WHO: Luke Rockhold vs Costa Philippou
WHAT: UFC Fight Night 35
WHERE: Duluth, Georgia
WHEN: Wednesday, January 15, 2014
- Former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion
- 10-2 record
- Wins: 2 TKO’s, 6 submissions, 2 decisions
- Losses: 2 TKO’s
- Notable Wins: Ronaldo Souza (UD), Tim Kennedy (UD)
- Notable Losses: Vitor Belfort (TKO via spinning hook kick)
- Fight Team: American Kickboxing Academy (AKA)
- Height (6’3″) and length (77″ reach)
- Kick-heavy striking arsenal
- Underrated Jiu-Jitsu
- Athleticism, agility and cage motion
- Deceiving but under-utilized wrestling skill
- Professional boxer with 3-0 record (opponents combine for a shoddy 5-13-2 record)
- 12-3 record
- Wins: 6 TKO’s, 1 submission, 5 decisions
- Losses: 3 decisions
- Notable Wins: Tim Boetsch (TKO), Riki Fukuda (UD), Jared Hamman (KO)
- Notable Losses: Nick Catone (UD), Francis Carmont (UD)
- Fight Team: Bellmore Kickboxing Academy (formerly Serra/Longo)
- Excellent boxer
- Good chin
- Improved takedown defense (TDD)
- Increased balance and composure to improve TDD
- Deadly speed, accuracy and punching technique at toe-to-toe range
Considering their styles and strengths, range and distance combine as the cardinal influence in this match up. Philippou is almost a boxing purist but, perhaps stemming from his second loss to a wrestling-centric opponent in Catone at UFC 128 (the first was a split decision to former UFC’er Ricardo Romero in Philippou’s first MMA outing), the Cypriot made a subtle change to his boxing style.
The tweak involved staying lighter on his feet, using a bit more lateral movement, and increasing the volume and quickness of his striking output while decreasing the quantity and intensity of his power punches. In plain terms: the mechanics and body position for throwing powerful punches contrast sharply with those for defending takedowns. Power punching requires committing to emphatic hip torque with both feet rooted firmly to the floor while the opposite — a more upright and reactionary stance — applies to defending takedowns. Philippou’s punching power has been both questioned and doubted but I think it was a necessary trade-off to compensate for his nearly one-dimensional style.
The biggest concern with Philippou’s boxing base is limited striking range. Without any kicks in his arsenal (nor many lengthy and straight punches), his perimeter of effectiveness is much smaller than the norm and also requires him to knife inside in order to assume toe-to-toe range.
Boxing does, however, mesh with takedown defense better than any other striking art because throwing on-balance punches (as opposed to any type of kicks) makes for a quicker transition to the common tactics for defending takedowns (lower center of gravity, more upright stance, ideal hand-position for controlling your opponents’ head, sprawling and/or sneaking in an underhook/whizzer, etc.).
Hopefully that somewhat explains the positives and negatives of Philippou’s typical striking tendencies. Now, since Rockhold’s bread and butter isn’t takedowns and top control, Costa would be well advised to adjust for a lower priority on defending takedowns with more emphasis on expanding his effective striking range. Since his usual M.O. is designed for imposing wrestlers who are inclined to barge into his wheelhouse and lower their level to attack his hips, Philippou should be comfortable planting his feet more often to load up more power and get some extra extension on his punches.
Secondary to Rockhold’s non-wrestling characteristics, the former Strikeforce champion’s cardinal attributes are the myriad kicks he throws and the wide range of distance he covers in the cage. If Philippou makes no adjustments, he’ll be relegated to chasing Rockhold around the cage and then angling his way inside with sound footwork and head movement just to put himself in a position where his punches can be effective. Knowing that Costa isn’t a threat from distance and needs to force a fight at phone-booth range only heightens the importance of Rockhold’s substantial advantages in height (6’3″ vs 5’11”), reach (77″ vs. 73″) and range.
Height and reach are merely physical measurements but Rockhold’s command of range is largely attributed to his athletic cage motion, agile footwork and his unpredictable stockpile of kickboxing techniques. Rockhold unleashes low and high roundhouse kicks with regularity and even sprinkles in flashier techniques like the Tornado kick. If and when his opponent breaches the perimeter of his kicking range, Rockhold supplements his kicking prowess with long, tight and crisp boxing combinations.
Based on what I’ve seen, and even though it’s the least applied tool on their belts, neither should have a significant edge in wrestling. Their overall striking effectiveness is comparable but the limited distance of Costa’s boxing puts him at a disadvantage on the feet.
In the last vital category, Rockhold, a gold medalist at the Mundials as a blue belt, has a monumental edge in submission grappling. That leaves the overall tally of pluses and minuses in heavy favor of Rockhold, who doesn’t have the close-range power punching or impermeable chin (thus far) of Costa.
And the best way to address those match-up variables is to do what Luke Rockhold does in every outing: stay on his bike with elusive circling and angles, impose his exceptional height and reach advantage, draw from his extensive arsenal of long-range kicks and fall back on his crisp boxing at close range when he has to.
Even if Philippou makes a drastic alteration to his style — like throwing longer and straighter punches or more distance-probing jabs; maybe even pursuing offensive takedowns — Rockhold’s core competency of movement, kickboxing underrated submission grappling should see him through. If he stays out of Philippou’s wheelhouse, even though his size could wreak havoc in the clinch with knees and elbows, this is a highly favorable match up for him.
My Prediction: Luke Rockhold by decision
Bonus, three-way analysis of the entire UFC Fight Night 35 lineup follows.
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