Conor McGregor is the most known of the small circle of mixed martial arts fighters who have held two weight class championships simultaneously in the same promotion.
McGregor has done it twice, winning the featherweight belt and the lightweight belt in both CageWarriors and the UFC.
But David Branch, who meets former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold on Saturday at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card on Fox Sports 1, is the only one of those men who has defended those belts.
Branch held the World Series of Fighting’s (now the Professional Fighters League) middleweight and light heavyweight belts before surrendering them and returning to the UFC. Branch made three defenses of the WSOF middleweight belt and one of its light heavyweight belt before signing with the UFC earlier this year.
Branch has received scant attention for his feat, particularly when compared to McGregor. It doesn’t sit particularly well with Branch, either, who had some harsh words for the UFC lightweight champion.
“First of all, Conor McGregor was given a guided path to the belt,” Branch said. “The second belt he achieved, he didn’t fight anybody to put himself into the spot to win that belt. You already mitigated what I did by saying it wasn’t on the same stage, but let me tell you something, my friend: Both of those belts I won were in tournaments and I had to beat a succession of different opponents to get the opportunity to fight for each belt. Not only did I fight and win each belt, but I defended both of them.”
Branch goes into the Rockhold bout on an 11-fight winning streak and having won 13 of his last 14. He’s as hot as anyone in the business.
And while his streak was accomplished largely outside the UFC, don’t suggest to Branch it is somehow lessened because of it. He’s rightly proud of what he has done and 11 in a row is 11 in a row no matter where it happens.
“All, not just some, all of the fighters I’ve fought are high-caliber,” Branch said. “I want to give respect to one of them because he was one of the toughest guys I’ve ever stepped into the ring with. Not a lot of people know about him. A lot of the media, they don’t pay attention to a lot of the fighters who are outside the UFC, even though they’re just as tough as a lot of the fighters who are in the UFC. They’re just as high-caliber, but they don’t have the opportunity.
“But that man’s name is Louis ‘Put Down the Guns’ Taylor. He’s a very, very, very, very, very, very, very tough guy. Oh my God, he’s very tough. He’s one of the guys who pushed me to another level and made me look at a lot of things and understand things about myself. We come from similar backgrounds and he had a similar hunger as myself. That helped me understand me better.”
Branch submitted Taylor with a rear naked choke two minutes into the final round of a WSOF middleweight title bout on New Year’s Eve in New York. The next time out, Branch was in the UFC and won a split decision over Krzysztof Jotko at UFC 211 in Dallas.
Rockhold is fighting for the first time since he lost his middleweight title last year to Michael Bisping. He predicted a dominant victory over Branch, whom he referred to as a tough guy, and told Yahoo Sports he would put Branch in all sorts of peril.
“I just can’t go out and try to force a fight, and I just have to use what I have,” he said. “I have every tool to beat every guy in every way. I’m going to pick this dude apart. I’m going to break him down. I’m going to break his legs, rupture his liver and I’m going to rattle his skull.
“I don’t see this guy wanting to stand with me. I think he’s going to panic and shoot in and I’m going to squash him. I think I’ll flatten him and turn him into a white belt and I’ll smash his face in.”
Branch said that with a win over Rockhold, he believes he should take his position in the rankings and be No. 3, which would position him perfectly for a UFC title opportunity.
He said he’s not putting pressure on himself or worrying about what may happen in the future. His goal, he said, is to perform in such a way that there are no longer questions about him (if there are any now).
“All I need to do is go out there and destruct and destroy,” Branch said. “I need to destroy this man and destroy all his beliefs that he can rupture my liver and do all these crazy things to me that other men weren’t able to do. I need to show that he’s not special and that there’s nothing different about him and that he’s not the man that he thinks he is in his mind. That is what my plan is on Saturday.”