponent on their back to score a takedown. Rockhold actually approaches takedowns more like a jiu jitsu player, getting an opponent down to their back is great but having an opponent on all fours can be just as valuable because their back is exposed.
When his opponent's back is exposed, Rockhold can inflict blitzing offense from the top of turtle, setting up a number of quick attacks. Perhaps no fight better showcases how dangerous Rockhold is from this position than when he submitted Tim Boetsch. Early in their UFC 172 match Boetsch shot for a single leg, Rockhold flashed some dynamic takedown defense and then as Boetsch clung to a leg Rockhold slipped his leg around Boetsch's right arm to lock up a triangle from the top. In less than a second Boetsch was put in a highly compromised position he never was able to escape as about two minutes later Rockhold finished a kimura.
Watching the entire fight is most certainly worth while as it showcases both Rockhold's excellent skills and his opportunism when it comes to grappling.
Opponents don't necessarily need to shoot in on Rockhold for him to work his top turtle game. He also uses it as a follow up after he drops opponents with strikes. A good example of that would be his bout against Michael Bisping, when Rockhold dropped "The Count" with a head kick in the second round.
Bisping was hurt, but moving to defend himself and successfully avoiding Rockhold's coffin nail shots. In the process Bisping begins to roll up to his knees (1). Rockhold reacts immediately, wrapping his left arm around Bisping's neck and putting his chest on Bisping's shoulder, placing weight on Bisping and keeping him from posturing up (3). Then, Rockhold commits, connecting his hands encircling Bisping's neck and dropping back, pulling Bisping forward and down (4). Rockhold hooks his right foot inside of Bisping's thigh and throws his left leg over Bisping's back. When it becomes obvious that Rockhold isn't going to finish the choke on his back, he uses the hook to roll Bisping over with a Butterfly style sweep (5). Once the mount Rockhold pushes his hips down and rolls his shoulder back, finishing the choke one handed (6).
The turtle is very much a fight ending position for Rockhold, who will jump on a chance to get a quick win if a chance presents itself. But it can also be a place of more deliberate offense. Against Lyoto Machida, Rockhold attempted the same choke after Lyoto slipped in a striking exchange. When it failed Rockhold ended up fighting off sweeps in Lyoto's half guard. Rockhold eventually found himself back in the full guard and his reaction is telling, he forces the turtle and uses that as a way to by-pass the guard and attack the back.
Rockhold stands against Machida's closed guard (1), and he drives his hips in stacking Machida up on to his shoulders (2). This is a standard practice when trying to pass the guard, but normally the top player wants to maintain control of the bottom player's hips so they can not roll out to the turtle, but Rockhold doesn't bother because that's exactly what he's aiming for. And Machida obliges him, rolling backwards over his shoulder to the turtle (3). Machida tries to fight his way to his feet, but Rockhold keeps his chest on Machida's back, keeping him stooped over. Rockhold hops to the other side of Machida and slips in a body lock (5) using it to drag Machida to the mat, taking his back (6).
Luke Rockhold's game is a deeply technical one that fans rarely see largely because he carefully picks his spots to maximize chances of inflicting fight ending offense. It is a grappling game that fits seamlessly into the rest of his skills and is one of the very best MMA adapted grappling skill sets.
To close, here is grappling great Marcelo Garcia talking over the details of the exact kind of rolling back take versus the turtle that Rockhold prefers. One of the keys is the grip that Marcelo prefers, which he calls "seatbelt" control. When taking the back, most people think of hooking the legs, but controlling the upper body is just as (if not more) important. With seatbelt control, the back player can maintain a tight chest to back squeeze that can result in very effective back control until lower body control can be added or a choke applied.
For an in-fight example of Rockhold attempting this rolling back take click this link to see the takedown featured above against Lyoto Machida and then Rockhold attempting a rolling back take in the resulting scramble. While he never fully gets the back he is able to attain the mount for the fight ending sequence.