Fifteen months after he ceded the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight throne to Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold started to pick up the pieces.
The American Kickboxing Academy standout and Henri Hooft protégé overcame a slow start to strike former two-division World Series of Fighting champion David Branch into submission in the second round of their UFC Fight Night 116 main event on Saturday at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Branch, who entered the cage on an 11-fight winning streak, tapped out 4:05 into Round 2.
Rockhold spent the first round getting his bearings. Branch employed heavy pressure, did all he could to capitalize -- FightMetric showed him outlanding the favorite by a 36-19 margin in the first round -- and seemed to have the Californian reeling with a flurry of power punches inside the first five minutes. Rockhold answered his aggression with some of his own in the second ground, where he grounded, mounted and eventually finished the Renzo Gracie-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
In the aftermath of UFC Fight Night “Rockhold vs. Branch,” here are five matches that ought to be made:
Luke Rockhold vs. Chris Weidman: The fact that the middleweight championship figures to remain tied up in the Bisping-Georges St. Pierre-Robert Whittaker triangle well into 2018 leaves two former titleholders on the outside looking in at 185 pounds. Of course, Rockhold and Weidman are intimately familiar with one another following their December 2015 encounter at UFC 194. There, Rockhold stopped the “All-American” with fourth-round punches to claim the undisputed middleweight crown. With both men coming off wins and nearing the end of their respective primes, perhaps now is as good a time as any to book the rematch.
Mike Perry vs. Tim Means: Perry may not be the most likeable individual on the UFC roster, but no one can deny what he brings to the table. Brimming with bravado and the ferocious power to back it up, the 26-year-old followed a “Knockout of the Year” contender against Jake Ellenberger on April 22 with a 79-second stoppage of promotional newcomer Alex Reyes in the UFC Fight Night 116 co-headliner. Perry now owns a 4-1 record inside the Octagon and does not lack ambition, as he has called for a bout with former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. Means seems like a much more reasonable challenge at this juncture. The former King of the Cage champion last competed at UFC Fight Night 112 in June, when he took a unanimous decision from Alex Garcia.
Kamaru Usman vs. Demian Maia-Colby Covington winner: Rising quickly on the welterweight totem pole, Usman improved to 6-0 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship with his one-punch knockout of longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Sergio Moraes. The loss was the first for Moraes in more than five years. Since arriving in the UFC via Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Usman has rattled off victories over Hayder Hassan, Leon Edwards, Alexander Yakovlev, Warlley Alves, Sean Strickland and Moraes. Maia and Covington will lock horns at UFC Fight Night 119 on Oct. 28 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Gregor Gillespie vs. Rustam Khabilov: Gillespie fought like a savage, as he remained unbeaten with a second-round arm-triangle choke submission on Jason Gonzalez. The four-time NCAA All-American wrestler obliged Gonzalez with a firefight on the feet -- he wound up on the right side of most of the exchanges -- and swarmed him with takedowns before executing the finish. Gillespie, 30, has all the makings of a future contender at 155 pounds. Khabilov has pieced together a five-fight winning streak since he suffered back-to-back defeats to Benson Henderson and Adriano Martins in June 2014 and February 2015. The 30-year-old sambo practitioner last appeared at UFC Fight Night 115 on Sept. 2, when he was awarded a unanimous decision over Desmond Green.
Anthony Smith vs. Uriah Hall: The resurgent Smith picked up arguably the most significant win of his long career, dismissing former Bellator MMA champion Hector Lombard with punches in the third round of their middleweight showcase. Lombard appeared to be in control for much of the first 10 minutes but could not put away the determined Factory X representative. Smith rallied late in the second round and into the third before cutting down the Cuban judoka with a right hand and follow-up punches. Hall staged a comeback of his own on the undercard, as the two-time Ring of Combat champion survived a near-finish in the first round and knocked out Krzysztof Jotko in the middle stanza.