Luke Rockhold vs. David Branch headlines UFC Pittsburgh this September 16, 2017 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
One sentence summary
Phil: With his reputation on the line, Rockhold tries to turn over a new leaf, and goes out on a limb.
David: Rockhold warms up for another shot at a title that could be George St. Pierre's.
Odds: Luke Rockhold -525 | David Branch +450
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Rockhold was that rare talent who always belonged in the UFC, but wasn’t. Once he finally made his way into the octagon, he took the bull by the horns after getting roundhousedoff the planet by Vitor Belfort. Somewhere along the way he won the middleweight title, only to lose it to Michael Bisping. I’m not really sure what any of this means, except that Rockhold is probably a little shopworn after all those injuries and boat vacations, but is still talented enough to fight for the title if the current middleweight title fight is any indication. Luke is still a premiere talent with Jon Hamm looks, but the window to challenge is now. Before Max Holloway becomes next in line.
Phil: Rockhold's Strikeforce title win over Jacare Souza is still one of the most boggling athletic feats I've seen in MMA, ever. Without much high-level experience, he took on a powerful and exceptionally skilled wrestler and grappler, and simply marched him down and kicked him to the body while shucking him off in the clinch. I've never really seen anything like it. That he eventually won the UFC belt was no real surprise: not only is he incredibly talented, but he was a specifically bad matchup for Weidman. It's a shame that his previous injury woes appear to have returned since then, though. I'm concerned that he's another fighter who left his athletic prime on the mats at AKA.
David: Step away from that dreadful fight with Jotko, and Branch is that rare story of an aging fighter who requires cracker jack gameplanning and timing to beat. He became famous for getting finished by a WWE move from Gerald Harris, but outside of that, he’s only lost to some of the best finishers the sport has ever seen in Anthony Johnson and Rousimar Palhares. And now he’s on an 11 fight winning streak. Quality of competition has played into this, of course, but Branch has designed his own success.
Phil: Middleweight is the place where consistency meets athleticism, and rarely do you find two of those things in the same fighter, so it's pretty valuable to be able to mix the two. When Branch left for WSOF I think he obtained something else useful: the confidence that comes from being the top dog. For all that people talk about how iron sharpens iron, and the idea that it's always best to be fighting the best... sometimes it's not true. Sometimes people need to escape the relentless grind and fight opponents who are a bit worse than them in order to build their self-confidence. Branch has become a pretty good fighter.
What’s at stake?
David: Branch won’t hear whispers of a potential title shot if he wins. Instead it would be viewed through the lens of “the fall of Rockhold” or something, and therefore not seen as specific Branch accomplishment. Which is fitting, since GSP is fighting Bisping for the middleweight title. Meaning Dana is gonna go digging into a Halloween candy bag before anyone with a more established middleweight claim to the title gets a shot. Sorry readers. This is not an exciting division. Even its example of a freakshow feels like it’s controlled by one of those chatbots that lets you sue a credit bureau.
Phil: Yeah, this feels like it's a keep-busy / "remember this guy" fight for Rockhold. Should Branch manage to get the upset, I don't know if he can do it with the kind of performance that puts him in Dana's good books.
Where do they want it?
David: Rockhold is the epitome of flow. Like a student of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, his game is centered around fluidity - keeping the spirit of mixed martial arts transition fighting into a vacuum of transition instigating. Or at least that’s how I would have described him in his Strikeforce days. Now he’s a little more plodding. That doesn’t mean he’s lost the grace that defines his elite grappling ability, but he’s grown into more a stalker, setting up distance in more economic ways, exploding with movements only when looking to pressure on the ground, or on the counter reset. He was good raw power on his overhand left, but he’s not a volume striker.
Phil: Rockhold has accurately been described as the anti-AKA fighter. He's the inverse of most of the fighters at American Kickboxing Academy, with a game that seems largely designed to counter a very specific type of opponent: namely orthodox wrestle boxers. He can lace them with long kicks from a distance, and he has a few defensive options which seem primarily designed to beat the old overhand / double leg mixup. For example, that backstep right hook, where he counters the punch and feeds his trailing leg to a grappling attack, then spins or sprawls. It's an approach which has had some of its flaws exposed, most notably by Bisping, but Rockhold is simply so offensively devastating that very few opponents will last long enough to exploit it. A few effective body kicks can wind or finish most middleweights, he hits pretty hard, and he is, with the possible exception of Jacare, the most horrifying top position player in the division. It's notable that his only losses are basically quick finishes, because I suspect it may be difficult for most people to survive a longer attritional war with someone who can put out as much pure violence as Rockhold can.
David: Branch is just your average, tough as nails lunch bucket pugilist. He has no real obvious skills, but he’s big for the division, smart, and durable. He has a real alertness for his opponents. Against Magalhes, and Jotko, he was a stationary opportunist - jabbing for entries, clinch brawling, and looking for takedowns. Against Anthony Johnson, he used a lot of movement, circling out of range, and neutralizing whatever weapons Johnson could make use of in the clinch. At his best, Branch starts with his left jab, and works from there. He’s never been awarded with a full fledged KO, but when he strings brief combinations together, he earns respect from his opponents. For as much as casual fans lament fights that go to a decision, fighters really benefit from doing so and Branch is good example of using that experience to set an efficient pace that never demands more than his body can handle.
Phil: This is one of those fights where people tend to say that one guy has no advantages over the other one, but I'm not sure whether that's true. Branch's defense is very clean, and much better than Rockhold's. He does a good job of stepping off-center, rarely moving straight backwards, and parries and hides his head behind his arm and shoulder. His offense is sometimes lacking, but he's a clean and accurate puncher, and has a very nice counter double leg takedown on opponents who try to chase him down. When he feels confident that his defense will handle everything coming his way, he's a much more active and dangerous fighter, and a strong top position and grappling threat.
Insight from past fights
David: Rockhold’s status as an elite fighter has always felt a little tenuous. I can’t really pinpoint it, but I rewatched his fight with Lyoto Machida the other day, and I had forgotten how fortuitous it was for Rockhold. Yes, “luck” is a relatively meaningless word in the context of victory because there is nothing unintentional about capitalizing on mistakes or happenstance, but it did feel like Rockhold lucksacked his way onto the ground with Machida with that bolo rabbit punch (where the fight was ultimately won). I mention it because Machida was tagging him early, and even as they went into the second stanza, only Machida’s performance on E masked Rockhold’s own diminished output. Yes, Rockhold has had historically good cardio. But even when you take away the Weidman fight where he was on antibiotics, my impression is that fighters who take it to him, or force him to fight urgently has a marked effect on him. Branch is not that kind of fighter, but he’s shown an ability to adapt that could serve him well against a fighter who has never really put a cohesive bow on his tactics.
Phil: As I constantly harped on in our previews, that tendency to leave his feet behind him which allowed Rockhold to cuff Machida over Rockhold's own leg was going to get him killed at some point... and it did. I just never thought it would be against Bisping. The issue with Rockhold is definitely his defense- the question is whether Branch can be active enough to prise open its cracks. Going back to the Jotko fight, Branch scared Jotko off a kicking attack with counter takedowns. Trying to do that to Rockhold sort of seems like a death sentence.
David: You never really know with Rockhold. I think it’s no coincidence that he reminds me of Shogun in the way their performances have a polarizing range. Both have had significant knee injuries, and both have styles that emphasize theatrical movement and offense. Could this end up being Rockhold’s Forrest Griffin moment? Is this jumbled interview a potential sign?
Phil: Yeah, this seems the big one, whether Rockhold has physically declined, or if his chin has eroded. Conversely though, maybe training with Henri Hooft has taken his striking to the next level?
David: Honestly, I expect another ugly ass fight - while it lasts. Branch is strong enough, and smart enough to play keep away with a jab, and distance management. Meanwhile, Rockhold, as dynamic as he is, can be uneven when pressuring his opponents unsure whether to pressure with strikes, or wait to bait his opponent with counters. This is how the more athletic fighters tend to fight; letting the elephant lead the way, and giving the rider the reins only after the fact. That doesn’t mean Rockhold is doomed. Branch can be inert. But it just means the journey could be rugged, regardless of the destination. Luke Rockhold by Decision.
Phil: I think that the fight starts slow and ugly: Bisping demonstrated that it's possible to neutralize a good amount of Rockhold's kicking game with efficient circular movement. However, I'm not sure if Branch can bring himself to actively throw enough to stop Rockhold from moving, and eventually finding his angles. I think the kick volume mounts up, Branch tries to counter takedown against them, and gets swept and crushed from top position. Luke Rockhold by TKO, round 4