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Luke Rockhold caps wild night of fights, once again a big fish in the murky middleweight waters

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

Saturday night’s UFC show in Pittsburgh was a relatively quiet affair, going up against the big Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez boxing match, which itself was territorially — one might even say cleansingly — going up against the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather fight from a few weeks back. It’s been some strange times in the fight game, so strange in fact that UFC president Dana White opted to stay in Vegas for GGG-Canelo instead of attending Luke Rockhold’s return fight with David Branch. Perhaps only Adalaide Byrd would have scored that decision a travesty.

For the rest of mankind, it was a no-brainer.

Still, Pittsburgh got a pretty good one. Of the swift 10 bouts that ended up comprising the card at UFC Fight Night 116, eight didn’t make full use of the allotted 15 minutes. Gilbert Burns starched Jason Saggo to kick things off, and Uriah Hall blew up Krzysztof Jotko, proving to White’s empty seat that he still has a stomach for inflicting bodily harm. Even Anthony Smith, after a couple of rounds getting his lead leg hacked into, came to life midway through the third to finish Hector Lombard (TKO). People came to fight in Western Penn.

In some ways, the Pittsburgh card was the encore of UFC 215 in Edmonton, the run-off of the disgruntled and disenfranchised. Last time it was the renegade champ duo of Demetrious Johnson and Amanda Nunes, both of whom White has thrown under the bus in recent times for acting up. This time it was Mike Perry (who carries an eternal chip on his shoulder) and Branch (likewise), feather-rufflers who don’t do well with authority. And of course there was Rockhold, who for the last year or so has barfed a little in his mouth each time he’s been asked about the current state of the UFC’s middleweight division.

Rockhold’s return after 15 months away fell in the forward shadow of Michael Bisping’s upcoming title defense against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 217, which takes place Nov. 4. That’s what was weird about it…the unsure stakes. What was the top three middleweight fighting for Saturday night against the former two-division WSOF champion? The right to intrude. In his time away Bisping has traveled a series back roads with Dan Henderson and now GSP, while Robert Whittaker has hacked down the other middleweight colossi (Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero) and supplanted Rockhold as the next contender.

If Rockhold’s return to action told us anything, it seemed to be this: Not so fast, bub.

Rockhold got touched up a bit in his fight with Branch, taking some clean hard shots that looked to put him in some early jeopardy. Yet Rockhold is nothing if not a picture of unnerving calm; he weathered the storm and took his time taking over the narrative dictation. It was vintage Rockhold psychotica. By the second round, it was his fight. He scored a body lock takedown and advanced quickly to mount, from where he whapped away at the side of Branch’s face. When Branch tried to break away, he got his back like something on Animal Kingdom, and continued wailing away at the temples. In the end, Branch tapped as the strikes rolled in as the ref jumped in.

For Rockhold, that win washed the bitter taste from his mouth after having coughed up his title to Bisping at UFC 199 last year. He glared long and hard at the prone body of Branch as he walked away, like he was disgusted by the man’s feeble attempt. Cold. Cold. Coooold.

And what did he do on the mic afterwards? Why, Rockhold reasoned with GSP to get out of the middleweight division while there’s still time, that’s what.

“GSP, I don’t know what I need to do,” he told Jon Anik in the post-fight interview. “You want me to beat some sense into you? You don’t belong here. You’re gonna get crushed. You better back out. Get out of this thing while you still can. This is my fight. This is my fight and I’ll be there sooner than you motherf***er. Let’s go.”

It wasn’t the most eloquent call out — in fact, it debatable if it was a callout at all. It was more a suggestion for a moonlighting legend to stay in his lane so that…you know, he can do what able-bodied middleweights do, and avenge some crazy fluky ish that went down in Los Angeles? Or something. At any rate, Rockhold said he was healthy and ready to stand in for that rubber match, should the UFC need him at MSG.

He’s back. After a year-and-a-half out of the game, Rockhold returned as an advisor to GSP, a fixated bounty hunter for Bisping, and as a justice-seeker for his division — a division he lost from his grasp 15 months ago. A lot has happened in his absence.

But Rockhold now has his hands in again.