Fire-Breathing Luke Rockhold Looks to Reassert Himself as Top UFC Middleweight

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterSeptember 14, 2017

December 12, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Luke Rockhold reacts following the third round against Chris Weidman during UFC 194 at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Luke Rockhold is finally set to return to the Octagon on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night 116, you think it's possible the disgruntled former middleweight champ might tone things down a bit?

Yeah, good luck with that.

Nobody has taken the 185-pound weight class's recent slowdown as personally as Rockhold. As he prepares to meet former two-division World Series of Fighting champ Dave Branch at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Rockhold is still breathing fire about it in interviews (NSFW quotes ahead).

"I'm f--king tired of waiting," Rockhold said during a recent appearance on MMAjunkie Radio, via Junkie's Stephen Marrocco. "I'm not f--king around. I'm tired of this s--t. I'm tired of talking about it. I'm coming with a vengeance."

Rockhold wants more than to just make the UFC middleweight division pretty again.
Rockhold wants more than to just make the UFC middleweight division pretty again.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The object of Rockhold's ire, of course, is the ongoing logjam atop the division he once briefly ruled. Since the 32-year-old American Kickboxing Academy product conceded his title to Michael Bisping via stunning first-round knockout at UFC 199 in June 2016, all things concerning the championship have slowed to a crawl.

Bisping has defended the title just once since toppling Rockhold, and it was against 46-year-old Dan Henderson at UFC 204 in October of last year. Bisping won the fight via unanimous decision, but he then cast the division into suspended animation while he courted an on-again, off-again matchup against Georges St-Pierre.

With St-Pierre saying he needed until at least this October to get ready and Bisping opting for knee surgery, matchmakers had little choice but to put an interim title on Robert Whittaker following his win over Yoel Romero at UFC 213 in July.

A once-vibrant crop of contenders that featured Romero, Jacare Souza and Chris Weidman has thinned considerably since then. It used to be that you could make the argument that middleweight was as deep and interesting as any division in the UFC. Now people are talking about beefed-up welterweight Kelvin Gastelum as a potential title contender if he gets past 42-year-old Anderson Silva on November 25.

Meanwhile, Rockhold spent the last 15 months steadfastly trying to convince his bosses that he had other options.

During his extended sabbatical in the wake of the Bisping loss, Rockhold signed with the same modeling agency that represents UFC fighter Alan Jouban and actor Channing Tatum. When he wasn't proposing a general strike among his fellow 185-pound fighters, he was showing up cageside with pop star Demi Lovato.

Rockhold with Lovato at UFC 205.
Rockhold with Lovato at UFC 205.Mike Stobe/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The message was clear: Life was good. Rockhold was in no hurry to return to the Octagon.

"I'm not coming back after all this time and fighting some chump on a worthless card," he told Ariel Helwani during an appearance on The MMA Hour in June. "I'm coming back in style and making some noise.”

That sentiment makes the Branch booking an interesting one.

UFC Fight Night 116 may not be "worthless" in Rockhold's estimation, but it certainly doesn't qualify as a noisemaker. On its face, it's enough to make you wonder if Rockhold was just posturing in his demands for something bigger or if his fallback career opportunities didn't turn out to be as lucrative as he'd hoped.

Then there's Branch himself, who rolls into this bout on a 13-1 tear since a loss to Rousimar Palhares ended his first stint in the UFC in March 2011. While spending the next five years competing in smaller organizations, Branch became that rare fighter who actually improved his standing in the sport without the promotional oomph of the UFC behind him.

How good is Dave Branch really? We're about to find out.
How good is Dave Branch really? We're about to find out.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

He returned to MMA's biggest stage in May and won a split decision over highly touted Polish fighter Krzysztof Jotko.

All that means the MMA world is still very much in the process of figuring out how good this revamped version of Branch really is. Right now, he could be a pushover opponent for Rockhold in his comeback fight, a deceptively tough but unheralded stumbling block or something in between.

Which is it? We won't know until Saturday night.

Nonetheless, Rockhold says a victory over Branch (which he implies is already in the bag) shouldn't just put him back on the short list of contenders for Bisping's belt—it should allow him to leapfrog St-Pierre.

"I think Georges St-Pierre is a joke," Rockhold said on MMAjunkie Radio. "I still don't have faith that Georges makes it to the fight, so we'll see what happens."

These two? Not exactly each other's favorites.
These two? Not exactly each other's favorites.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Given the sudden lack of other viable contenders for either of the UFC's two middleweight champions—Bisping and Whittaker—now would be an opportune time for Rockhold to reassert his position near the top.

A win over Branch would make him the most obvious next opponent for Bisping, provided the brash Brit beats GSP. If St-Pierre wins the title or if Bisping's belt somehow remains stuck in the mud, it's conceivable Rockhold could next take on Whittaker instead.

Whatever happens, the only sure bet is Rockhold won't be happy about it.

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