Every time the Ultimate Fighting Championship heads to Pittsburgh, things get weird.
The first time the Octagon came to the Steel City in June 2011, the card was ravaged by injuries. The Anthony Johnson-Nate Marquardt main event fell apart in ignominious fashion: Johnson injured his shoulder and then the lid was blown off of Marquardt’s testosterone replacement therapy regimen, taking him out of the bout in dramatic and political fashion. The replacement headliner was the hallowed and violent train wreck that was Cheick Kongo-Pat Barry. Johnson-Marquardt somehow morphed into Charlie Brenneman’s greatest MMA moment, as “The Spaniard” upset Rick Story in the co-feature. The undercard also featured some infamously bad officiating, as Charles Oliveira was allowed to smash Nik Lentz’s face with a blatantly illegal knee.
The UFC’s return to black-and-yellow territory came in February 2016 with the “Cowboy vs. Cowboy” event, as Donald Cerrone took on Alex Oliveira in a quaint clash of nicknames. Of course, Cerrone was originally supposed to face Tim Means in the headliner before Means was pulled from the bout due to a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency violation. Cerrone-Means was one of eight bouts scheduled for the UFC Fight Night 83 that were canceled or rescheduled. We were supposed to get Cody Garbrandt-John Lineker -- oh, what we missed out on -- but the Brazilian pulled out due to dengue fever. Seriously.
At least UFC Fight Night 116 on Saturday, the main event has stayed intact, as onetime middleweight champion Luke Rockhold will battle former two-division World Series of Fighting titlist David Branch in a fantastic pairing of 185-pound contenders. Of course, with the state of the middleweight division right now, it is not abundantly clear what a win means for either man, given the logjam created by the Michael Bisping-Georges St. Pierre bout and Robert Whittaker’s interim title. In almost any other circumstance, this would be a title eliminator, no questions asked.
Elsewhere, however, the strangeness persists: Hurricane Irma stranded welterweight Thiago Alves in south Florida, leading to UFC debutante Alex Reyes getting co-main event duty against Mike Perry on three days’ notice; Felipe Arantes withdrew from his bout with Luke Sanders due to illness two days before the event; and Justin Ledet-Dmitriy Sosnovskiy fizzled for the second time in seven months.
Knock on wood that we still have 10 fights to enjoy -- or mock. Let us take a closer look at UFC Fight Night “Rockhold vs. Branch,” with analysis and picks:
MiddleweightsLuke Rockhold (15-3) vs. David Branch (21-3):
Just 15 months ago, it seemed like the UFC 199 rematch between Rockhold and Chris Weidman would determine the future of the middleweight division. If Rockhold was able to defeat Weidman once more after taking the UFC title from him six months earlier, he would cement himself as the true heir apparent to Anderson Silva. When ongoing neck issues forced Weidman out of the fight, late replacement Michael Bisping seemed like a stopgap solution to preserve a pay-per-view main event, especially given how Rockhold thoroughly trounced him in their first meeting. One Bisping left hand changed everything and here we are, staring down the barrel of Bisping-Georges St. Pierre and a cable television main event between Rockhold and little-known Branch.
Following his initial UFC run in 2011, Branch found his stride in the World Series of Fighting, taking the promotion’s titles at both 185 and 205 pounds. Despite 11 straight wins, it comes as no surprise that Branch flies under the radar, not only because his competitive breakout happened in the WSOF cage but also because of his style. Branch’s style is devoid of bells, whistles and pizazz. He is a strong fundamental boxer, working behind a crafty jab and lead left hook, using his punches to segue into the clinch. In the phone booth, Branch is an effective dirty boxer and uses that skill set to set up takedowns. On top, he will not blow away anyone with punishing ground-and-pound, but he controls his foes well, staying heavy and always looking to chip away with punches to open up guard passes to dominant positions, where he can then dish out the real damage. Superior positioning leads to the pounding which in turn activates the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt’s grappling game. Though he is a capable grappler in all positions, Branch’s submission finishes tend to be of the mercy-kill variety, typically punching away to open up a choke on a spent fighter.
In stark contrast, Rockhold is an exemplar of modern MMA dynamism. Though he will give up four inches of reach to Branch, Rockhold is a massive middleweight and an outstanding athlete. He stalks from the southpaw position, liberally kicking opponents to the legs, body and head. His judo background, combined with his size and dexterity, allows him to launch opponents from the clinch, buttressing an already potent wrestling game. He is an indefatigable scrambler, constantly looking to move into dominant positions while simultaneously being able to seize the slightest of submission opportunities. He is especially aggressive, at times frenetic, but even if he is less “buttoned up” than say, Demetrious Johnson, make no mistake: Rockhold can do it all inside the cage, with flair and flash, to boot.
It will be an uphill battle for Branch to implement his methodical pace and attack. We have not seen Rockhold in action for 15 months and we have yet to see how the American Kickboxing Academy product will look now that he is working under Henri Hooft at the Combat Club in Florida. However, Rockhold’s modus operandi is well-established and he will almost certainly be in Branch’s face quickly with kicking offense. Branch will need to stick and move better than ever to avoid Rockhold’s constant salvos and land counterpunches. Typically, forcing a clinch battle would be a smart way to stymie the sort of striking Rockhold brings to the table, but the former champ’s skills in close are superior to Branch’s. Branch may be able to avoid Rockhold latching onto his arm, leg or neck, but he is not going to take down Rockhold cleanly or consistently from there, and pushing that agenda only heightens the chance for Rockhold to initiate the sort of scrambles in which he thrives.
In spite of the style matchup, Branch can still win. After all, Bisping has never been a one-hitter quitter, let alone a serious left-handed puncher, and he was able to find Rockhold’s chin when the former champ became arrogant and began rushing “The Count” with his hands down. However, Bisping is a more varied and technical striker than Branch, whose high boxing stance will expose his body to Rockhold’s incessant kicking. Counterstriking is not Branch’s forte, and now he is faced with the onerous task of playing matador against a hyperactive bull. Branch is experienced in five-round fights and typically 25-minute affairs are an asset to his attritional style, but in this case, it simply affords Rockhold more time to land big on the feet or find a finish in a scramble. Rockhold will work behind his kicks and pounce as soon as he hurts Branch, getting a stoppage and a crucial victory inside the first 15 minutes.
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