Rockhold versus Branch - Beating the Check Hook, and the Rise of Low-Low Kicks
Luke Rockhold’s return to action might have been touched by some ring rust, but for the most part the performance was vintage Rockhold—the good and the not so good. It is fashionable to remember Michael Bisping’s shocking knockout of Rockhold a year ago as some kind of fluke, or as the direct result of Rockhold not showing Bisping enough respect. Who is to know what is going on in the mind of another man, but Bisping’s gameplan showed awareness of what got him stung in their first meeting, and took away Rockhold’s favourite looks: the left round kick and the back-skipping check hook.
Dave Branch did a great job against Rockhold on the feet by mitigating the same two threats. Bisping took away the left kick by circling to his left, and the check hook by inviting Rockhold to lead—where his questionable punching form got him caught. Branch took the fight to Rockhold instead. The plan seemed to be to spiral in—going to Rockhold but getting outside his lead foot and shoulder before stepping in to strike. When the left kicks came, Branch was able to absorb them on the forearms or ride them out to the left for the most part due to his conscious effort to circle in on Rockhold.
Rockhold’s southpaw right hook has been his money punch throughout his career—dropping Lyoto Machida and giving Michael Bisping fits. Because of his height and length, and his long stance, Rockhold can make great distance skipping back and will look to swing the right hook as his man steps in.
Due to his narrow stance, Rockhold will swing his upper body to the left to generate power, often dropping his left hand just as he did on his lunges in against Bisping. With Branch stepping outside of Rockhold’s lead shoulder each time he came in, Rockhold had to swing wider and wider to get the right hook on target. Branch would throw a wide right as far ahead of him as he could each time he stepped in, attempting to catch Rockhold leaning back. In the first round, Rockhold overcommitted to his counter and Branch was able to get off some good shots on the former champion—making nonsense of the claim that Rockhold is somehow chinny.
It was a simple gameplan for Branch but it was doing the job nicely. If you could ask for one more thing, it would be a nice skip up left kick to the calf or ankle to knock Rockhold's lead foot across himself as he gave ground, as Michael Bisping used a couple of times in their second meeting. Using it more frequently against Rockhold can both complicate the skip back hook, and take him out of his stance and leave him a static target for the right hand.
It seemed as though Branch was keen to get to the fence and grind, but Rockhold looked to have little trouble with him there. Rockhold’s head was constantly getting below Branch’s and stifling his efforts, a biceps tie stuffed every attempt Branch made to open up with punches, and every clinch initated by Branch was eventually turned into a clinch with Branch’s back to the fence. When Branch was against the cage, Rockhold posted his head below Branch’s and was able to throw his hips back far enough to attack with some sturdy knees. It would have been nice to see what Rockhold could have done with these if the fight had continued for the full five rounds.
Rockhold repeatedly searched for an outside trip along the fence in the first round, but Branch wasn’t having it. After a few failed attempts Rockhold began looping his hooking leg all the way through to block the front of Branch’s leg on the inside, then attempted to throw Branch forward onto his hands. Each time Rockhold did this Branch stepped forward and Rockhold was able to get behind him and lift him.
Rockhold had a degree of success on the feet when he started to switch stances, using the right low kick from an orthodox stance to annoy Branch and then having more joy with his check hook whenever he switched back. The low-low kick, below the knee has become a major talking point over the last two UFC cards. It is something we have been discussing since Anderson Silva showed its potential against Demian Maia—allowing him to kick and run away without fear of his shin riding up and getting caught—but for some reason a spurt of fighters have just now started using it in fights over the last couple of weeks. Jeremy Stephens hammered Gilbert Melendez with it, Rafael dos Anjos took out Neil Magny’s footing with it, Hector Lombard marked up Anthony Smith with it, and Kamaru Usman hobbled Sergio Moraes with it.
It certainly benefits from the improving boxing in mixed martial arts, which is leading more and more fighters to strike out of longer, more bladed stances, presenting that lead leg. While a shin-on-shin connection seems more likely than if aiming at the opponent’s thigh, the low-low kick has the advantage that even if the opponent checks, you are very unlikely to kick him in the knee cap or just below—as in so many of those “kickboxer breaks leg” videos on Youtube. You can raise your leg to check, you can’t lower it.
Overall this was a standard Luke Rockhold showing—glorious grappling and some holes on the feet amid powerful strikes and good timing. Dave Branch gave a good account of himself and had the right idea, but lost the fight in the clinch. Unfortunately the outcome of this fight—with Branch tapping to strikes as he was spread out, belly down with Rockhold on his back—has some questioning Branch’s heart. Toughness is mandatory in a fighter, and makes the difference between a good fighter and a great one, but it should only be there to serve its purpose. Bellied down with a top flight grappler on his back and plenty of time left in the round, Branch had a gun pressed against his head. Far better to come back another day than take the sort of pounding that Chris Weidman did through his losing effort against Rockhold for the belt.
We will talk more about this event and UFC 215 on the Fights Gone By podcast tomorrow.
As a bonus, here's Sergio Moraes reminding us that a cheeky 'nodder' will always be a great way to catch an aggressive puncher.