HARRIS’S TAKE: The Return of Luke Rockhold and why the middleweight divison better be on notice

BY JOHN HARRIS, MMATorch Contributor

On June 4, 2016 the UFC middlweight division was completely changed as Michael Bisping pulled off a stunning upset over Luke Rockhold to capture the 185 lb title. Rockhold appeared to be on his way to a long title reign after a strong performance to win the title from Chris Weidman. Rockhold seemed to have all the tools necessary to rule the division for as long as he wanted with an excellent submission game, aggressive but accurate striking and the size and strength that few in the division could match. But it appeared Rockhold took Bisping lightly and did not respect his opponent’s power. Rockhold marched forward throughout their second fight with hands down and paid the price as Bisping dropped him with an over hand left then finished him off.  Now over a year later Rockhold will look to climb his way back up to the top of the middleweight mountain as he faces David Branch at UFC Fight Night 116 from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Rockhold has one of the best resumes in middleweight history with wins over top talent including current champion Michel Bisping, former champion Chris Weidman, Lyoto Machida, and Ronaldo Souza among others. Now he looks to add David Branch to that list.Branch is an eleven fight win streak but has not faced the same high level competition that Rockhold has. On top of that Rockhold appears to have a huge chip on his shoulder after being embarrassed by Bisping. Rockhold stated after the fight that he came in too confident against Bisping and felt like there was no chance of being defeated by a fighter who he had already soundly beat just a year and half before. I don’t see that happening against Branch or ever again for that matter.

I see the loss to Bisping being similar for his career to Georges St. Pierre’s loss to Matt Serra.  St. Pierre suffered a stunning upset to Serra in his first title defense but was able to rebound from that loss and learn. St. Pierre fought a much more controlled style after that loss to Serra and rarely got out of his comfort zone. I see Rockhold doing the same.  I look for Rockhold to get back to what brought him to the top of the middleweight division in this fight. Rockhold’s southpaw stance and aggressive mix of straight lefts and head kicks will keep Branch off his game and force him to go for desperation take downs. Rockhold should be able to turn this into his advantage and gain control on the ground. Rockhold has an excellent submission game, the two time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion  has eight career submission victories. I look for Rockhold to finish the fight by rear naked choke as he has done for five out of his fifteen career victories.

If Rockhold  manages to get by Branch the real question will be is, what is next for the former champion? Does he face the winner of the upcoming Bisping vs. St. Pierre fight? Perhaps a showdown with interim middleweight champion Robert Whittaker? A match up with Whittaker would be interesting. Whittaker has excellent boxing and is a black belt in karate. This makes him a tough style match up for any middleweight, including Rockhold. However, Whittaker appears to be out of action until at least early 2018 with a knee injury so that bout happening anytime in the near future seems unlikely. The more likely scenario is Rockhold going against the winner of the Bisping vs. St. Pierre fight. Rockhold has made it clear that he wants to avenge the loss to Bisping and prove who the better man is in a rubber match. A middleweight title fight with St. Pierre would also be must see TV. Rockhold this week stated that he is no fan of GSP as he believes he has no business being in the middleweight division much less getting a title shot.

“He has no business being in the middleweight division. I think he’s small. I think he’s weak. I think he’s going to get crushed. I think he needs to get the hell out (of the division)”  said Rockhold  on UFC Tonight when talking to teammate Daniel Cormier on Wednesday .  It’s clear that Rockhold is tired of waiting for a chance to reclaim the middleweight title and feels St. Pierre has skipped ahead of the line solely based on past accomplishments. One can definitely argue that point but the UFC is a business and Bisping vs. St. Pierre should do a huge PPV number.  Rockhold is right about one thing, St. Pierre is going to be undersized at middleweight. Rockhold would have to be the clear favorite if the two were to meet in the octagon. Rockhold has an obvicous size and strength advantage. But before we can get to these high profile fights, Rockhold must take care of business against Branch and I feel confident that he will. The entire middleweight division better be on notice because Luke Rockhold is back and it looks like he is out for blood.

NOW CHECK OUT THE LATEST ROUNDTABLE: Who wins the Luke Rockhold vs. David Branch fight, and why?


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