Model fighter? Rockhold on the art of balancing MMA and modeling

Luke Rockhold's road to UFC 239 (1:14)

Luke Rockhold returns to the Octagon for the first time in over a year, rewind back at what made him one of the best in the UFC. Buy UFC 239 here on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv. (1:14)

Luke Rockhold fights for a living. Since 2007, he's spent his time in cages trying to avoid having punches and kicks connect with his legs, sides and head. He's been pretty good at it, too, winning middleweight titles in Strikeforce and UFC.

He's still in a business where, win or lose, getting beat up is an inevitability. Considering his other job, any hits to the face would seem to be a rather large occupational hazard.

Rockhold is known as a fighter, although in airports and duty-free shops around the world he's starting to be recognized for career No. 2: Male model -- a profession where protecting his face would seem to be important.

"He knows how to defend himself," Jason Kanner, Rockhold's modeling agent said. "That's what you sign up for."

Kanner first saw Rockhold in a pay-per-view fight on Dec. 12, 2015 -- the night Rockhold beat Chris Weidman to win the UFC middleweight title. As Kanner watched, the founder of Soul Artist Management saw something that intrigued him. He already worked with Alan Jouban and said to himself, "Oh my God, this guy looks like a supermodel younger version of George Clooney."

What Kanner didn't know is that other modeling agents had already reached out to Rockhold. The fighter passed at the time, wanting to keep his focus on becoming a UFC champion.

Then Rockhold won the belt, and Kanner landed a brunch meeting with Rockhold and his MMA agent, Dave Martin, on Jan. 31, 2016 at the Ritz Carlton in Manhattan's Battery Park. The next day, they discussed his modeling future, and soon after began working together.

Kanner believed there would be a market for Rockhold in the future, and he had the experience of working with mixed martial arts fighters in the past. He's since added more UFC fighters to his client list, including Paige VanZant.

Kanner had big aspirations for Rockhold; between Ralph Lauren, Nautica and potentially Tommy Hilfiger, he figured he could find Rockhold some work.

But nothing happened at first, partially because Rockhold kept it that way. He was focused on defending the title he had worked years to win. After he lost to Michael Bisping in his first defense, some "stiff negotiations" with the UFC about his contract followed.

As he looked towards his future, Rockhold felt the impetus to pursue modeling with a little more fervor.

"They sold the dream and were a very established and well-recognized agency," Rockhold said. "They made some big claims, so of course I listened to them and did my homework, and I never think second-best. We got into it and next thing you know, we got a Polo contract."

Now he's the face of Ralph Lauren's Polo Blue men's fragrance campaign -- a high-level, multiyear deal which has been his most lucrative modeling gig to date.

Considering his other gig, does Luke Rockhold worry about being punched in the face?

"I've fought professionally for 12 years against the best guys in the world," Rockhold said. "I've made it this far. I'm not too worried about it."

Kanner doesn't worry about it either. He worries more about whether his clients win or lose in the cage and what that does to them rather than any damage inflicted, which will eventually heal.

Any conversation with Rockhold about risks to his appearance is a nonstarter. Fighting has been his way of life for more than a decade. It brought him from living in the garage of famed MMA coach Bob Cook to being able to choose the fights he takes and when he's going to get in the Octagon.

The combination of MMA and modeling has left him financially comfortable enough that Rockhold doesn't stress between fights. His only stress is how to come up with the best game plan when that cage door locks behind him.

So, no, he doesn't really worry about his face.

"I've made a career out of making people ugly, you know," Rockhold said. "So I'm just going to stay the course."

That course leads to UFC 239 and his debut at light heavyweight against Jan Blachowicz. After years at middleweight, it's an easier weight for him, and a more natural one. Saturday will be his first fight in more than a year, his first since becoming the face of the fragrance and four years removed from when modeling first became something Rockhold even truly considered.

"It's all about the people you meet and how you introduce yourself -- how you come across -- and obviously my character and what I've done in the past helped carry that brand and pushing through."

Becoming a model didn't change him much, though. He was already used to being on posters, billboards and marquees - the UFC prepared him well for that. Friends and fans send him videos when they see his ads. Seeing himself all over O'Hare Airport stunned him. It told him the campaign - and the career he was launching alongside his fighting pursuits - might be growing. A few weeks after his fight against Blachowicz, he'll be on a plane to an exotic location he isn't allowed to name for a shoot.

He sees the combination of fighting and modeling working together. Rockhold balances the schedules in a way that allows him to derive significant benefits from both jobs. Fighting comes first, as it always has, but he doesn't consider modeling a true No. 2.

It's more of another job in addition to what he's always done.

"It all works together. I do love fighting and it complements but it doesn't give you what fighting gives ya. I live to compete. I live to fight. I need that," Rockhold said. "Without that, what's the point? It doesn't give me enough fulfillment like fighting does. I have to have something that's worth achieving and as cool as that is, it does not compare. It's nice. It complements nicely.

"It's like, you're acting. It's the same thing as acting. You're out there and you're acting. It just doesn't fulfill you the same. You're not acting to be anybody when you're fighting. You're yourself, and you're fighting to be the best in the world -- and that's what I live for."