Former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold was on the lookout for his acting debut when the script for Cagefighter fell on his doorstep. The role of Tony Gunn, a fight coach who helps a mixed marital artist while preparing for an epic battle, may has well have been written for him.
“The fight world is far from foreign to me, so I had a lot of experience to pull from,” Rockhold tells Men’s Journal. Not only has the fighter put in his fair share of showdowns, but he’s worked on the instructing side of the game to boot. The project also came with the opportunity to work with his old friend and MMA legend Chuck Liddell. “I just couldn’t say no.”
Rockhold is far from done with his own fighting career though, planning a return to the UFC ring in early 2021. We talked to the Strikeforce veteran on filming training montages, recovery methods, and his preparation for the Octagon.
Men’s Journal: Did the character of Tony Gunn remind you of anyone you’ve met over your career?
Luke Rockhold: I’ve come across a few boxing coaches in the world of MMA who think they know it all. They have this sort of vibe about them. They think boxing is paramount over every other fight style, and they want to shove the rest to the side. I don’t want to name any names, but I’ve definitely had a few run-ins with those types, so I was able to pull from that. There’s no question the character is a bit of a dick, so we had fun playing around with that, too.
How was working with Chuck Liddell?
Chuck has had my back from day one. I had the same manager as him, so we were in the mix together. I’ve been training together since an early age. It was a blast getting to have a little back and forth with him on the set. Getting that intensity on the screen is easy when you’re working with Chuck. Plenty of jabs going back and forth, not just the punches either.
Did you guys get any training in while you were filming?
I wasn’t able to do any sessions with Chuck because he’d just gotten surgery. I did end up sparing with the director, Jesse [Quinones], and one of the other actors, Alex [Montagenani]. They were pretty tough guys, knew how to hang when it came to jiu-jitsu. I actually ended up tearing Jesse’s hamstring during a roll! Apparently I wanted to leave a real mark on the film crew…obviously a mistake, just happened during a transition. It was a rough day at work for him the next day on set. He was limping around, but pushed through it.
Given your history with the sport, was the director open to hearing from you and Chuck on what fight life is really like?
Jesse was very receptive to hearing about my career and input, as well as Chuck’s. I think his goal was to make this feel as real as possible, and he knew the best way to get there was by listening to people who’ve done it before. He listened to a few things we had to say and was down to put them in.
There are a few great training montages in there. How was that process like?
There were definitely a couple good, hard training scenes, and I wanted to make those as intense as possible. Since I play a character on the coaching side of things, I was definitely looking to be an extra kind of asshole. Jesse helped out a lot to get us all psyched up in the moment. I have to say there are few things more fun than just coming out of your shoes and being a complete jerk.
How do you like being on the receiving end of the focus mitts?
I don’t think my elbows enjoy taking too much of that. I don’t mind it from time to time, of course, because I enjoy coaching, but I like directing fighters rather than holding the pads. I want to see the full picture, versus just taking punches on the hands.
Since we’re talking about fighting movies, what’s your favorite?
Bloodsport has always been my inspiration. That was the movie that really brought me into mixed martial arts. Getting to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme kick ass made me want to fight like him.
I know you recently had surgery in order to get back in fighting shape. How did it go?
The surgery went well. I had to reconstruct my pinky toe, which I had neglected to a degree. It was an important procedure, but a tough pill to swallow, having to lay myself up just for a pinky toe. I messed it up bad in training one day, and it just got worse from there. I’m back on track now, everything is on the up, and I’ll back at full health soon.
What methods of recovery are you relying on these days?
There’s been a lot of physical therapy, and a lot of sleep. I have to say as you get older you just find out how much you need those good sleeps. More recently, I’ve truly been getting into ice baths. I’ve found them key in increasing my recovery time. The abuse that happens on the body during a mixed martial arts fight is huge. There’s such benefit to that hot and cold contrast, and I believe it’s done so much in helping to regenerate my body. Not only that but it keeps the inflammation that comes with injuries down, and keeps the circulation up. You can feel it especially in the lower parts of your body, those farthest from the heart. During my fight camps I used to get them in once a week. But now I’ll do up to three days a week—for about three to five minutes.
Do you have an estimated date for your return to the Octagon?
I was originally thinking I was going to be in the cage again by the end of this year, but now it feels like it’ll be early next year. I just don’t have the desire to fight compromised. I’ve done that before, and it just doesn’t do anyone justice. I want to fight at the best of my ability. That’s what gets me excited about competing, is being able to do it without any pains or sprains holding me back. If I’m healthy, I can compete with anyone.
Do you know what weight you’ll compete at?
I feel like 185 pounds is the better choice for me. The process of cutting weight has been taking its toll more and more. I could also see myself going to 205 pounds. I’ve been there before, and I’ve seen what Jan Błachowicz can do in the ring and I know that he’s beatable.
Cagefighter is now streaming on demand