Welcome to The Verdict, a new regular MMA Plus feature where we take a look at each UFC main event in-depth once the smoke has cleared. No snap judgements, no jumping the gun, just the biggest talking points and conclusions from the weekend’s UFC Fight Night 116 headline bout between Luke Rockhold and David Branch.
UFC Fight Night 116 took place on Saturday, September 16 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and according to UFC officials, drew a disappointing crowd of 7,005 for just over $398,000 gate on the promotion’s third time in the Steel City. This marked the promotion’s worst performance in Pittsburgh at the box office after they struggled to fill half the arena and the promotion’s lowest gate of the year. Bonus payments were made to both Gregor Gillespie and Jason Gonzalez for their “fight of the night” effort and performance bonuses were also awarded to Urijah Hall and Mike Perry.
Middleweight Bout: Luke Rockhold def. David Branch via Submission (Strikes) (Round 2 – 4:05)
After a 470-day hiatus from the sport due to injury, former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold would return on Saturday night looking to lay claim to another shot at the 185lb title. However, despite coming away with the win over two-division World Series of Fighting champ Branch, the Californian looked a step off the pace and a shadow of the fighter he was when he wore the gold.
Whether you’re a believer in ring rust or not, there’s no doubt after such a long spell away from the cage, and the nature of how his previous fight and title reign came to an end at the hands of Michael Bisping, there will have been at least a little apprehension on the part of Rockhold. It was this hesitancy that nearly cost him dear as Branch took advantage and turned up the pressure from the off, landing his strikes cleanly and putting Rockhold in all sorts of trouble in the opening moments. This isn’t the first time that Rockhold has looked vulnerable when dealing with a swarm of early pressure and his slow starts are an issue he must address before they once again come back to haunt him.
As well as the long-term absence, another factor in Rockhold’s lacklustre performance could be his decision to move his training camp from his usual base at American Kickboxing Academy to Henri Hooft’s Hard Knocks 365 gym in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. This was a move born out of necessity, due to AKA’s lengthy injured list leaving Rockhold with no sparring partners, however, had fans salivating over the thought of the 32-year-old’s already excellent stand-up being improved by striking specialist Hooft. For whatever reason, this did not come to fruition as Rockhold came off second best in the majority of exchanges and was far too sluggish with his counters. Whether this was down to the former Strikeforce fighter being too eager to try out and force new techniques or not taking to the Dutch coach’s training, it certainly didn’t pay off and he should welcome a return to San Jose next camp.
Although Rockhold would pick up the victory, the glaring problems in his game were clear to see and it was only the mistakes of Branch that gave him the openings that allowed him to win the fight. Despite this, the Californian appeared overconfident post-fight, just as he did before losing his belt, and declared himself to have “the best ground game in the division”. This statement is as arrogant as it is bold in a division containing the wrestling of Chris Weidman and the BJJ of Jacare Souza and Rockhold would do best to focus on getting back to his title-winning best rather than papering over the cracks with self-serving superlatives.
Meanwhile, former WSOF dual-weight champion David Branch flattered to deceive as he put in a solid performance with a well-drilled game plan and was in control of the fight until he made a catalogue of errors from the bottom after being taken down by a trip from Rockhold. Allowing his opponent to pass into mount far too easily, considering he is a Renzo Gracie black belt, and then giving up his back, Branch’s fight IQ and decision-making seemed to be lacking especially when he was winning the fight and only had a minute of the second round to hold on for.
Just as Joe Rogan is fond of saying, “there are levels to this sport,” and it is no more apparent than in the fortunes of the WSOF standouts who have made their way to the UFC from the now-rebranded promotion. Both Branch and former WSOF bantamweight champ Marlon Moraes were earmarked as two of the best in the world in their respective weight classes after long and dominant title reigns with the Washington promotion, however, the invincibility they gained has quickly vanished.
Moraes would come into his UFC debut on a wave of hype with many expecting him to quickly push his way into title contention in the 135lb division. Instead, he faltered at the first hurdle and put in a lethargic performance on his way to a loss against perennial contender Raphael Assuncao at UFC 212. Now he faces another tough match-up with John Dodson that’s anything but a sure thing.
Meanwhile, Branch would emerge from his UFC 211 debut against Krzysztof Jotko victorious however required a split decision in an unconvincing performance which certainly wasn’t befitting of his glowing credentials. Followed by this loss, it seems the gulf in quality between WSOF’s top stars and the UFC was bigger than first thought with only Justin Gaethje so far managing to transfer his popularity and performances over to the big show.