UFC Pittsburgh recap: Luke Rockhold taps David Branch with strikes in return

Luke Rockhold shined in his first fight since June 2016, returning to the win column after a UFC middleweight title loss to Michael Bisping. But it wasn’t easy — especially at first.

David Branch, his opponent, was uncharacteristically aggressive early in the first round, throwing Rockhold off guard. Branch impressed with his striking, something he’s not known for, and hurt Rockhold with punches up against the fence in the first round. But Rockhold survived and regained his senses, and started to take over in the second round.

Rockhold taking Branch down early in round two — his second takedown of the fight — was the beginning of the end. Rockhold immediately passed to full mount, putting Branch in a terrible position. Rockhold took the New York native’s back and started to pound away. Branch tapped out due to strikes.

What was the highlight of the fight?

Some may say the highlight of Rockhold vs. Branch was the underdog’s barrage of strikes in the first round, but the quickness of Rockhold’s advancements on the mat topped that. Once the former titleholder took down Branch, a good ground artist himself, it was just a matter of time before Branch either tapped or the referee stepped in. Branch was no challenge for Rockhold, who’s incredibly fluid on the mat, and struggled to defend from ground-and-pound and advance to a better position.

Where do these two go from here?

There isn’t a clear next option for Rockhold, who even hinted at a future move up to 205 pounds after the victory. Rockhold wants to fight the winner of Michael Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre, but interim champ Robert Whittaker will have that honor. So with a title fight out of the picture for now, a rematch with Chris Weidman makes the most sense. Both are coming off impressive wins, and Rockhold took the 185-pound championship from Weidman in December 2015 by fourth-round TKO.

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It’s tough to say what the UFC does with Branch next. A large underdog, he had nothing to lose — and he looked good in round one! This was not a big setback at all. The fight that makes the most sense is the loser of Derek Brunson vs. Lyoto Machida, but if the UFC wants to give Branch another tough test, Ronaldo Souza fits the bill.

Watch now, later, or never?

Rockhold vs. Branch entertained while it lasted. Watch it right away.