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Luke Rockhold sets out to write his underdog story at UFC 278

Facing lopsided odds against the favorite Paulo Costa, Rockhold is ready to prove he can still compete at an elite level.

Luke Rockhold is expected to suffer defeat Saturday at UFC 278 against Paulo Costa.

Costa (13-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC) looks to rebound from back-to-back losses with a resounding victory against Rockhold, a former middleweight champion. But Rockhold (16-5 MMA, 6-4 UFC) has lost three of his last four fights, with each of those defeats ending in a knockout. That appears to be his fate, again, against Costa. But Rockhold has every intention to win his first fight since 2017.

"I know I still have it," Rockhold, 37, says. "I'm testing myself against the current guard, and that's intriguing. It's such a challenge to read and approach these new guys. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Rockhold has been clear that he wants a title shot following a win. While he would likely need at least one more victory, that scenario is more realistic than it appears at first glance. If Rockhold beats Costa and takes his spot in the rankings at No. 6, he could build momentum to face middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. While that outcome is unlikely, it suddenly becomes a possibility if Rockhold can upset Costa.

Oddsmakers have this bout listed in an extremely lopsided manner favoring Costa. While it won't change the gambling lines, there is more at stake for Rockhold than merely defeating Costa. He has reached the conclusion that there is no tougher opponent than oneself. Returning to the elite form needed to compete on this pay-per-view card represents one of many tests Rockhold plans to conquer.

"Having these three years off, and then COVID hit, I reached a low point," Rockhold says. "Getting back in the gym, I really found myself. My life started coming back together. Martial arts always gave me creativity and inspiration and drove me as a person. The whole journey back has been a big success for me as a person.

"There is still more for me to prove. I'm always looking for a test. The meaning is in the journey. Being here is a test of one's character. I feel like I've already won."

Rockhold will ace his first test just by re-entering the octagon, but there are serious concerns about the moments that will follow. All signs point to a Costa victory by KO, though it is a whole different world once the fight starts.

"I'm excited to get out there," Rockhold says. "I haven't been myself the last few fights. I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. It felt so forced. And I feel like I've gotten better in every way. This is an art piece, and I want to go sculpt. Painting, you're stuck in one genre. I've always been a fan of sculpting. When you sculpt, you can change the form at any time.

"I have a day of work in front of me, but if I can finish that in half a day, then f-cking, I'm going to do that. There's a sense of me that wants to earn it and enjoy the process, but I ain't trying to be in a war or in the Fight of the Night. I want to be precise, I want to be effective, and I want to f-cking execute."

UFC 278 predictions

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Kamaru Usman will eventually run into an opponent that catches him at the right place and time. I do not expect that to be the case on Saturday in his welterweight title defense against Leon Edwards.

Usman (20-1 MMA, 15-0 UFC) seeks his 16th straight UFC win at 278. Edwards (19-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC) is dangerous, and his striking and footwork present real problems for Usman. But the champ is too smart to get caught into a fist fight with Edwards.

Expect Usman to wrestle his way to victory. That is one area where he is significantly better than Edwards, and it should be the defining factor in this fight. This is a great centerpiece fight, headlining 278 – which is a solid card with the chance to be spectacular.

A fight of real interest is Jose Aldo against Merab Dvalishvili. This feels similar to last weekend's Marlon "Chito" Vera-Dominick Cruz bout, where a fighting icon battled a rising force in the division. Aldo (31-7 MMA, 13-6 UFC) seeks his fourth straight win against Dvalishvili (14-4 MMA, 7-2 UFC), who enters on a seven-fight win streak. So a streak will be broken, and the winner will move that much closer to a shot at the bantamweight title.

This could also be a breakout night for both Alexandr Romanov and Tyson Pedro. Romanov (16-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) is a heavyweight with the potential to make an immediate impact in the division, and a victory against Marcin Tybura (22-7 MMA, 9-6 UFC) would serve as an excellent stepping stone. Pedro (8-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC) wants to be a player in the light heavyweight division, and the next step in that climb is a convincing win against Harry Hunsucker (7-5 MMA, 0-2 UFC).

Harrison fighting for PFL Women's Lightweight Finals

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Lost amid all of the UFC 278 discussion is Kayla Harrison's PFL playoff bout Saturday. If she can defeat Martina Jindrova, then Harrison will punch her ticket into the women's lightweight finals.

Unfortunately, there is little intrigue in the fight. Harrison (14-0) is expected to win in dominating fashion. Jindrova (6-2) is not the type of opponent Harrison needs right now. A fighter of her elite caliber needs top names, like Amanda Nunes or even Cris Cyborg, to take her career to the next level.

There is no denying that Harrison is a great fighter. But just how great is she? That is impossible to determine against her current opponents.

Harrison is on pace to win her third lightweight women's championship, but the real intrigue will be what happens next in her career either in – or out – of the PFL.

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.