Last June, Luke Rockhold defended the UFC middleweight championship against Michael Bisping.
Bisping, a seasoned veteran who had never even earned a title shot, took the fight against Rockhold on late notice. Bisping was an afterthought. A placeholder for Rockhold to beat while he waited for other, more deserving contenders.
Of course, mixed martial arts is a weird and unpredictable thing. Bisping beat Rockhold from pillar to post, stripping the belt from Rockhold's clutches. It was one of those improbable upsets that mixed martial arts sometimes throws your way just to keep you from getting too comfortable.
In the 15 months since that night, Rockhold has stewed. He's grown bitter, and who can blame him? Bisping, never a portrait of sportsmanship or class, has taunted Rockhold from afar. Perhaps Rockhold began to feel what some of us felt: that Bisping would rather retire as champion than face Rockhold again.
Bisping is still champion. He faces former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre in November at Madison Square Garden. And, truth be told, Rockhold may be no closer to the rematch he desperately wants than he was before Saturday night. But now, at least he put a scratch back in the win column.
Rockhold's second-round TKO win over David Branch was nothing to write home about. Branch, the former World Series of Fighting two-division champion, stepped in the Octagon riding an 11-fight winning streak. His career can be summarized in two easy parts: There was the David Branch who washed out of the UFC on his first go-round, and then there's the new David Branch who went out and found himself and became the best middleweight on Earth not fighting in the UFC.
This fight against Rockhold was a reckoning for Branch. It was a chance to prove he belonged, that his career rebound was the real deal and not just the end result of facing lesser competition.
And in the first round, Branch looked well on his way to doing just that. Rockhold looked sluggish. All of the things he used to do better than anyone, well, he just didn't do them quite as well. And Branch caught him with a few solid punches, solid enough that it was easy (in the moment) to see a big-time upset unfolding before our eyes.
But Rockhold survived, and then came the second round, and then came the old Luke Rockhold. The one who is an absolute destroyer of souls on the ground. He scored a takedown, quickly shifted into mount, and before long there he was, on Branch's back, punching the helpless New York native until the referee stepped in. Rockhold stood and started walking away but continued glowering at Branch on the ground.
If you thought a win over a tough opponent was enough to satiate the festering wound in Rockhold's soul, you're wrong.
After the fight, Rockhold took the opportunity to send a message to St-Pierre.
"You better get out of this thing while you still can. You better back out," Rockhold. "Don't embarrass yourself, GSP. Just back out."
It was a case of Rockhold attempting to use his moment on the microphone to will into existence the future he desperately wants. Rockhold has always been something of an entitled athlete; that's the sort of thing that comes along with growing up with money, good looks and superb athletic traits. And it's always better to use that microphone time to say what you want, rather than take the path of so many others and let Jon Anik know you'll fight whoever the UFC puts in front of you.
Still, as much as Rockhold may imagine himself deserving of jumping the line, it's laughable to imagine the UFC choosing him as an injury replacement should St-Pierre pull out of the Bisping fight. Chris Weidman is coming off a fantastic win over a top middleweight in Kelvin Gastelum, and more importantly, Weidman is a local New York boy. The UFC does a lot of dumb things, but picking the rich California surfer over the Long Island kid at Madison Square Garden? Yeah. That won't happen.
And besides, what was true a year ago is true today. Bisping won't fight Rockhold. He'll retire before he ever gives Rockhold the rematch. In fact, I'd be surprised if the St-Pierre fight isn't Bisping's curtain call in mixed martial arts.
So Rockhold will go on being unhappy. He'll scowl and glower over a loss that he won't get to revenge.
Which, come to think of it, might be a real bad thing for the rest of the UFC's middleweight division.