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Sunday, May 19, 2013
Following loss, Rockhold left with questions

By Josh Gross

Luke Rockhold walked into a cage Saturday night in Jaragua Do Sul, Brazil, believing he suffered from an unfair disadvantage against Vitor Belfort.

Whether or not it's true that Belfort's testosterone levels had been altered to his benefit, Rockhold made it so in his mind. Standing across the Octagon from "Mohawk Vitor" (i.e. the amped-up, angry, throat-slashing version of "The Phenom" Chael Sonnen has described lately), Rockhold had already accepted the reality and responsibility of the task in front of him.

"It's pretty obvious to see," Rockhold, speaking to ESPN.com in early April, said of the 36-year-old Brazilian. "People don't transform like that naturally. I don't care how much weight you're lifting. Your veins and muscles don't just completely morph and change without some outside help. TRT ... is it really just TRT?"

Think he asked himself this question in the moments prior to the cage door being closed? How about during the staredown? As he took his first steps forward? What about when he pulled himself off the canvas after a spinning heel kick slammed into his jaw? Might it pop up while he's trying to sleep tonight? Tomorrow? A month from now?

Rockhold put himself in this situation for several reasons. The easy answer is he's a fighter. They just think different. But more the the point: check the opportunity. Rockhold tied guts, determination and righteousness to ambition.

It didn't matter that his view of the world indicted Belfort as MMA's Lance Armstrong.

Rockhold thought he was good enough to win so long as he weathered Belfort's early storm. He planned to pull away down the stretch, he said. The idea was to control the former UFC champion’s automatic bursts. That obviously didn't happen, leaving Rockhold gracious in defeat. How else could he have acted? It’s worth wondering, though, based on his misgivings about Belfort’s use-exempt testosterone treatments, if that attitude will last.

During a pre-fight media tour, Rockhold thought Belfort looked "thick," "like a heavyweight." He sought random drug testing but couldn’t make it happen. So he accepted the situation for what it was.

Suspicious and distrusting, Rockhold still agreed to fight Belfort in Brazil because winning, well, that would have delivered gold at the end of the rainbow. But two and a half minutes into the fight, the Strikeforce champion went down hard, and his UFC debut was done with one loud burst -- perfect for looping highlight reels from here to eternity.

The 28-year-old American ignored his distrust of various systems that are in place to keep fighters in Belfort's position honest. Rockhold accepted the score coming in. That may or may not prevent his apparent idealism from gnawing away at him. We'll see. As it is, a monstrous KO loss in your most important fight as a professional comes across as challenging enough. This is standard practice for fighters, though. It’s a rough existence, full of sky highs and crater lows.

Yet if Rockhold is going to settle on a reality in which he was brutally stopped by a guy he’s convinced possessed an unfair advantage, where does that leave him outside of having lots to digest?

It's a well-worn cliche that losses offer opportunities to improve. Setbacks expose weaknesses. Diagnosing a problem leads to plugging a hole. With hard work, gains are made. Next thing you know, bad becomes good.

Outside of experiencing another level of fast and explosive, where’s the lesson to be had for Rockhold? Something about better footwork? Or sense of distance? Recognizing spinning kicks, perhaps?

Should Rockhold stay convinced that Belfort’s TRT use isn’t above board, how will he handle the “The Phenom” touting, as he has, recent "enhancements" coming from the inside; or newfound physical strength the likes of which he’s never experienced; or an ability to push his limits and do things like spar seven seven-minute rounds against rotating partners?

Absent TRT, would Belfort be in position right now to throw KO-capable spinning wheel kicks?

This might be the kind of question that weighs on Rockhold, making him bitter more likely than better in the months ahead.

That, once again, is up to Rockhold to decide.