Saturday night sees the octagon land in the home of the Steelers and the Penguins as UFC Pittsburgh takes center stage in the Steel City.
The main event features an intriguing clash between two experienced former world champions with very different motivations for success. One is looking to capture the biggest prize in the sport, while the other is looking to get back to the top of the mountain after his pride took a major fall while he was the champion.
David Branch is a rarity in mixed martial arts, having held world titles in two weight classes simuntaneously while fighting for the now rebranded World Series of Fighting (now the Professional Fighters League) promotion.
Branch captured the 185lb and 205lb titles as the promotion’s pound-for-pound star before making the switch to the UFC. As you’d expect from a champion, he’s strong of both mind and body, is solid in all aspects of MMA and hasn’t lost a bout since 2012, 11 fights ago.
But he’s the big underdog on Saturday night because he’s stepping into the octagon against arguably the most talented middleweight fighter in the world.
Luke Rockhold had the world at his feet a little over a year ago as the UFC’s undisputed middleweight champion of the world, but his dismissive attitude to opponent Michael Bisping backfired in a major way when the Brit knocked out the Californian in three minutes to rip the title away at UFC 199.
© Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Stung by that defeat, Rockhold went away, licked his wounds and is now ready to come back to claim what he believes is his. His first obstacle is Branch, a battle-tested veteran of the sport, but someone who most analysts wouldn’t put in the same bracket as some of Rockhold’s past victims.
That’s because Rockhold has defeated some of the very best fighters in the world, including dominant performances over former light heavyweight world champion Lyoto Machida and former middleweight world champ Chris Weidman, who he stopped to capture the UFC’s 185lb world title at UFC 194.
He also holds a dominant victory over Bisping, earned during the pair’s first encounter. With Bisping dramatically claiming the spoils – and the title – in their second meeting, Rockhold wants a rubber match with the Brit and plans on delivering a dominant display on Saturday night to earn it.
How’s it going to pan out?
If Rockhold has his game face on, this should be one-way traffic. Branch is a solid, experienced campaigner who will keep any top fighter on their toes, but he’s not in the same class as Rockhold or his recent opponents.
Rockhold will have a noticeable height advantage on fight night and, while Branch has a slight reach advantage with his hands, Rockhold’s effective use of kicks should mean that he dictates the range of the fight. His left kick (thrown to the body and the head) is one of the best in MMA, and could prove the key weapon during the fight.
© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
You can’t ignore Branch’s long undefeated run, but the level of opposition hasn’t been close to the circles Rockhold’s been running in, and I think we’re going to see a tough demonstration of how MMA is very much a game of levels. Wins on paper may look good, but it’s more about the class of company you’re moving in, rather than the number of wins and losses on your docket.
The pressure is undoubtedly on Rockhold, who’s had a lot to say about Bisping and his title reign to date. He’s also the big favorite to win on Saturday night. Quite simply, he has to show up fit, focused and deliver the sort of performance that backs up his words. If he does, he’ll be right back there as the top contender for the belt. But if he falters, he’ll have to move to the back of the queue.
I think Rockhold will go in and put on a clinic on fight night. I fancy a stoppage win for the former UFC champ, most likely via strikes, with his kicks setting things up for a TKO finish on the mat.
PICK: ROCKHOLD VIA TKO/KO
[Main photo credit: © Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports]