It's been more than a year since Luke Rockhold last stepped into the UFC Octagon, but he'll never forget the way he exited the last time out.
In June 2016, the rangy California native suffered a first-round knockout to current middleweight champion Michael Bisping in one of the most shocking upsets in recent memory. Since that time, Rockhold has dealt with injuries and a lot of time off, but he's anxious to resume his career this Saturday night when he faces David Branch in the main event at UFC Fight Night 116 in Pittsburgh.
As much as Rockhold is focused on beating Branch and re-establishing himself atop the UFC middleweight rankings, he's never lost sight of getting back into the cage with Bisping.
Rockhold holds a submission win over Bisping from their first encounter in November 2014, so it only seems logical that the two fighters would meet in a rubber match at some point down the road. That said, Rockhold isn't holding his breath on a trilogy with Bisping ever materializing because he's confident the brash Brit wants to retire while still celebrating his vengeance in their rematch.
"I'll put myself in position for that fight [against Bisping]," Rockhold told FloCombat. "I can't control if the man will step up and fight me due to his actions in the last year. I can't say that he will take the fight. I think he's avoided every fight. He talks bad about the opponent I have. My opponent is ranked four spots higher than his first and only title defense in a year and three months. He's got no room to talk.
"I'm not going to hold him to it. I'm not going to hold my breath. I'm just going to fight my fight one at a time and put myself into position to take back the division and take back the top spot. Whether he's there or whether he's not doesn't matter to me. Of course it would be sweet, but some people don't want it. I just think he's a f*cking coward."
Photo Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
While his feelings on Bisping are quite clear, Rockhold knows losing focus is what cost him the last time out at UFC 199.
Going into that fight, Rockhold was a massive favorite, and he'd already dominated Bisping once before. Add to that, Bisping accepted the fight on less than two weeks' notice, so it was understandable why Rockhold exuded so much confidence going into the fight.
This approach backfired when Rockhold got clipped with a punch in the opening round and never recovered, but the Californian has learned a valuable lesson from that fight -- one he vows will never happen again.
"I don't make the same mistake twice," Rockhold said. "I'll be focused. I'll have my mind right. My fight game will be right."
Rockhold was actually ready to return to action several months ago, but the UFC struggled to secure a worthy opponent for the former Strikeforce champion.
Earlier in the summer, Rockhold attempted to land a fight with former middleweight champion Anderson Silva, but that never materialized. Rockhold also tried to get former title contender Yoel Romero to sign on the dotted line for September. The Cuban-born fighter reportedly wasn't going to be ready in time to compete at that early of a date, and once again Rockhold was left without a dance partner.
That's where Branch, a former World Series of Fighting two-division champion, entered the conversation.
Photo Credit: © Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Branch has built an 11-fight winning streak that includes his most recent bout in the UFC against Krzysztof Jotko back in May. While Branch now holds a spot inside the top 10 rankings at 185 pounds, he wasn't the marquee name that Rockhold hoped to land. That said, Rockhold respects Branch for stepping up to the challenge when so many others refused to do the same.
"I tried to fight a laundry list of guys, and no one would step up," Rockhold said. "Here I am from June to July to August to September -- I couldn't wait any longer. Now's the time. Branch was the only guy to step up to the game so here we go. It might not be the ideal opponent but I'm game.
"I'm happy the man stepped up and I have an opponent. I have someone I can go to work with. I'm sure he's a tough guy. He's a top 10 opponent."
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