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UFC Pittsburgh results: Luke Rockhold finishes David Branch in second round

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Pittsburgh Rockhold vs Branch Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of a round, Luke Rockhold looked very much like a rusty fighter.

Competing for the first time in 15 months, the former UFC and Strikeforce middleweight champion dropped the opening round of his UFC Pittsburgh main event on Saturday night to David Branch, who came out aggressive and active.

But in the second, the Rockhold of old emerged. Rockhold bullied the former two-division World Series of Fighting champion before earning a submission victory via strikes at 4:05 at PPG Paints Arena.

“He came at me really hard,” Rockhold (16-3) said after his 14th career finish. “I wanted to be patient, I rushed the fight last time. When I’m at my best I’m patient.”

Rockhold lost the UFC middleweight belt to Michael Bisping in a stunning upset knockout at UFC 199. But he aimed his post-fight comments at former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who returns from a four-year absence to challenge Bisping for his title at UFC 217.

“GSP, I don’t know what I need to do, do you need me to beat some sense in to you?” Rockhold said. “You don’t belong here, get out while you can.”

Branch (21-4) had an 11-fight win streak snapped and dropped to 1-1 in his current UFC stint.

In the co-feature bout, “Platinum” Mike Perry wasted little time getting down to business with late replacement Alex Reyes (13-2) in their welterweight matchup. Perry dropped Reyes, who filled in this week when Thiago Alves dropped out, with a wicked knee to the head in the clinch which ended the fight via knockout at just 1:18 of the opening round.

“I worked my butt off for this,” Perry (11-1) said after improving to 4-1 in the UFC. “it was supposed to be Thiago in here, but he ran from me.”

Anthony Smith took about as much time as a fighter can possibly take in getting untracked before scoring the biggest victory of his career, a third-round knockout of former Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard.

Lombard, a traditionally fast starter, peppered Smith with punches, kicks, and knees in the opening round, and even though he tired in the second, he likely won that round as well.

But Smith (28-12) finally took advantage of his considerable size and reach advantage in the third, as he rocked Lombard with a left hook and finished him with a straight right. The time of the stoppage was 2:33 of the final round.

Smith, a large 185er, hinted he’s thinking of going up to 205.

“I’m open to fight at 185 or 205,” Smith said. “I can keep making the weight, that’s not a problem. I think that there are some big opportunities at 205 and I think I’m one of the few 85’ers that can go up and be right in the mix

Smith won his third straight fight and had his 25th career stoppage; Lombard (34-8-1, 2 NC) has now dropped four in a row.

Undefeated lightweight Gregor Gillespie put on a tremendous display in his matchup with Jason Gonzalez. Gillespie pushed the pace and mixed smooth striking, slick wrestling and skillful grappling. Gonzalez landed enough offense, particularly with high kicks, to keep Gillespie honest. But Gillespie finally wore his opponent down and finished him at the 2:11 mark of the second round with an arm triangle choke.

“I think I showed I’m a complete fighter,” the Long Island native said. “I don’t think I was trying to prove anything. ... Everyone likes to say the weight class is so deep, but I don’t have to fight everyone in the division at once. I just have to fight the next guy in line.”

Gillespie (10-0) improved to 2-0 in the UFC, with both wins via finish. Gonzalez (11-4) has dropped two of three.

Kamaru Usman made a statement to the welterweight division with a nasty knockout of Sergio Moraes. Usman dropped Moraes (12-3-1) with a right hand, and not only was it a one-shot finish, but Moraes’ momentum caused him to do an unconscious, head-over-heels rollover on the mat.

The 29-year-old Nigerian, who is now 6-0 in the UFC, has been lingering just outside the welterweight top 10 and he declared in fiery postfight comments that he’s ready for the big boys.

“That was the statement win I’ve been looking for,” Usman said. “If people around the world are thinking that I’m not the guy to take that belt away from (Tyron) Woodley, they are crazy. I think RDA (Rafael Dos Anjos) and then I think after RDA is a title eliminator against the winner of Colby Covington and Demian Maia. I want to beat up RDA before the end of the year, early next year fight the title eliminator and then the middle of the year, after Woodley is healthy, I’m taking that belt from him.”

The main card opener was a heavyweight matchup which at times resembled a slow-motion remake of last week’s Amanda Nunes-Valentina Shevchenko fight. Justin Ledet (9-0, 1 NC) was content to circle to the outside for most of his bout with Az Anyanwu (14-5) and parrying his foe with an effective jab.

Anyanwu, a short-notice replacement from Philadelphia, showed some urgency in the third round and tried to press the action, but it wasn’t quite enough. After going the decision for just the second time in his career, Ledet eked out a split decision, taking two out of three 29-28 scores.

Ledet didn’t sugarcoat things. “I was disappointed in myself and my overall performance,” he said. “I had an opponent change on seven days’ notice and I was preparing for a grappler. It’s tough.”

The undercard kicked off with three straight memorable finishes. In the lightweight opener, Gilbert Burns (13-2) used a big overhand right to finish Jason Saggo (12-4) with a one-punch knockout at 4:55 of the second round for Burns’ 12th career finish. Then middleweight Uriah Hall overcame a 10-8 first-round and scored a solid comeback victory over Krzysztof Jotko (19-3), earning the TKO at 2:25 of the second round. That snapped a three-fight Hall losing streak. Then Daniel Spitz (6-1) of Spokane, Wash. needed just 24 seconds to TKO Anthony Hamilton (15-8) in a heavyweight matchup.

In the final bout of the prelim card, Montreal’s Olivier Aubin-Mercier (10-2) won his third straight bout, taking a decision over Boston’s Tony Martin (12-4). Aubin-Mercier got two out of three 29-28 scores for the split in a fight as close as said scores indicate.