This isn’t about Vitor Belfort.
This is a story about Luke Rockhold, who on Wednesday night returns to the cage for the first time since May of last year, when Belfort spoiled his UFC debut via the sort of stunning first-round knockout that will haunt highlight reels as long as they both shall live.
Because this is Rockhold’s story, not Belfort’s, we needn’t spend too much time rehashing the obvious. The KO of Rockhold was the one that really turned people’s heads during 2013, the one that cemented Belfort’s career resurgence and the one that spiked talk about his testosterone replacement therapy.
Nearly eight months later, we’re still not sure how much of that performance to credit to Belfort and how much to credit the doctors who rebuilt him in the image of an action figure.
Not that any of that matters to Rockhold.
Legitimate or not, the instant Belfort’s left leg collided with Rockhold’s face, it robbed him of the considerable momentum he’d built up during the previous four years. This week when he faces Constantinos Philippou at UFC Fight Night 35, it’ll be his first chance to get some of it back.
Amid the rapidly shifting landscape of the UFC middleweight division, he can't afford to take that opportunity lightly.
In Philippou, Rockhold will get an opponent who is also in search of a little retribution. The 34-year-old native of Limassol, Cyprus had won five fights in a row prior to a disappointing decision loss to Francis Carmont at UFC 166. Like Rockhold, it was his only appearance during 2013.
Before that, Philippou had been hailed as one of the weight class’ most dangerous, exciting punchers. He had recently decamped from the Serra-Longo fight team (home of current champ Chris Weidman) to “advance his career to the next level,” according to manager Lex McMahon, per MMA Fighting.
In other words, Wednesday night’s fight between Rockhold and Philippou shapes up as an exciting matchup between two guys who are both looking to reclaim what they lost during the last year.
A win over Philippou would be a good step toward putting some much-needed daylight between Rockhold and Belfort's leg. It would go a long way to proving that he is who we thought he was when fans and media deemed him one of the more interesting spoils of the UFC’s acquisition of Strikeforce.
A loss would put him further down the rabbit hole and could mean that he never recaptures his former glory.
Rockhold came to the Octagon with some notable fanfare, after crafting two successful defenses of the Strikeforce middleweight title that he took from Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza in late 2011. He had the skills and size to compete in the UFC 185-pound ranks and appeared to be coming into his own after an 11-fight career spent mostly with Zuffa’s biggest competitor.
There were delays, however. He ended his Strikeforce run in 2012 with a shoulder injury and didn’t make it to the UFC cage until late spring of the following year.
Then Belfort knocked him out, and a scheduled return bout against Tim Boetsch at UFC 166 was scrapped due to a knee injury suffered by Rockhold. Instead, Boetsch eked out a split-decision win over C.B. Dollaway.
As a result of those many machinations, Rockhold dropped off the radar for a while. He’s still the same guy he was when he was imported from Strikeforce. He's still a big, rangy middleweight who’s just 29 years old and could be a candidate to break out in 2014.
It’s just that right now we think of him as the guy on the wrong end of Belfort’s Knockout of the Year-worthy kick.
So far, Rockhold has said most of the right things about that incident. If you read between the lines, you can tell that it bugs him that he got posterized by a guy who is legally taking steroids, but he says he’ll let fans and media be the final word on that.
Indeed, the latter stages of Belfort’s career will be judged by history.
But this story isn’t about him.
This is about Rockhold, who won't have to wait for another chance to improve our judgment of him. He gets it on Wednesday night.