Credit where it's due: Luke Rockhold knows how to nurse a wound.
It was well over a year ago that Rockhold lost his UFC middleweight title to Michael Bisping. Despite being a massive favorite in his first title defense, Rockhold suffered an unceremonious first-round beating to a man six years his senior.
Even through protracted contract negotiations, he found a way to shoulder on. A dalliance with singer/actress/MMA enthusiast Demi Lovato may have been helpful. Ditto his launching of a professional modeling career. There's also the small fact that Rockhold is rich and famous (at least by MMA standards) and had the luxury of sitting out for a year in anticipation of "the right situation" coming along.
That right situation, evidently, was David Branch, who recently reached the UFC after being a two-division champ in the World Series of Fighting promotion. These two will headline UFC Fight Night 116, going down Saturday from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Despite Rockhold's presence and stated desire for his return to be accompanied by M-80s and Blue Angels, this is not the world's sexiest card. And yet, there are several bouts worth watching, especially since it's all freely available on Fox Sports 1.
Let us now separate wheat from chaff and identify the three fights you can't miss on the evenings. Betting odds courtesy of OddsShark.
Luke Sanders (11-1) vs. Felipe Arantes (18-8-1)
Odds: Sanders -250
Airs on: Fox Sports 1
Don't let his last loss to Iuri Alcantara fool you. Alcantara's an otherworldly grappler, and even so it was a bit of a fluky submission finish. Sanders remains one of the brightest prospects in the bantamweight division.
Sanders is violent. He likes to get his takedowns and deploy heavy ground striking, but to do that against the veteran Arantes, he's going to have to get through a dangerous striking attack. Arantes is good everywhere, but he's at his best when he's throwing kicks. There should be some high-octane exchanges on the feet before Sanders eventually gets this to the ground. He should avoid the Hail Mary submission this time, but you never know.
Hector Lombard (34-7-1-2) vs. Anthony Smith (27-12)
Odds: Smith -102
Airs on: Fox Sports 1
This one's kind of interesting from a marketing standpoint. Lombard is far better known than Smith, but at age 39 and on a three-plus-year losing streak, the bloom is off the rose a bit for the Cuban-Australian. Smith, on the other hand, is a dangerous fighter with no name recognition whatsoever.
That equation could change Saturday.
These two have a lot of fights between them. Ditto the knockouts, with a combined 32. For all his judo skills, Lombard fell hard for the quick finish long ago, and there's nothing to suggest he'll be changing that up anytime soon. But Smith, exactly 10 years Lombard's junior, should be equal to the task, not only weathering the storm but returning a few lightning bolts of his own.
Lombard has faced cardio concerns for years now. If he doesn't pace himself here—and, again, old dog new tricks—he could be a pivotal stepping stone for an exciting younger fighter in Smith.
Luke Rockhold (15-3) vs. David Branch (21-3)
Odds: Rockhold -208
Airs on: Fox Sports 1
In his first UFC fight after a six-year absence that included his two-division title run in WSOF, Branch didn't exactly light the world on fire in a close split-decision win over Krzysztof Jotko. But Jotko's good, and Branch got the job done. He might just need a little more against the former middleweight champ.
Branch has stated he wants to "shut down" Rockhold and earn a finish, per The MMA Hour (h/t MMA Mania). Rockhold has predicted a domination so thorough that Branch will "panic." As they say, something will need to give here.
Rockhold has been working with famed kickboxer and instructor Henri Hooft, so his striking will be on point. You know his jiu-jitsu will always be top notch. He has good size and will probably look to attack Branch from the perimeter with kicks and lay back for the counter.
Branch has a fairly basic striking game, and it may be hard for him to get close enough to ply his jab or initiate a clinch. He is also a great wrestler and grappler, but opponents aren't safe anywhere on the ground against Rockhold. It's hard to see Branch holding Rockhold down and neutralizing him for 25 minutes.
Still, Branch is a battle-tested veteran with consummate grinding skills. Rockhold is the favorite for a reason but bigger upsets have occurred.