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UFC Fight Night 116 fight card: Luke Rockhold vs David Branch preview

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MMA: UFC 194-Weidman vs Rockhold Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Middleweight elites Luke Rockhold and David Branch will clash TONIGHT (Sept. 16, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 116 inside PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It’s been over a year since Rockhold last stepped into the Octagon in a bout that saw overconfidence cost him his UFC title. Injuries have delayed his return, but Rockhold is finally healthy and ready to return to the title hunt.

Once upon a time — in 2011 to be specific — Branch was unfairly released by the UFC after a single loss. Following that disappointment, Branch went on a massive win streak that saw him capture two different belts in the World Series of Fighting (WSOF). He successfully returned to the Octagon a few months back, and that victory solidified his status as a top 10 Middleweight.

Let’s take a look at the keys to victory for each man.

Luke Rockhold

Record: 15-3

Key Wins: Chris Weidman (UFC 194), Ronaldo Souza (Strikeforce: Barnett vs Kharitonov), Lyoto Machida (UFC on FOX 15), Tim Kennedy (Strikeforce: Rockhold vs Kennedy)

Key Losses: Michael Bisping (UFC 199), Vitor Belfort (UFC on FX 8)

Keys to Victory: Rockhold is one of the division’s biggest fighters, but he also has the conditioning to go five hard rounds. That alone makes him a problem for lots of fighters, but it’s Rockhold’s devastatingly strong kicks and dynamic ground game that won him the title.

Rockhold needs to win this fight to bounce back, and luckily he’s been paired with a grappler. Rockhold absolutely thrives against men who look to take him down; there’s a reason he holds wins over the division’s premiere wrestlers and grapplers.

Branch is a solid enough boxer, but he cannot match Rockhold’s ability to kick like a mule. If Rockhold stays composed and makes full use of his range, it’s only a matter of time until Branch starts to deteriorate from his kicks. Once that happens, a takedown attempt is imminent, and that’s Rockhold’s chance to sweep or submit.

David Branch

Record: 21-3

Key Wins: Krzysztof Jotko (UFC 211), Yushin Okami (WSOF 15), Jesse Taylor (WSOF 10), Vinny Magalhaes (WSOF 33)

Key Losses: None

Keys to Victory: Branch is a Renzo Gracie black belt with a well-rounded game. His boxing and wrestling have come a long way since his first UFC run, as Branch is now comfortable in all areas and makes the most of his nearly 80 inch reach.

In almost all of his WSOF victories, Branch relied on his ground game to some extend. He may have spent lots of time standing — or in the case of Yushin Okami, even finished the fight with his hands — but the threat of his takedown and grappling were always in the back of his opponent's mind.

Against Rockhold, that won’t really be the case. If Branch spends time trying to build off his grappling, he’ll just waste energy and give Rockhold opportunities to hurt him.

Instead, Branch is going to want to make this as much of a boxing match as possible. He’ll have to pressure in order to avoid Rockhold’s kicks, but that also gives him the best shot at getting through Rockhold’s range and touching his chin.

Bottom Line: It’s a very important bout for the 185 lbs. division.

Rockhold is desperate to get back into the mix and earn a chance to recover his belt. Realistically, interim kingpin — and true No. 1 fighter in the division right now — Robert Whittaker will face the winner of Georges St. Pierre vs. Mike Bisping next. However, a win here puts Rockhold reasonably close to facing the winner of that bout, although he’ll still likely have to pick up one more victory.

Meanwhile, a loss pushes him far down the ladder.

The situation is pretty similar for Branch as well. The 35 year old likely doesn’t have a ton of time left in his prime, so the time is now to make an impact on the Middleweight division. With a win, Branch accomplishes just that, inserting himself into the immediate title mix behind Whittaker.

TONIGHT at UFC Fight Night 116, Luke Rockhold and David Branch will face off in the main event. Which man will have his hand raised?