We all have those days. For most of us, a bad day at work might mean dealing with a rude customer, having to fill out a stack of paperwork that’s taller than the Tower of Babel, or getting reprimanded for not wearing enough pieces of flair. Luke Rockhold’s bad day at the office was getting knocked out in spectacular fashion in his UFC debut.

2013 looked like a promising year for Rockhold. He entered the UFC as the last-ever Strikeforce middleweight champion, and with an impressive win he could have been next in line to challenge then-champion Anderson Silva. All he had to do was complete the daunting task of beating Vitor Belfort in Belfort’s native Brazil. So, not only was he in his opponent’s backyard, but he was facing Vitor Belfort 2.0, but if you’re as sick of hearing about testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) as I am, fear not, because that’s another story for another time. Sure enough, after getting hit with a vicious spinning heel kick, Rockhold’s chances of getting an immediate title shot evaporated as soon as his limp body hit the canvas.

There’s no shame in getting knocked out by Belfort. He’s been doing it left and right. However, Rockhold has a lot riding on his comeback fight with Costas Philippou at UFC Fight Night 35. If he loses here, he can pretty much kiss his hopes of UFC gold goodbye, right? Will he be destined to become just another gatekeeper who could have been so much more, but couldn’t come through in the clutch? Short answer: yes and no, but the short answer is never appropriate in these matters. Let’s get in it, shall we?

The Scenario

Rockhold had a lot of momentum coming into his UFC debut with Belfort. After beating Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in 2011 to earn the Strikeforce middleweight title, Rockhold went on to defend his belt against Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy. Not only was he the most successful champion in Strikeforce history, but when the promotion finally ended in January 2013, Rockhold had won nine fights in a row and was undefeated in the promotion.

Rockhold not only presented an interesting talent addition to the UFC roster, but also an interesting personality. Unlike the current champion, Weidman, or even past champion Silva for that matter, Rockhold does not refrain from speaking his mind or exchanging words with his colleagues. He’s had Twitter beef with Lorenz Larkin and Michael Bisping, and has had some words for Anderson Silva after Silva’s title defense at UFC 148. It’d be hard to argue that the UFC doesn’t want this fighter to be successful.

If Rockhold can capitalize on his opportunity and look impressive against Philippou, he could very well be the next competitor for the title after Belfort takes on Weidman. Even with a controversial win, it still propels him forward in the Wild West that is the UFC middleweight division. He would still be matched up against the winner of either Larkin vs. Brad Tavares, Lyoto Machida vs. Gegard Mousasi, Jacare vs. Francis Carmont or Bisping vs. Kennedy.

A loss, however, is where it would get tricky. To get some perspective, let’s look at a few fighters who’ve made comebacks in their career after losses, and also those fighters who could’ve been so much more, but couldn’t reach their perceived potential. As a disclaimer, a fighter’s career is a constantly changing story. Many of the fighters on either list could change with a win or a loss, but this is how it stands now.

The Comebackers

Robbie Lawler: Why not start with The MMA Corner’s own 2013 Comeback Fighter of the Year, Robbie Lawler? Lawler’s first UFC stint didn’t really go as planned. After winning his first three fights in 2002, he lost his next three out of four. Over the next decade, Lawler would have some success in EliteXC, but he was constantly changing weight divisions and had a 3-5 record in Strikeforce. Then, out of nowhere, he returned to welterweight and knocked out Josh Koscheck in his second stint in the UFC. He has since beat Bobby Voelker and Rory MacDonald, and is fighting Johny Hendricks for the vacant title at UFC 171. If he can win the title, he might be the best comeback story yet in MMA. That is, unless the next guy beats him to it.

Urijah Faber: “The California Kid” should consider changing his nickname to “The Comeback Kid” if he wins the UFC bantamweight strap at UFC 169. This might be the latest title fight for Faber, but you could really argue how his whole career, since losing the WEC featherweight championship to Matt Brown, has been a culmination of comebacks. To be fair, you could say that any of his two previous title fights in the UFC were undeserved, but you can’t deny that his run in 2013 was nothing short of spectacular. Four wins in a row, three of which were submission finishes, is certainly enough to earn him a shot in this writer’s humble opinion.

Matt Brown: After his loss to Seth Baczynski at UFC 139, Brown was 12-11. Since 2011, though, Brown has won six in a row, with five of those wins coming by way of knockout. The record speaks for itself. Now, if Brown could just keep healthy and stop saying stupid things on his podcast

The Could’ve-But-Didn’ts

Brandon Vera: Vera started out his UFC career with four wins in a row, including a TKO victory over former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. After the Mir win, he was the 29-year-old hotshot who was supposed to be the next big thing. However, Vera has since gone 4-7 with one no-contest, and has had a failed stint at light heavyweight. Vera recently returned to heavyweight to see if he can jump start his career again.

Gabriel Gonzaga: What we have here is another heavyweight who almost tasted UFC greatness, but couldn’t capitalize. Like Vera, Gonzaga was supposed to be the next big thing in the division, but he choked when the bright lights were on. Gonzaga is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who can also put people to sleep with his hands and his kicks. Who can forget that head-kick knockout over Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic? Nevertheless, when he fought Randy Couture for the title at UFC 74, he lost by TKO in the third round. After his win against “Cro Cop,” he went 3-5 and got knocked out in four of those five losses before being cut by the UFC. Gonzaga gained some momentum in 2013, so let’s see if he can capitalize and become a title contender again.

Alistair Overeem: Let’s keep it in the heavyweight division, because, well, because why not? Overeem was certainly looking like one of those fighters who should have been on the other list. “The Reem,” after moving up to heavyweight full-time, became the first Strikeforce heavyweight champion, won the Dream heavyweight championship and also won the K-1 World Grand Prix Championship. He looked like everything he was made out to be when he pulverized Brock Lesnar at UFC 141. However, he failed a drug test before his title fight with Junior dos Santos at UFC 146. Ever since, we’ve seen a slightly smaller, less powerful Overeem. Coincidence? Uhhh, don’t think so. Since his missed opportunity, he has had back-to-back knockout losses to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Travis Browne. Who would’ve ever thought that Overeem would need to beat Frank Mir at UFC 169 to not only save his reputation, but also his job?

The Verdict

So, what do these cases tell us? Quite frankly, nothing really. I know, I know: that answer is a bit of a copout. But it really is to hard to say whether a loss to Philippou will be the end to Rockhold’s UFC title dreams, or even spell an end to his status as an elite-level fighter.

Something that is certain is that a loss would mean that Rockhold misses an opportunity to be involved in this quasi-tournament going on at middleweight. However, with Rockhold’s outspokenness, competitive drive and the backing of a great team at American Kickboxing Academy, one win, even after dropping two in a row, would put the middleweight right back in the mix.

What do you think will happen with Rockhold, and which fighters did I leave out in either list? Let me know in the comments.

About The Author

Zach Miller
Staff Writer

Zach is a Boston native and has had a fascination with martial arts since playing Mortal Kombat at five years old. He was introduced to MMA after watching The Ultimate Fighter 5: Team Pulver vs. Team Penn. A recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Zach seeks to one day become a full-time MMA journalist. In addition to watching the sport, he has also trained in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, and tae kwon do. Zach has also written for NortheastMMA.