Luke Rockhold is finally returning, but he has a dangerous former two-division champ in David Branch to deal with in the Steel City.
The middleweight division has been in flux for so long that things have gone from surprising to jaded over the course of several months. With still over a month before champion Michael Bisping and Georges St-Pierre collide, UFC Pittsburgh will be adding to the already substantial log jam.
Former UFC champion Luke Rockhold is returning after more than a year-long hiatus to face former two-division WSOF champion David Branch with potential implications for the middleweight division.
Most obviously, the injection of Rockhold back into the division could bring more confusion to an already crowded title picture. The Santa Cruz native was on a five fight win-streak before running into Michael Bisping in what was the upset of the year. Rockhold has been out of action since then, mostly due to a prior injury to his knee. Rockhold has received extensive treatment to rehabilitate it rather than rush a return, stating his desire to have the full use of his explosive kicks available when he fights again.
Branch made his UFC debut earlier in May, where he had a close fight with Krzysztof Jotko. His debut comes after an incredible run in the now defunct World Series of Fighting. Branch was both the middleweight and light-heavyweight champion and alternated defending both titles prior to signing with the UFC. He has wins over veterans like Yushin Okami and recent TUF winner Jesse Taylor. He hasn’t lost since 2012 where he lost a decision to Anthony Johnson. His versatile skill set and explosive power have brought him plenty of success, but Rockhold is easily the most dangerous opponent he has faced in several years.
A victory for Branch would elevate him to the top of the weight class, where he would then likely face a top five opponent that could put him in title contention. Fighters like “Jacare” Souza, Chris Weidman, or Yoel Romero would all be viable opponents should Branch get the win over Rockhold. The feat would be huge considering he has flown far under the radar before reaching the UFC.
The heavily favored Rockhold has plenty to gain from a win in the Steel City. While he would usually be on the short list for a shot at the belt, he would remain locked behind interim champion Robert Whittaker. Plenty will be determined after November, where the winner of Bisping and GSP will have a time table for the future of the division. Until then, Rockhold would be in a holding pattern behind “The Reaper.” Assuming the title is defended in quick fashion, then Rockhold will likely face a top contender like the loser of Bisping/GSP or Yoel Romero in a title eliminator in 2018.
If that sounds like a lot to unpack, you are not alone in thinking so. The line for a crack at the gold around Michael Bisping’s waist has seemingly grown each month, to the point that top contender Gegard Mousasi left in free agency after amassing a five-fight win streak. Among other issues, “The Dreamcatcher” was aware that he was more than a year away from a title shot even if his great success continued. Such is the world of the middleweight division in 2017. One thing is clear, the winner of Saturday adds to the bottleneck at the top of 185.
Stylistically, the X factor will come down to the condition of Rockhold after his layoff. It can be assumed that he would not return unless he felt his knee could withstand throwing heavy kicks. However, we won’t know until the night of the fight what kind of condition his body his in. The second will be his cardio, Rockhold has shown a great gas tank in his career, going five rounds with Jacare and four with Chris Weidman. That said, a year away is a tall task for any fighter to come back from and it will depend on how well the team at American Kickboxing Academy has prepared their former champion.
For Branch, the key will be to crowd the former champion and force him to fight with his back to the Octagon. Rockhold does his best when he’s able to utilize his long frame in the center of the canvas and unleash with powerful combinations. For Branch to have his best chance, he should look to initiate the clinch and force Rockhold to carry his weight against the fence. Doing so will cause Rockhold’s arms to tire quickly in the early going and wear down his powerful explosiveness.
Branch is going to do his most damage fighting in close quarters, where Rockhold’s range and size are negated. The key will be to create opportunities to keep the former champion in close to make the fight ugly.
For Rockhold, the game plan should be the opposite. Rockhold is a versatile fighter on both the feet and the ground, but does his best work when he’s able to open up with combinations in the center of the Octagon. The former champ should look to keep Branch at mid-range and create openings to do significant damage. To his advantage, he’s also an accomplished grappler and can put Branch on his back if he finds himself struggling on the feet. As evidenced in his fight with Weidman, Rockhold skills on the ground are formidable even against accomplished grapplers.
The middleweight division is drastically different since last June, but the outspoken former champion still carries the star power to make waves with a win on Saturday. But, he is in a risky fight against a dangerous free agent who has been working toward this high profile opportunity for years. The winner moves forward at 185, a feat that has never been more important in the division.