Saturday night will host two highly anticipated displays of the combative arts, both in the middleweight division of their respective sports.
In the headline Octagon matchup in Pittsburgh’s UFC Fight Night 116, Luke Rockhold makes his return to the cage after spending the past 15 months on the sidelines due to injury. He meets David Branch, a former simultaneous two-division champion under the World Series of Fighting banner. Branch is hoping to make a similar impact under the brightest lights mixed martial arts has to offer.
Despite being one of the more enticing middleweight matchups in recent memory, Rockhold-Branch will ultimately play second fiddle to one of the biggest boxing matches the sport has ever produced: Canelo Alvarez versus Gennady Golovkin. After several years of buildup, many of which were spent hoping this bout would come sooner rather than later, the elite-level sluggers will finally share the squared circle for a night that’s as can’t-miss as one can recall over the past decade.
A world apart in terms of sheer magnitude, the two middleweight clashes have more in common than one would expect at first glance.
This link revolves around the men essentially recognized as the B sides in their respective clashes: Branch and Golovkin.
Having spent the majority of the past five years outside of the UFC, Branch made a name for himself as one of the more intriguing contenders competing on the less-recognized circuits of MMA. He stormed through 10 consecutive contenders as one of the faces of WSOF, winning the 185-pound title in June of 2014 before extending his championship pursuit to the 205-pound division. He crushed his opposition, regularly defending both crowns without holding either division up. Branch may have been competing against lesser opposition, but his feat is only slightly less impressive as a result. Shifting between two divisions — especially ones separated by a whopping 20 pounds — is no easy task.
Still, Branch’s accomplishments aren’t celebrated heavily by the general fan base — many have either remained unaware of the 35-year-old’s abilities or diminished them altogether based on the names featured on that 10-fight run. His greatest victory arguably came opposite Yushin Okami, a man who, at his best, suffered a one-sided defeat to then-invincible UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Branch hasn’t had the sort of competition to reach the heights he feels he deserves.
Sounds familiar? It should.
Golovkin, undefeated through 37 outings as a professional boxer, has remained in the shadows for a majority of his career despite consistently finding the knockout victory: Try 89 percent of the time. For years now, many — including those inside Golovkin’s camp — have taken to the rooftops to proclaim Golovkin one of very best fighters on the planet. Much to his concern, those claims have — until the past year — been shrugged off as nothing more than hyperbolic narrative.
The overarching argument to subdue the excitement surrounding the Kazakhstan native — and his place as an all-time great — revolves around the notion that he hasn’t consistently faced fighters of name value or great talent. That hasn’t been by his own design, having openly discussed his struggles to secure a big-name fight on numerous occasions.
In essence, Golovkin has been both too dangerous and too unknown for any elite fighter to take a risk on. They either become the one to defeat a faceless man and reap the corresponding, albeit dismal, rewards… or worse, they become the one to lose to the faceless man and take the ensuing tumble.
Nobody, including Alvarez for the past several years, wanted to take the chance. The opportunity cost simply wasn’t there.
To date, Golovkin’s greatest victory came over Daniel Jacobs. Yet, that matchup only came to fruition after Golovkin’s name had already been surgically attached to Alvarez’s for the better part of two years. Despite his greatest efforts inside the ring, and despite all the belts he has won in his native class, Golovkin’s greatest achievement has been proving himself a worthy adversary to the most popular active fighter in the sport.
Golovkin needs Alvarez in order to truly make a statement at 160 pounds.
The same goes for Branch, who has his chance to shine against a former champion of the UFC. He may not be competing for gold just yet, but defeating Rockhold won’t leave him too far off.
Fighting in the shadows for a majority of their primes, the spotlight will finally be placed on Golovkin and Branch, both hoping to stay there for the foreseeable future.