The UFC returns to Georgia for the first televised fight card of the year. Headlined by a matchup between two middleweight contenders in Luke Rockhold vs. Costa Philippou, this card may not have the drawing power the last few fight cards had but that does not mean it’s any less exciting.
Rockhold, the final Strikeforce middleweight champion, was within reaching distance of a UFC title shot before Vitor Belfort unloaded a violent spinning heal kick in the first round of their main event matchup at UFC on FX 8. Entering that bout, the American Kickboxing Academy product was riding a nine-fight winning streak with wins over notable fighters like ‘Jacare’ Souza, Keith Jardine and Tim Kennedy.
His opponent, Philippou, is essentially in the same boat as he saw his five-fight winning streak snapped by Francis Carmont at UFC 165.
It’s a fight to stay relevant in the suddenly wide-open 185-pound division, as the winner of this matchup will throw his name right back into the mix for a future title shot. But for the loser, it all but means the end of the championship aspiration for the foreseeable future.
Philippou, a former boxer who competed in Golden Gloves tournament prior to making the switch to MMA, has utilized his superb head movement and quick hands to batter his opponents’ skulls from the outside. In fact, 88.1 percent of his significant strikes are aimed at his opponent’s head, the largest in the UFC middleweight history. Combine that with a 71.5 percent accuracy rating when he strikes from a distance, fifth largest amongst active middleweights, and the New York native has proven simply backing up to avoid his powerful fists is no guarantee his opponent won’t get hit.
But with the help of world-renowned trainer Javier Mendez and the rest of the AKA coaching staff, Rockhold has grown leaps and bounds in the standup department. While Rockhold does not have the same credentials as Philippou, he holds a four-inch reach advantage and some serious power in his hands and knees. His seven knockdowns are the second-most in Strikeforce history, so if he can avoid the fists of Philippou he should have no problems coasting to a victory. But in the end, Philippou’s high-level boxing should be more than enough to give Rockhold problems.
An incredibly lopsided matchup as Philippou’s one glaring weakness came to light in his last matchup against Carmont. Failing to stuff his opponent’s takedown, Philippou spent 12 minutes on his back and did not show any signs of having the ability to get back to his feet. Rockhold, on the other hand, has faced highly skilled grapplers like Kennedy and Jacare and not only survived, but did so in dominant fashion. Against Kennedy, he was perfect in his defense as he stuffed all 12 takedowns when the two met in Strikeforce. He most certainly won’t have to worry about Philippou attempting a takedown, as he hasn’t secured a takedown in almost two years. While Philippou has successfully defended 73 percent of the takedowns thrown at him, Rockhold’s skills combined with his size give him a significant edge in the wrestling department.
Years of training under former UFC welterweight champion and jiu-jitsu standout Matt Serra have made Philippou formidable on the canvas as he has never been submitted in his MMA career. However, this impressive streak could easily come to an end against Rockhold, who began his career with six straight first round submission victories. In fact, his 30 second submission victory over Corey Devela back in 2009 is the fifth fastest in Strikeforce history.
Having defeated fighters like Jacare, who many consider one of the greatest jiu-jitsu fighters in MMA history, Rockhold should have zero problems defending what little problems Philippou may present.
If Philippou has any chance of having his hand raised in the end, he will need to keep this fight standing in order to smother Rockhold with a dirty boxing style of attack. If he can keep Rockhold from securing the takedown or pressing him against the cage his chances of winning will grow tremendously. However, I firmly believe Rockhold is one of the most underrated fighters in the division, as many simply point to his last knockout loss and disregard his past dominance. Expect Rockhold to press the action early as he looks to secure a takedown and use his advantage on the canvas to pull off the stoppage victory.
Rockhold via Round 2 submission
Here are the rest of my predictions for the main card and preliminary bouts:
• Lorenz Larkin def. Brad Tavares
• T.J. Dillashaw def. Mike Easton
• Yoel Romero def. Derek Brunson
• John Moraga def. Dustin Ortiz
• Cole Miller def. Sam Sicilia
• Ramsey Nijem def. Justin Edwards
• Isaac Vallie-Flagg def. Elias Silverio
• Trevor Smith def. Brian Houston
• Alptekin Ozkilic def. Louis Smolka
• Garret Whiteley def. Vinc Pinchel
• Charlie Brenneman def, Beneil Dariush