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Luke Rockhold
Luke Rockhold
Esther Lin/MMAFighting.com

Former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold finally makes his return to the Octagon since losing his belt to Michael Bisping back in June 2016. Rockhold will take on former two-weight WSOF champ David Branch in the headlining slot of UFC Pittsburgh. The card might be considered a sideshow compared to the monumental boxing bout between “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin that same night, but it’s still a decent event with some promising match-ups. Apart from the important main event bout, UFC Pittsburgh features two notable welterweight contest in Mike Perry vs. Alex Reyes and Kamaru Usman vs. Sergio Moraes, and a likely do-or-die fight for former Bellator champ Hector Lombard, who takes on Anthony Smith.

What: UFC Pittsburgh (UFC Fight Night 116)

Where: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, Pa.

When: Saturday, Sept. 16. The four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the six-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET also on FOX Sports 1.


Luke Rockhold vs. David Branch

This matchup caught me a bit off guard when it was announced. I figured Luke Rockhold would get a more established opponent than David Branch. Either way, this is a great opportunity for the former middleweight champ to get back on his horse, and an even better opportunity for Branch to prove he’s one of the elite fighters at 185 pounds.

Rockhold hasn’t fought since getting knocked out cold by Michael Bisping back in June 2016. Since, he’s somewhat changed camps, as he’s done most of his training in Florida with Henri Hooft instead of his long-time home at AKA. This makes me wonder what version of Rockhold we will get here.

We can only expect a talented grappler with dangerous submissions and a diverse striking arsenal. I’d say Rockhold is the most well-rounded fighter in the UFC’s middleweight division. Rockhold is dangerous on the feet and on the ground; he can hang with anyone anywhere. On top of that, Rockhold has the frame of a light heavyweight and moves like a welterweight, making him one of the better athletes of the division.

Much like Rockhold, Branch is also a very talented grappler but has a much different style. Branch has submissions, but they’re not as crafty or as versatile as Rockhold’s. Where Branch likely tops Rockhold would be in takedowns and control from top positions. Branch is usually the type of grappler to get you down on the ground, grind you up, and look to pass to a dominant position where he will look to set dominant control, and if available, attack with a submission that will likely not compromise his position. Striking-wise, Branch is less dangerous than Rockhold, but he can definitely hold his own.

I think on the feet Rockhold will have a clear advantage. However, on the ground and clinch, things get a bit tricky. I see Branch having some success in certain positions, as he’s the better wrestler here. I know that Branch’s grappling is solid, but I think eventually Rockhold will use his slick jiu-jitsu and capitalize on an opening to sink in a submission.

Pick: Rockhold

Mike Perry vs. Alex Reyes

It would’ve been nice to see Thiago Alves vs. Mike Perry, but oh well, things happen.

Replacing Alves is Alex Reyes, a former King of the Cage champion who has a record of 13-2. I couldn’t find much footage on the UFC newcomer, but from the little that I saw, Reyes appears to be a well-rounded fighter with good grappling and submissions. On the feet, Reyes is technical and can cause some damage, but his strength is definitely on the ground.

Perry, on the other hand, is a gifted athlete that’s extremely durable. Perry has solid striking technique and plenty of knockout power to go with it. Although not known for his grappling, Perry is good at staying away from submissions and keeping the fight on the feet where he shines best.

It’s hard to tell with certainty how this welterweight bout will play out, as Reyes’ skills and capabilities remain somewhat unknown. Yet, from what I’ve seen, I don’t think Reyes will be able to get Perry on the canvas, and I don’t think he’ll be able to deal with Perry’s power on the feet. Also, the fact that Reyes is taking this fight on a few days notice makes me hesitant to pick the newcomer.

Pick: Perry

Hector Lombard vs. Anthony Smith

A few years ago, Hector Lombard came in to the UFC as a prime fighter that posed a huge threat to the middleweight title. Today, Lombard’s position in the UFC is much different.

The Cuban fighter is 0-3 in his last three bouts, falling short to Neil Magny, Dan Henderson and Johny Hendricks. Yet, despite not looking like the killer in his most recent bouts, Lombard hasn’t shown to have a weak chin and he has looked very competitive in the cage. Lombard is still a skilled, powerful striker who can end a fight at any given time. Lombard still possesses his great judo background and a solid takedown defense.

His opponent, Anthony Smith, could be considered a step down in competition compared to all of Lombard’s UFC opponents. Either way, Smith is a dangerous fight for Lombard. Smith is a huge, rangy middleweight that will have a physical advantage over Lombard. Smith also has decent striking and massive power.

I think Smith has a solid chance here given his height advantage and power. However, Lombard is the better striker and grappler, and the more experienced fighter. I see Lombard getting in the pocket and taking advantage of Smith’s bad habit of keeping his hands low when striking.

Pick: Lombard

Gregor Gillespie vs. Jason Gonzalez

This is an interesting fight between a tall, lanky jiu-jitsu fighter and a short, explosive wrestler.

Gregor Gillespie is currently undefeated in his MMA career with two wins inside the UFC. Gillespie is a talented wrestler with dominant grappling and strong submissions. Although striking might not be his bread and butter, Gillespie can box and can definitely take a shot. Gillespie is also a very well-rounded athlete. He’s quick, agile, explosive, strong and well conditioned.

Meanwhile, Jason Gonzalez is very different than Gillespie as far as his fighting styles goes. Gonzalez is extremely tall for the division, and most of his work on the ground is much more jiu-jitsu based than Gillespie’s. Gonzalez might not posses the same strength and explosiveness of Gillespie, but he’s slick and uses his length well. The 27-year-old fighter has decent stand up, a good takedown defense, and very crafty submissions.

I think this should be fun bout. I believe Gillespie’s takedowns are superior than Gonzalez’ takedown defense, giving him the ability to take the fight to the mat. And once on the canvas, Gillespie should be skilled and athletic enough to avoid any sneaky submission attempts, while scoring with ground-and-pound and control. I can see Gonzalez having success on the feet having a reach advantage, but Gillespie is too durable to get stopped there.

Pick: Gillespie

Kamaru Usman vs. Sergio Moraes

I feel like this fight, and even both of these fighters, are extremely underrated and flying under the radar. When speaking about welterweight contenders, Kamaru Usmana and Sergio Moraes don’t usually come to mind, but they’re both on extensive win streaks over solid opposition.

Since winning season 21 of The Ultimate Fighter, Usman has remained undefeated, picking up wins over Leon Edwards, Alexander Yakovlev, Warlley Alves and Sean Strickland. The Nigerian fighter is a fantastic athlete with high-level wrestling and improved boxing.

On the other hand, Moraes is 6-0-1 in his last seven UFC bouts. The Brazilian has a well-rounded skill set. He’s proficient in the grappling department, as he has takedowns and great grappling from both top and bottom position, and he’s also very skilled on his feet with his diverse striking.

This is an interesting bout and an important one for the division, as the winner here could be facing a top contender next. I think Moraes will have a fairly significant edge on the feet, but I see Usman being more dominant in the clinch and against the cage. Usman has great wrestling but Moraes has excellent takedown defense, so I wonder how effective Usman’s takedowns will be. Either way, I can see Usman not giving up a big lead on the feet and swaying the judges’ scorecards with clinch control and pressure.

Pick: Usman

Justin Ledet vs. Zu Anyanwu

Here’s a pretty decent heavyweight bout.

Justin Ledet hasn’t really received too much attention, but he’s been quietly picking up momentum. The heavyweight fighter is unbeaten in his MMA career and has looked great since joining the UFC, outclassing Chase Sherman and submitting Mark Godbeer. Ledet is a small heavyweight, but that allows him to be quicker and more agile than most of his opponents. Skill wise, Ledet is a well-rounded fighter with technical boxing, good takedowns, and solid submissions.

Meanwhile, Zu Anyanwu, who made it to the UFC through Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, is a short, stocky heavyweight that can hold his own on the feet. Anyanwu has a good deal of power, making him a dangerous fighter.

I don’t see Ledet losing this fight. Ledet is much quicker, has better boxing technique, and utilizes range a lot better than Anyanwu. Ledet also has great head movement, which will make it difficult for Anyanwu to land with power. I expect a dominant performance by Ledet.

Pick: Ledet

Undercard:

Tony Martin def. Olivier Aubin-Mercier

Daniel Spitz def. Anthony Hamilton

Krzysztof Jotko def. Uriah Hall

Gilbert Burns def. Jason Saggo