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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Pittsburgh

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Pittsburgh Rockhold vs Branch
Luke Rockhold defeated David Branch via second-round submission at UFC Pittsburgh.
Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

The axiom that it's often the shows you least expect that wind up being fun events held true on Saturday night as UFC Pittsburgh featured not only one of the best nights of explosive finishes, but one of the company's best fights of 2017 in the lightweight battle between Gregor Gillespie and Jason Gonzalez.

Going head-to-head with the second biggest boxing match of the year, with Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin tearing down their house as well, it was a night that UFC probably felt low on a lot of people's priority lists.

But when it was over, the night was full of highlight-reel knockouts up and down the show. Eight of the 10 fights ended via knockout of TKO, most in spectacular fashion.

The most talked about item was the return of former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold, in his first match back since losing his title to Michael Bisping 15 months ago in one of the bigger upset title changes in UFC history. The end result was a strong positive as Rockhold (16-3) put himself into the thick of things when it comes to a future title fight by ending the 11-fight winning streak of former two-division World Series of Fighting champion David Branch (21-4).

Rockhold had a stated post-match purpose. When his fight was over, he told Georges St-Pierre to step aside and let him get the next title shot at Bisping. Of course, that isn't going to happen. But such talk solidifies that if something was to happen to either Bisping or St-Pierre prior to the Madison Square Garden fight, the UFC matchmakers will likely have Rockhold on speed dial. And this is a year where top fights have fallen through so often that it's always a possibility.

Rockhold's end result, a win via strikes on the ground, the second time Branch has been stopped by strikes in a 10-year career, was impressive. But the fight itself raised a lot of questions. Branch had a strong edge in the stand-up, particularly early in the first round when he kept landing good shots and had Rockhold in trouble. Rockhold never got untracked standing, and was taking hard shots throughout the fight.

The fight really didn't start going Rockhold's way until he got a second-round takedown. What Rockhold did show was one of the best finishing top games in the sport. Branch is a experienced ground fighter with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, yet he looked almost helpless once the fight ended up on the ground, similar to what Rockhold has done in the past with Lyoto Machida and Chris Weidman.

Right now, from the standard of seeing who the best fighter in the middleweight division is, the key fight would look to be Rockhold vs. interim champion Robert Whittaker. But with Bisping vs. GSP on the horizon, and Whittaker having first dibs on the winner, Rockhold is put in an interesting position.

If he waits, it could be a year from before the fights already committed sort themselves out and he can get a title shot.

Rockhold wasn't the only person aiming high Saturday night. Mike Perry (11-1) called out Robbie Lawler, and Kamaru Usman (11-1) mentioned the name Rafael dos Anjos.

In the case of Perry, he got a knockout win in just 1:19, but it was against an opponent who normally fights a weight class below, who looked greatly outsized in the cage, and who was also taking the fight on a few days notice. It feels early for Perry to be asking for Lawler, but the key is that by doing so, more people are talking about Perry. In that sense, even if he doesn't get that fight now, he benefitted himself more by linking himself with a former champion like Lawler, and perhaps with another knockout win, that could be a fight fans would then be more interested in. If nothing else, he got people talking, which is important for every fighter, in a sport filled with guys who score impressive wins but are forgotten quickly with the plethora of shows.

Let's look at how Fortunes changed for five of Saturday night's stars:

LUKE ROCKHOLD His best-case scenario is if something happens to St-Pierre, because he made himself the most likely replacement, and he and Bisping have now split two fights.

But if things play out in the expected time frame, Rockhold's choices are to wait out what could be a long time, or risk a potential title shot.

In that situation, on paper the opponent he should face would be Yoel Romero (12-2). If Rockhold is most dangerous while on top, he's facing a fighter with former Olympic silver medalist wrestling credentials, meaning Rockhold getting that takedown into that dominant position won't be easy. And Romero's striking is far more explosive than that of Branch’s.

MIKE PERRY Perry's seventh first-round stoppage continues a record where of his 11 wins, all have come by knockout. Being aggressive in asking for top guys, and insulting them, is traditionally beneficial to getting bigger fights.

A fight with Lawler (28-11) would probably bring the best out of both guys and is a matchup that could be marketed well. At this point, Lawler looks too close to a title shot, and if he's not getting a title shot next, his probable next fight would be with a higher level contender.

More likely fights for Perry would be with either Santiago Ponzinibbio (25-3), another Saturday night winner in Usman, or his original opponent on Saturday, Thiago Alves (22-11), who missed the fight due to travel issues in getting out of Florida.

GREGOR GILLESPIE The former NCAA Division I wrestling national champion in 2007 moved to 10-0 in MMA, with eight of them being finishes in two rounds or less. The big question of every NCAA champion who goes into MMA is how they handle being punched. While Gillespie controlled most of the fight, he was dropped in the first round, recovered quickly and quickly took down opponent Jason Gonzalez.

The one thing about lightweight is there is an endless supply of fighters who can be Gillespie's next step. The ones that look the most interesting as far as stylistic opponents would be Clay Guida (33-17) or Michael Chiesa (14-3).

KAMARU USMAN Usman's knockout win over Sergio Moraes (12-4-1) on Saturday was the first time Moraes had been stopped since 2009. Usman was the Division II national champion in 2010 and is working on a 10-fight winning streak since his only career loss. Besides Perry, Alex Oliveira (17-4-1) would like a good next opponent.

DAVID BRANCH After the setback to Rockhold, a good next fight for him would be Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (24-5), because whoever wins would be boosted back into the top tier position in the division. Another option would be Uriah Hall (14-8), who was losing most of his fight with Krzysztof Jotko on Saturday, but has that one punch or kick power to stop virtually anyone.