David Branch has one thing on his mind — pressure.
Not the pressure of his first UFC main event. And not the pressure of maintaining his five-year unbeaten stretch.
No, Branch is focused on the pressure — both physical and mental — his opponent Luke Rockhold will face on Saturday night.
“I’m looking to put pressure on him. I’m looking to remind him of the situation he wants to put behind him so bad,” said Branch, a Bronx native now living in Brooklyn.
Branch returns to the cage to face Rockhold, the former UFC middleweight champion, in the headliner of UFC Fight Night 116 on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
A former two-weight champion in World Series of Fighting, Branch returned to the UFC’s middleweight division earlier this year, ditching small shows in casinos and theaters for brighter lights in the sport’s premier promotion.
“The crowd wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, 20,000 people, but when I looked out there, it didn’t seem like that much,” said Branch of his return at UFC 211 in May, where he beat Krystztof Jotko in a split decision. “I think I fought a little tight out there because it was a new environment, but it was a good acclimation fight.”
Branch (21-3, 3-2 UFC) enters Saturday riding high, but it’s hard to say the same for Rockhold.
The Californian lost the UFC middleweight belt to Michael Bisping in June 2016. He’s dealt with numerous injuries in the time since, including a torn ACL, but says the time off was good for him.
“A lot of injuries were just stacking up and holding me back, I wasn’t fighting healthy, I wasn’t fighting focused,” Rockhold said. “With all that into account, the time away really helped me reflect on how I was approaching things and how to come back and do it differently.”
Rockhold (15-3, 5-2 UFC) said he didn’t want to dwell on his first-round knockout loss to Bisping, but there were a few things he could learn from it.
“In the Bisping fight, I let everything get into my head and felt like I needed to do more. I forced a fight, which is unlike me. It leaves openings, it leaves holes, and you can’t afford to do that in this fight game,” Rockhold said. “This is not boxing, we don’t have a 10-second count, lucky shots land and you can recover. You can’t do that in this sport. You get clipped, that can be the end of it. The best guys don’t always win, and if they are, they’re probably cheating.”
Rockhold plans to not force the fight this time, but Branch believes Rockhold’s patience was the reason Bisping took his belt.
“Hey, when we suffer losses, our delusion and the person we make ourselves out to be starts to defend itself,” Branch said. “I think the person that he wants to be is trying to defend itself. It’s saying, ‘These things are not real, I’m still the best in the world.’ He wants to keep whatever he has mentally to get him to that level, he doesn’t want to let go. “
Branch said he understands what Rockhold is dealing with mentally. In Branch’s UFC debut in 2010, he was knocked out by Gerald Harris via slam in the third round. Knowing where Rockhold’s mind is at, Branch said, will only help on Saturday.
“It’s demoralizing, it’s not motivating. It’s demoralizing getting your butt kicked and getting knocked out in front of anybody, having memes made about you, having people think crazy things about you,” Branch said. “I know what it’s like coming off something like that, you want to prove yourself, you want to erase those demons that you have inside your mind. I want to remind him that those demons are very real and that those demons will visit and take him again.”
Branch believes he’ll find weaknesses in the former champion.
“I just want to put pressure on Luke in all avenues of MMA and I’m going to focus most of that pressure on one avenue, I won’t talk about that right now, but all avenues will be tested,” Branch said. “I have to probe this man, because I’m so good at every avenue of MMA I have to probe him, even though the game plan is one thing. I have to test out weaknesses, things that he didn’t pay attention to, places where he didn’t do so much homework, places where he didn’t spend so much time, that’s where I’m going to harass him most, but the gameplan is still the gameplan and it will be executed.”
Rockhold, however, remains undeterred, saying the fight will end whenever he chooses to end it.
“He’s a patient fighter and he’s got some things. But if I don’t force the fight, if I stay focused I can pick this guy apart from top to bottom,” Rockhold said. “I’m going to break his legs, I’m going to rupture his liver and I’m going to rattle his brain. I don’t think this guy is going to feel comfortable on the feet. I think he’s going to panic and shoot in, and I’m going to turn his [expletive] on his back and turn him into a white belt and pound his face in.”
Rockhold respects what Branch has accomplished outside the UFC, saying the New Yorker is “game.” But he believes there’s an important distinction between them.
“He worked his way into it, back into the UFC, then beat a top 10 opponent. Respectable, but he ain’t no champion,” Rockhold said. “He’s talking about he never lost his belt, this and that. You’re in the minor leagues, you fought Triple A opponents and washouts from the UFC. He ain’t fought anybody on my level. I’m a [expletive] champion and I’m going to show him what the difference is.”