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WSOF 30: Clifford Starks plans to open up David Branch's weakness, exploit it and win title

Clifford Starks is looking for his sixth straight win and a claim a world title this weekend in "Sin City." And "Big Cat" is ready for the opportunity.

Esther Lin

World Series of Fighting (WSOF) returns to Las Vegas, Nevada, this Saturday night (April 2, 2016) with WSOF 30: "Branch vs. Starks," featuring a main event between dual-weight champion David Branch -- who will put his Middleweight title on the line -- against Clifford Starks.

Starks has been working his way up to this title shot with five straight wins. One might have thought Bellator MMA would keep him around after an impressive performance at Bellator 126 in Phoenix, Ariz., but WSOF came calling and "Big Cat" just kept on rolling.

His signature win in the Decagon was at WSOF 23: "Gaethje vs. Palomino 2" at the expense of then-undefeated Krasimir Mladenov (12-0) who had four submissions and seven decisions, putting his nickname as "The Wrestler" to work in three WSOF fights. Starks took apart Mladenov round-by-round, using superior reach (a 78" wingspan) to cut up and bloody his foe, beating up Mladenov so thoroughly that when he did get takedowns they were completely ineffective.

Starks recently spoke with MMAmania.com about his fight with Branch at WSOF 30, how the two match up in both size and experience, his plans to leave Branch with one less belt in his trophy case at the night's end and much more..

In the interview Starks revealed the reason he ultimately made the choice to leave Bellator MMA and go with WSOF.

"More fights with WSOF -- I was promised more fights consistently. I felt that would be a better opportunity for me. I definitely respect Bellator and what they have going on, but they have different name fighters they're kind of looking to build."

Starks also revealed his mindset regarding the Mladenov fight, which earned him the title shot against Branch, and how Mladenov's wrestling reputation didn't scare him off.

"He's a tough competitor and we just came in with a better game plan and you got to see the writing on the wall after that. My wrestling's kind of underrated and people underrate me. When they get in the ring they find out I have more skill sets than they realize. Even a one dimensional boxer or wrestler, they get in the fight and (see) a lot more tools than (they) expected. That's what I like during fights, too -- for them to kind of doubt me."

There's nothing one dimensional about Branch, though: Five wins, six submissions and six decisions in 17 wins out of a combined 20 fights. Starks expects Branch to be his biggest test to date.

"I think we're going to put on a great show for the fans. He's a very well rounded fighter, he can take the fight anywhere, and he has the ability to dictate the pace. I feel I have the same abilities as him and it's going to be an interesting fight to see who can (impose) their will on the other."

WSOF 30 will be the first Middleweight title defense for Branch since Yushin Okami in 2014. Despite that long layoff, Starks doesn't feel it should be held against Branch and offers a fairly compelling reason.

"You know it's tough because he took an opportunity to enhance his name, and so would you punish a person for doing such a thing, when there really wasn't a No. 1 contender? I kind of created my No. 1 contendership by the wins that I've had. Before then who was he going to fight?"

Starks told me he's been "watching Branch for a while," long before he was in position to challenge him for the belt.

"I had a feeling that me and him were going to meet. I didn't know which organization it was going to be in. He's the No. 8 guy in the world right now (at Middleweight) and I like fighting top competition. I know I can deal with any top competition. It was only a matter of time before I was going to meet him and other high level fighters."

As a student of Branch's game Starks would not be surprised if their title fight went to the championship rounds.

"I have to plan for the later rounds. I feel if I connect with anybody correctly they're going out, but I can't assume that's going to happen. If it doesn't go the way I want it to go then yeah we have to go into the fourth and fifth round and go from there. He's a champion. He's not going to come in lackadaisical."

Fighting out of Arizona Combat Sports in Tempe, Starks has no shortage of teammates to help him get ready for WSOF 30. And, in turn, he's helping Matt Frincu get ready for Abubakar Nurmagomedov on the same card.

"I honestly think people don't realize just how good (Frincu) is yet because he hasn't had the top flight competition to show it. I think this is a great opportunity for him showcase his skill set and really catapult his name to the top."

Hopefully for everybody involved, Nurmagomedov and his brother aren't involved in any post-fight skirmishes. I asked Starks to comment on acting and conducting yourself like a professional as a fighter.

"I really believe that as an athlete we have a responsibility, but at the same time I see both sides because we are human too. Given that spur of the moment, should you react that way? No. Will you react that way sometimes? Possibly. That's the best way to put it. I'm not saying I agree with it, but to put the finger down at them and tell them 'I can't believe you would do such a thing' that's hard. Would it be something you should apologize about? I believe so if you acted incorrectly, but at the end of the day we're human and we make mistakes sometimes."

Starks is hoping not to make any mistakes inside or outside of the cage on April 2. If it all goes the way, he's visualized it in his mind Branch will have one less belt in his trophy case.

"I really believe every fighter and athlete has something that's exploitable, it's just our job to find it and exploit it. Just because it's exploitable doesn't mean it's that easy to exploit. That's why some of the top athletes are where they're at, but everybody has something. Everybody has a weakness somewhere -- you just have to try to open it up."

Tune in to WSOF 30: "Branch vs. Starks" this Saturday night live on NBC Sports to see if Starks can find that weakness, exploit it, and put an end to Branch's seven-fight win streak and dual-championship title run.

The complete audio of our interview is below and complete fight coverage is HERE on MMAmania.com.

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