Thirteen months ago, David Branch agreed to take part in a four-man middleweight tournament. The winner was to be crowned World Series of Fighting's first 185-pound champion, and at the time, it seemed like a relatively straightforward road -- two fights, then gold was there for the taking. Best case, he'd be lounging poolside with a glimmering belt wrapped around his waist by the end of the year.
But rarely do the MMA gods allow for such convenience.
Branch and his foil, Jesse Taylor, are at last scheduled to meet this Saturday at WSOF 10, more than a year after the tourney began, and more than nine months after the New Jersey Athletic Control Board nixed Taylor's semifinal bout on fight night because of an alleged pill bottle that amounted to much ado about nothing.
"Sometimes it was difficult not to get restless," Branch admits. "But I knew that the show was going to be one day, so I knew I had to be ready."
It's fitting that if a hard road was there for the taking, it would ultimately find Branch. After all, this is the man who, like so many others, came from so little; the man who found himself cut from the UFC with a respectable 2-2 record, and the man who only discovered his true calling coaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu because of a tragedy that should've never happened.
For about five years in his mid-to-late twenties, Branch worked in the New York/New Jersey area as an ironworker. He specialized in window instillation and curtainwall systems, which pretty much means that all those skyscrapers you see, those monolithic hunks of glass and steel, they're all joined together like Legos, and Branch was the one doing the joining.
Not by coincidence, ironworking also happens to be one of the most dangerous jobs in America according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, sadly, Branch found that out firsthand.
"People don't realize because you're seeing it from so far away, it looks small, but each one of those units is like 3,000 pounds," Branch says. "So when you're joining that stuff together, if you're not careful you could lose a finger, you could lose an arm, you could break a leg. We dropped a unit off the side of the building. It fell 54 floors over 42nd street. It was crazy. I've experienced some really crazy s--t, man.
"One day we were working on a building where, it wasn't a structural steel building, it was more like concrete. What they do is they tie safety straps up inside the rebar, inside of the structure of the concrete. So [my friend] put his harness on the safety strap, which, we're supposed to rely on these things. And when he went to go hang on the outside of the window to do some work on the outside of the unit, the strap broke. He fell 14 floors. It split his head open. Kevin Kelly, I'll never forget that guy. We went to lunch that day, we were joking around, and he never made it back home," Branch sighs at the memory.
"I was just having lunch with him at 12, and at the end of the day I'm picking his body up. This kid was only 23 years old. He didn't even live yet. I'm picking his body up, putting an American flag on him and putting him in the back of a f--king car, where there's another dead body. When he woke up that morning, did he know he was going to be in the back of some coroner's truck with another cold dead body? It just really f--ked me up. I just had to stop."
The accident stuck with Branch, tormenting his dreams until he finally got up and left the world of construction altogether. An accomplished black belt under Renzo Gracie, he instead turned his sights towards coaching. Around that same time, the UFC came calling, signing the then 6-0 prospect and putting him right to work.
Looking back on it now, Branch understands that it was all simply too much, too soon.
Branch's UFC debut fell short of expectations. And while he rebounded to pick up back-to-back wins over Tomasz Drwal and Rich Attonito on the strength of his powerful wresting base, it wasn't enough. A single Rousimar Palhares leglock was all it took -- as quickly as he came, Branch was shown the door; cut from the big-show with little to no explanation as to why.
For a time after, he was lost. It's a fighter's worst fear, that old tinge of self-doubt creeping through as they slowly see themselves transforming into a journeyman. The 14-month stretch became the most difficult of Branch's career. He plied his trade for various regional promotions across the country before, in a stroke of good fortune, Branch landed on the undercard of World Series of Fighting's inaugural effort.
Three victories later, he still hasn't looked back.
"I came to that point in my life where I looked in the mirror one day and I just said, I can do this," Branch says. "You've just got to believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, you can have all the ability in the world (and it won't matter). Everybody's been telling me, Renzo Gracie to the middleweight champion of the world right now, Chris Weidman: ‘Branch, you're f--king training with me. We train like this together, you've got to f--king realize, man, you're f--king good, bro.' I just wasn't getting it, and then one day I just got it. You know what, I do believe in myself. I'm a f--king beast, man.
"I come from a very impoverished background, and I want to change. I want to change my family's life, and I'm not going to be able to get that change not believing in myself. I'm not going to be able to get that change to be able to help my children, people around me, my students, inspire them, inspire people from my neighborhood -- I'm not going to be able to do these things if I'm walking around scared and not believing in myself. You have to have confidence in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, nobody's going to believe in you and you're not going to be able to do anything."
The immortal Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that life is a journey, not a destination. But he presumed too much. Maybe for those who trudge towards the end game bearing one singular focus, the poet's transcendental words still ring true. But when it comes to the atypical life of a fighter, where the countdown is slow and the journey is grueling and every four to six months culminate in one breathless crossroad, the destination is the realest thing around.
And for Branch, well, this destination has been a long time coming.
"I needed to go through it," he says. "I needed to go through those trials and tribulations, I really did, because it taught me a lot about myself. It taught me what defeat feels like. It taught me what disappointment feels like... and it showed me where I don't want to be. It showed me where I could be if I don't give it my all, if I don't go out there and get after it.
"You can learn anything. But if you don't believe it, if you don't believe in the things that you've learned, if you don't believe in the things that you've practiced, then what the hell are you doing it for?"