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Hindsight - UFC Pittsburgh: Rockhold vs. Branch in retrospect

Get the thoughts and musings of Dayne Fox on UFC Pittsburgh, from the opening KO of Gilbert Burns to the come-from-behind victory of Luke Rockhold in the main event.

Let’s not kid ourselves. UFC Pittsburgh was completely overshadowed by the best boxing contest seen in years between Canelo and GGG. Though I’m an MMA mark, I acknowledge the boxing match was the superior product, regardless of whether the judges did their best to muck it up. That doesn’t mean UFC Pittsburgh wasn’t worth watching. Hell, eight of the ten contests ended before the 15-minute time limit. Admittedly, just because a contest has a finish doesn’t make it a great contest… but it is a decent indicator.

Here’s my thoughts on UFC Pittsburgh, with every fight and fighter involved broken down. The format is simple. The first bullet covers what was expected to happen and an attempt at a brief summary of what did happen. The next two bullets cover my thoughts on each fighter, how they did, and where they might be headed from here with the winner being covered first.

Gilbert Burns defeated Jason Saggo via KO at 4:55 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: Nobody would argue who is more physically gifted between these two: Burns all the way. However, the former BJJ world champion’s lack of confidence on the feet has cost him a couple of wins that should have been his and Saggo is the type of fighter he fell victim to. Over the course of two rounds, it was hard to say who the judges favored. Burns took that responsibility out of their hands by landing a bomb over the top of a Saggo jab to put the Canadian out cold right before the second round expired.
  • Burns: Burns has shown flashes of being a legit threat on the feet, but those flashes haven’t been enough to convince anyone that he could consistently win fights on the feet. It looks like he has turned a corner. Burns never had the confidence to win fights standing, but he wasn’t lacking for it against Saggo. While it is a bit disconcerting that he was unable to get the fight to the ground – his real wheelhouse – his progression on the feet is far more encouraging. Burns may be a breakout candidate for 2018.
  • Saggo: No reason to be down on Saggo. He fought a good fight against a more physically talented opponent in Burns and held his own until he got with Burns’ right hand. I don’t know if I should be crediting his takedown defense or poking holes in Burns’ wrestling – though I already did that a bit – but Saggo seems to improve at something in between every one of his contests. Hopefully being KO’d for the first time in his career doesn’t psychologically affect him in a negative way. Given how he recovered from his torn ACL, the smart money is that he’ll be fine.

Uriah Hall defeated Krzysztof Jotko via TKO at 2:25 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: As talented as he is, Hall has been impossible to trust throughout his career. On the other side of the coin, you almost always know what you’re going to get out of Jotko. The first round went how everyone expected: Jotko pushing Hall up against the cage with intense pressure. Rocking Hall with a series of uppercuts, Jotko could very well have been awarded the victory at many various points of the opening round as no one would have complained had the referee stepped in. But he didn’t, allowing Hall to escape and survive the round. Jotko wasn’t as aggressive in the next round, but he was maintaining the pressure before Hall landed a brutal straight right that sent Jotko reeling. A few follow-up punches later and the referee finally did his thing and stopped the fight.
  • Hall: You never know what you’re going to get out of Uriah Hall. Against Gegard Mousasi in their first encounter, he badly lost the first round only to pull something out of his bag of tricks when it was least expected and secure an unlikely victory. While a win is a win, it isn’t encouraging to see Hall winning fights in this manner. It isn’t like anyone has been questioning his physical toughness. Perhaps you could say it demonstrates mental toughness and to a degree it does. But his inability to consistently put forth contests indicative of his talent also demonstrates mental weakness. Like I said at the beginning of breaking down this fight, Hall is impossible to trust. Nonetheless, he’s frontrunner for Comeback of the Year in my book.
  • Jotko: Losing to Branch in the manner he did earlier this year was an offense many were able to forgive Jotko for. Some may be willing to forgive this loss considering Mousasi lost in a similar manner to Hall, but not as many as were willing to forgive the Branch loss. What really makes this sting is it could be argued that Jotko already had the fight won in the first… he just needed the referee to step in. Jotko went all out trying to finish Hall in the first and didn’t have the same burst come the second round which is why Hall was able to catch him when he couldn’t do so in the first. Jotko shouldn’t fall out of the top fifteen of the official UFC rankings, but he won’t be getting a ranked opponent for his next contest.

Daniel Spitz defeated Anthony Hamilton via TKO at 0:24 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Outside of his large and lanky frame, Spitz’s stiffness and lack of depth to his game left many wondering whether he’s a prospect worth putting in the time to develop. Though this contest was expected to answer that question, most expected Hamilton to dispose of him. Spitz did his homework on the Jackson-Wink product, scoring a well-placed right hand that sent Hamilton stumbling to the ground. Spitz followed up with some ground punches that didn’t land cleanly, but Hamilton’s lack of movement prompted the referee to stop the action. Later in the evening, Hamilton took to social media to indicate he was retiring.
  • Spitz: Spitz claimed he did all sorts of film study on Hamilton before the contest, something he’ll need to do going forward as his 6'7" frame, accompanying long reach, and toughness are about the only consistent advantages he’ll have moving forward. That’s enough for him to carve out a successful career, but only if he works to expose his opponent’s tendencies… just like he did here. Here is hoping the UFC takes their time with the big man.
  • Hamilton: Much like Mitch Clarke from last week, Hamilton hasn’t shown the necessary talent to hang around on the UFC roster. He had picked up a couple of wins in impressive fashion against opponents who were a combined 4-11 in the UFC. It became clearer with every passing contest Hamilton didn’t belong. By all appearances, Hamilton is a class act. Here’s wishing him the best in whatever he decides to move onto in the future.

Olivier Aubin-Mercier defeated Tony Martin via split decision

  • Expectations/Result: It was a coin flip of a fight between these two rising young lightweights. I picked Martin, expecting the progress he’s shown on the feet to be the difference. Instead of coming out with confidence, Martin came out tentative, though Aubin-Mercier came out the same way as the first round turned into a feeling out process. Aubin-Mercier did score a takedown towards the end of the round, which was likely the difference as they traded rounds of grappling control in the second and third rounds. A competitive fight that felt like neither showed what they are fully capable of.
  • Aubin-Mercier: Even though Aubin-Mercier didn’t put on the best performance he could have, it’s encouraging that he did win against a quality opponent. Aubin-Mercier did seem to gas late as he exhausted a lot of energy late in the first and the entirety of the second wrestling and grappling with Martin, but I expect he’ll learn from this. I did feel he showed some progress in his striking, even if it was minimal. More than anything, I liked the confidence he displayed while trading on the feet, something that wasn’t on display a couple of contests ago.
  • Martin: What happened to the fluid striking he displayed against Johnny Case? There may have been flashes of it, but given Aubin-Mercier’s striking has been inferior to Case’s, I expected it to be on full display. In retrospect, I should have realized Martin would have to respect Aubin-Mercier’s threat of a takedown even though Martin has traditionally been a strong wrestler. What was truly encouraging to see was Martin was the one with more energy at the end of the contest. While he has improved recently, it’s still nice to see him finish strong in a contest heavy on grappling. I expect Martin to rebound in his next contest.

Justin Ledet defeated Zu Anyanwu via split decision

  • Expectations/Result: Getting the fight on less than a week notice, Anyanwu was a very heavy underdog against the lanky Ledet. Using his footwork and length to keep Anyanwu at a distance, Ledet pieced up the newcomer with his jab over the course of the contest. Anyanwu landed the occasional hard shot off the counter, but Ledet’s volume and chin held up in the end, even as he coasted out the final round.
  • Ledet: No disrespect to Ledet, but this wasn’t a fun or encouraging performance at all. Not that he needs to encourage us every time he fights – getting the win is the bottom line – but you want people to believe you’re someone to look out for. We already knew he had a jab. I was hoping to see some killer instinct out of him, something that’s very important at the heavyweight division given how easy it is for the behemoths that populate the division to KO one another. Ledet doesn’t seem to have it. I’m cooling on him after this performance.
  • Anyanwu: There were a few positive things to take away from Anyanwu’s performance. He showed good timing as he nailed Ledet with a couple of hard shots on the counter. He was still going for the win at the end of the contest, showing a better gas tank than anyone would have guessed he had. However, those positives come with caveats. Even though Anyanwu landed cleanly with some heavy shots, it wasn’t enough to put Ledet out of his misery. And though Anyanwu was the one trying to push the pace, it wasn’t a fast pace he was trying to push. Can he hang in there if a fast pace is pushed? Probably not.

Kamaru Usman defeated Sergio Moraes via KO at 2:48 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Usman was the biggest favorite on the card and it wasn’t difficult to figure out why once the contest started. Usman went right after Moraes, landing a hard leg kick followed by a heavy right hand on the BJJ expert to drop him less than a minute into the contest. Moraes got back to his feet and landed a few punches of his own as he tried to turn the fight into a brawl, but nothing that was going to deter Usman. He pursued and hit Moraes with a brutal straight right that turned him inside out. The referee was slow to stop the contest when Moraes hit the ground, but he eventually did after Moraes made zero effort to get back into the fight.
  • Usman: Many were frustrated when this contest was announced – myself included – as we didn’t feel Moraes was an appropriate challenge for Usman. While it proved to be true, I’ll admit I underestimated just how much Usman would blow Moraes out of the water. I know his striking has been improving and expected him to look sharper than ever, but the attitude he had made him unstoppable. You remember how I stated Justin Ledet lacks killer instinct? Usman has it in spades. Nothing scares him, leading to him just plowing through whatever challenge is placed before him. I know that he has yet to face a ranked opponent, but I wouldn’t be opposed to him being placed in a title eliminator with the likes of Rafael dos Anjos or the winner of Stephan Thompson and Jorge Masvidal. Regardless of who he faces, it damn well better be someone whose name has had their name connected with Tyron Woodley in some fashion recently.
  • Moraes: I can’t say I’m all that surprised that Moraes fell apart the way he did. Well… maybe a little. Moraes has been beating up on short notice opponents for a couple of years now and hasn’t really impressed in the process. You can’t expect to hang with an elite athlete like Usman who is given a full camp when you can’t finish lesser athletes with minimal time to prepare. Moraes has always been a very confident fighter. Will a loss like this destroy his confidence? Moraes is still a good athlete despite his 35-years of age, so he still has the tools to find success. Whether he will recover is another story.

Gregor Gillespie defeated Jason Gonzalez via submission at 2:11 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: This contest appeared academic given Gillespie’s national champion wrestling credentials and Gonzalez’s poor takedown defense. While we got the result we expected, it wasn’t in the manner we thought it would come about. Gonzalez took the fight right to Gillespie and Gillespie responded in turn, leading to both men standing their ground and trading haymakers. They ended up stumbling one another on more than one occasion and when the fight went to the ground, some spectacular scrambling exchanges were produced. Gillespie decided he wanted to stop screwing around and started looking to take the fight to the ground permanently in the second and eventually worked his way to an arm-triangle choke to end the contest.
  • Gillespie: There were good things to take out of this. Gillespie doesn’t look as stiff as he once did on the feet. On the ground, it was enjoyable watching him work his way to the choke, showing progress in his submission chops. However, he showed zero attention to defense and ended up eating all sorts of unnecessary damage. I understand there are some contests you try to make a brawl if you want to increase your chances of winning. That wasn’t what Gillespie needed to be doing. If he continues fighting like this, he’s going to be KO’d before too long. He’d be wise to emphasize his wrestling early and often if he wants to avoid getting hit in the head too often.
  • Gonzalez: You know how I said some fighters are wise to make a fight a brawl? Gonzalez did exactly what he needed to do to win. He mixed up his strikes, swinging some heavy leather and adding a few head kicks for good measure. He had an opportunity to sink in an anaconda choke too – quickly becoming his signature submission – but Gillespie slipped out of it in the midst of a scramble. I’m still not excited about Gonzalez’s long-term projections, but he’s doing everything he can in a loss to encourage the UFC to keep him around as long as possible.

Anthony Smith defeated Hector Lombard via TKO at 2:33 of RD3

  • Expectations/Result: One of the more difficult contests on the card to predict, it all boiled down to whether you believed Lombard still had enough in the tank to pick up a win over a journeyman like Smith. I thought he did. In fact, Lombard came out more aggressive than he had been in ages, peppering Smith’s legs with kicks and landing the occasional bomb to the face on the occasions he was able to navigate through Smith’s reach. Smith wasn’t very active himself early on, looking for specific openings that never materialized… until the third round. Smith landed a brutal combination that floored Lombard midway through the round to end the contest.
  • Smith: Three straight times Smith has lost the first round by a landslide only for him to end up having his hand raised by the end of the contest. While that’s an obvious sign of resilience, it’s very concerning too as he continues to climb the ladder even if he did survive heavy shots from someone like Lombard. Can he continue to survive those types of onslaughts against tougher competition? Smith indicated that he’s looking to move up to light heavyweight, something that I think would be good for him given his huge frame. He’s depleting himself so much that he’s never had a very deep gas tank and may have improved durability if he is able to maintain more water weight. Then again, he’ll be facing bigger and stronger opponents, but I think it would be a risk worth taking for him given the lack of depth at 205.
  • Lombard: This was about as good of a performance Lombard could have put on while still losing by getting finished. He was in firm control heading into the final round, pushing a pace that hasn’t been seen out of him since… ever? And yet, for the third time in his last four fights, Lombard was finished with punches. How many times had he been finished with strikes in the first 40 fights of his career? Zero. I don’t think the UFC has any other choice than to cut him loose after five consecutive contests without a victory. Kind of a bummer.

Mike Perry defeated Alex Reyes via KO at 1:19 of RD1

  • Expectations/Result: Who are you going to pick between a big, athletic, hard-hitting welterweight with a full training camp and a natural lightweight taking the fight with just three days notice? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Perry went straight to the clinch where he could more easily bully the smaller Reyes, alternating between elbows and knees. Reyes could only take so much, eventually eating a knee that sent him crashing to the canvas, giving Perry the easiest win of his UFC career.
  • Perry: This is an impressive performance for the youngster, but anything short of this was going to be a disappointment. Nonetheless, credit to Perry for recognizing he could bully the much smaller Reyes. It was the quickest and most impressive manner for him to win. However, after the contest Perry was calling out Robbie Lawler, stating you don’t get what you don’t ask for. He isn’t wrong, but he’s not ready for the type of challenge the former champion would pose. Remember, Perry couldn’t overthrow Alan Jouban less than a year ago. He should aim for someone more realistic like Alex Oliveira or Leon Edwards. Those would still be fights fans would love to see.
  • Reyes: I wasn’t impressed with what I saw out of Reyes. Admittedly, he had the deck stacked against him, but he did absolutely nothing to inspire hope for his future. Reyes has been fighting for over a decade without a win against a notable opponent. Not a good sign. I do expect him to look better in his next contest which will assuredly come at lightweight, but will he become a long-term fixture? It isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but I’m not counting on it.

Luke Rockhold defeated David Branch via submission at 4:05 of RD2

  • Expectations/Result: It had been over 15 months since Luke Rockhold stepped into the cage as he stated he only wanted big fights. When none materialized, he finally caved in and accepted a bout with Branch. Though Rockhold was the favorite, his arrogance did cost him the belt against Michael Bisping, giving many reason to pick Branch for the upset. Branch almost had it in the opening minutes, landing a flurry of punches on Rockhold against the cage that almost prompted the referee to step in. Rockhold survived and ended the round with a takedown to slow Branch’s momentum. Branch continued to press the action in the next round, but it was all she wrote once Rockhold got the former WSOF champion in the mount as he rained down a flurry of punches that forced Branch to tap out.
  • Rockhold: I’ll give Rockhold credit in that he did what he needed to secure the finish for his first win in 21 months. But he didn’t look like the same guy who blazed a terrifying path to claim the title. It has been commonly stated that a loss isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided you learn and grow from it. Rockhold didn’t seem to learn a thing from his loss to Bisping, showing Branch zero respect and damn-near dropping his second consecutive contest in which he was heavily favored. At 32, Rockhold should still be in his prime and there haven’t been any debilitating injuries that would seem to be slowing him down. My opinion: he doesn’t have the fire he once had and it doesn’t seem likely he’ll regain it. He’s disenchanted with the way the UFC has been awarding title fights which lead to his long absence. I’d love to see the beast that obliterated Lyoto Machida return, but I have major doubts about that happening.
  • Branch: Yes, Branch lost by tapping out to strikes, never a good thing. But he fought against type by taking the fight right to Rockhold and came thisclose to securing the biggest win of his career. I don’t see Branch emerging as a contender, but he did prove that he can be competitive with the best in the division. Though I’m usually against fighters going against type, I liked the decision as he was unlikely to shut down Rockhold given the disparity in the physical gifts between them. At 35, Branch will be on the downside of his career soon if he isn’t already. Look for him to try and get back in the cage as soon as possible to get back on the winning track. Even if he doesn’t become a contender, he looks like he’s going to be a solid gatekeeper to the top ten.

Well, those are my thoughts. Until next time….

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