As always, welcome to the MMA DFS Playbook! We’ve had a busy few weeks, as this is our 3rd straight week with a UFC event, and won’t be our last. I’ll be back next week for our 4th week straight for UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Saint Preux 2. For now, UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Branch (UFC Fight Night 116) goes down this Saturday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The card is headlined by a middleweight tilt between Luke Rockhold and David Branch. We had a rough go of it last week with several huge upsets at UFC 215, so let’s get back to our winning ways with this card. Here are my takes on the bouts you should be targeting.
Main Card (FS1)
Luke Rockhold ($9,300) vs. David Branch ($6,900)
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Former Strikeforce and UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold makes his first appearance since losing his title to Michael Bisping by knockout at UFC 199 in June 2016, and he’ll face former 2-division WSOF champion David Branch in a 5-round headliner. The devastating loss to Bisping was Rockhold’s first loss since his UFC debut in 2013, and snapped a 5-fight win streak. With 13 stoppages in 15 total victories, the former middleweight king is always exciting to watch, and this should be a good match-up for him against Branch. Branch is in his second run with the UFC, and won his first bout back with the promotion over Krzysztof Jotko by split-decision in May. He’s on an incredible 11-fight win streak, and dominated competition in WSOF, capturing both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles.
The loss to Bisping was a rough one for Rockhold. He goes from headlining pay-per-views at The Forum in Los Angeles to Fight Night cards, and I firmly believe it’s all on him. In the fight with Bisping, you could clearly see the lack of respect Rockhold had for his opponent, and it cost him dearly. He was knocked out by the heavy underdog, a man he had soundly beaten less than 2 years prior, because he didn’t take the bout seriously. He’ll need to take this one seriously, as Branch is a world-class fighter, despite the heavy odds in Rockhold’s favor.
This should be a good fight stylistically, as both men excel on the ground, but also possess competent striking skills. I think it’s Rockhold’s fight to lose, as long as he comes in focused. Rockhold has been in the cage with, and beaten fighters that would certainly give Branch fits, and though Branch has excellent ground skills, I believe Rockhold is better on the mat. He should also have the advantage in the striking game, and will probably do his damage there. While I believe Branch should be given more credit in the betting odds, he is still definitely the underdog here. With a takedown defense rate at 69% for Rockhold, I don’t foresee Branch getting the takedown, leaving the fight on the feet, where I think Rockhold wins this one. Rockhold dominates early, then polishes Branch off early in the 2nd round, giving him a much-needed win. The pick is Rockhold by TKO.
Mike Perry ($8,500) vs. Alex Reyes ($7,700)
While I’m always excited to watch Mike Perry, this fight is a bummer on paper, as the original match-up of Perry taking on Thiago Alves had fireworks written all over it. Alves was forced to withdraw due to undisclosed reasons on Wednesday, but Perry will remain on the card as Alex Reyes bravely steps in on extremely short notice. Since debuting last year, Perry has put on some wild performances. He’s an incredibly aggressive fighter, with all 3 of his wins coming by knockout, including his latest victory over Jake Ellenberger. Perry knocked Ellenberger out with a standing elbow from the clinch, impressive enough to warrant the $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus. Reyes, a King of the Cage veteran, will be making his UFC debut after picking up a victory in his first action back following a 2-year layoff. He’s a solid prospect with a 13-2 record, and a win over Perry would sky rocket his career.
Good for Reyes for taking this bout on such short notice, but I think he’s majorly out-gunned here. He’s a capable fighter in his own right, but making your debut on 3 days’ notice against a fighter with the style that Perry employs is a very tall order. I think Reyes will gain Perry’s respect while staying competitive in the opening exchanges, but it won’t last forever. Eventually a brutal blow from Perry will find its mark, and end Reyes’ debut in spectacular fashion. No surprise here, I’m taking “Platinum” by KO in the 1st round.
Hector Lombard ($8,100) vs. Anthony Smith ($8,100)
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This should be a fun fight with the potential for an awesome finish. Former inaugural Bellator middleweight champion and Pride/UFC vet Hector Lombard looks to earn his first victory in almost 3 years when he fights the well-traveled Anthony Smith. Lombard’s UFC tenure has largely been a disappointment since his signing in 2012, and has also been marred by a failed steroid test. 3 straight losses to Neil Magny, Dan Henderson, and Johny Hendricks have made this fight essentially a do-or-die for the Cuban-Australian. Despite the disappointments, Lombard is always must-see, with the potential for a knockout at any moment. His opponent is also exciting, as I’m sure Smith will gladly oblige to a brawl. The American has won 10 of his last 11, with 8 coming by stoppage. He originally debuted with the UFC in 2013, but was released after 1 bout. He earned another shot in the big show, and has won 3 of his last 4 bouts with the promotion.
With Lombard clearly out of the title picture, I expect this to be one of his more exciting performances as of late, as he should be pressure free. He’s going to be at a disadvantage in size, as Smith is 7 inches taller, but only has a 5-inch reach advantage. Lombard has fought taller guys his whole career, so I’m not overly concerned with it, but it will definitely be something to monitor early. How he deals with Smith’s length will go a long way towards earning a victory. Lombard’s Olympic level judo would serve him well in this one, as the takedown should come rather easily, as long as he uses it offensively. Smith has a takedown defense rate of just 44%, so if Lombard conserves his energy and shoots for smart takedowns and throws, he should be able to floor him.
This is a tough one for me to call for a few reasons. Smith has never competed at the level that Lombard has, but Lombard is clearly at the end of his career these days. Lombard also has conditioning issues, and it has contributed to losses in a big way. I’ve been burned by Lombard before, and I don’t plan on it happening here. Smith is too long, and will push Lombard to the brink late in the fight. Lombard will have success early, like he typically does, but he won’t put Smith away. His gas tank will suffer accordingly, and I see Smith stealing one late. I’m taking Smith by TKO early in the 3rd round.
Kamaru Usman ($9,200) vs. Sergio Moraes ($7,000)
Not too many casual fans will know it, but this is a huge fight in the welterweight division, and one that could jettison the winner up the rankings. Kamaru Usman takes on Sergio Moraes in a fight that could easily be on a pay-per-view card. Usman is a perfect 5-0 in the UFC, and has won The Ultimate Fighter. He’s gaining traction in the welterweight division, as he’s currently ranked #13. He hasn’t even been threatened at this point, and certainly deserves stiff competition from here on out. Though not officially ranked Moraes represents that step up in competition. Since losing in the final of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, Moraes has also been on a tear, going 6-0-1 after dropping that bout to Cezar Ferreira. These men are a combined 11-0-1 in their last 12 and are buried on a Fight Night card, which is not necessarily a bad thing for the fans.
The plan is simple for Usman. He’s an elite wrestler, and will need to control Moraes on the ground to take the win. He’s a capable striker as well, as he’s out-landed his opponents in every UFC bout. He only has a 50% takedown success rate, but that is due to the sheer number of attempts. He hasn’t needed the takedown as much lately, but in his first 3 official UFC bouts, he landed an incredible total of 17 takedowns. He needs to be cautious if he does get the takedown, as Moraes is a very high-level jiu-jitsu black belt. He owns 7 submission victories in 12 total wins, and could easily gain another if Usman isn’t careful. I’m truly excited for this bout, as I’m interested to see which style will win out. I have to roll with Usman here. I haven’t seen anyone even come close to really testing him, and I believe he’ll become a title contender shortly. His wrestling game is so dominant that I think his top game and constant pressure will nullify any offense Moraes can muster, especially if he must work from his back all night. I think Usman cruises to victory here. The pick is Usman by dominant unanimous decision.
Preliminary Card (FS1)
Olivier Aubin-Mercier ($8,400) vs. Tony Martin ($7,800)
Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Tony Martin both look to keep their winning streaks intact when they face each other in the featured preliminary bout for UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Branch. I’ve written up Aubin-Mercier fights on numerous occasions, and he’s always an interesting fighter for me to watch. He’s done well for himself in the UFC since dropping his official debut against Chad Laprise in the finale of The Ultimate Fighter Nations Finale, winning 5 of his last 6 bouts, including his last 2 by stoppage. He has all the potential in the world to be an elite fighter, and could reach that point relatively soon, especially with Firas Zahabi cornering him. Martin did not start his UFC tenure off well, losing 3 of his first 4 bouts, but has quietly turned his career around with 3 straight victories, against decent competition nonetheless.
A win for Aubin-Mercier would be huge for his career going forward. An impressive performance would undoubtedly lead to a high-profile fight in his next outing. Aubin-Mercier is fun to watch, and he is extremely well-rounded. He strikes well, he has an underrated wrestling game, and possesses nasty submissions. He’s a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and a black belt in judo, and has 4 submissions in his 5 UFC wins. Martin is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and has 2 submission victories of his own inside the UFC. I think Aubin-Mercier’s defensive ground game will lead to victory here. While Martin does have good offensive jiu-jitsu, he has been prone to being submitted himself, which is bad news against a grappler of Aubin-Mercier’s caliber. Martin’s takedown accuracy sits at just 25%, while Aubin-Mercier’s takedown defense rate is at a whopping 83%. Martin has also been out struck numerous times in the UFC, including fights he’s won. I think Aubin-Mercier will also have the advantage there.
Plainly put, there aren’t many routes to victory for Martin unless Aubin-Mercier comes out flat. I think we see another brilliant performance from the Canadian. Aubin-Mercier will dominate the striking game, softening Martin up for takedowns. Once on the mat, it should only be a matter of time before Aubin-Mercier’s superior grappling takes over. I’m taking Aubin-Mercier by submission in round 3.
Anthony Hamilton ($8,800) vs. Daniel Spitz ($7,400)
Two giants face off when Anthony Johnson fights Daniel Spitz in a heavyweight bout. Both men are physical specimens with Hamilton at 6’5” and 260 lbs., and Spitz at 6’7” and weighing 245 lbs. Hamilton is severely in need of a win, as he’s just 3-5 since entering the UFC’s heavyweight ranks in 2014. Spitz will also likely need a win to keep his job, as he dropped his debut against Mark Godbeer back in March.
This should be a fun fight to watch, at least while it lasts. This is not a bout between 2 extremely skilled fighters, but with a roster of over 600 fighters, you’re bound to witness a fight like this. To me, it’s a toss-up, as both men are big enough and possess enough power to end the bout on one strike. I’m going to roll with the less experienced fighter here. While Spitz isn’t a polished fighter yet, he also hasn’t accrued the violent miles on his chin that Hamilton has to this point. Hamilton is 37 years old, and has been brutally knocked out and rocked multiple times in his UFC tenure. While green, Spitz has yet to sustain any real damage that we know of, and is 10 years the junior of Hamilton. It will be sloppy, but I’m taking Spitz to win by KO somewhere late in the 2nd round.
Krzysztof Jotko ($8,900) vs. Uriah Hall ($7,300)
This is another underrated bout buried on a card that no one is really talking about. In a middleweight bout, Krzysztof Jotko takes on fan-favorite, Uriah Hall. Jotko is a fighter that casual fans have no idea about, but is quietly carving out a solid UFC career for himself. He’s 6-2 with the promotion, and won 5 straight bouts before his streak was snapped by a controversial split-decision loss to David Branch, who now fights in the headlining bout. There were a few media outlets who scored the bout for Jotko, but nevertheless, he suffered defeat. Uriah Hall captivated UFC fans with is appearance on The Ultimate Fighter season 17, where he delivered one of the most spectacular knockouts in UFC history. Unfortunately for Hall, he’s yet to live up to the hype generated from his time on the show. He lost to Kelvin Gastelum in the finals of the show, and is just 5-6 in the UFC, including 3 straight defeats to top-notch competition.
Jotko is the #10 ranked middleweight in the UFC, while Hall sits at #14 in the official rankings. It’s absolutely incredible to me that this bout has found its way on to the prelims of a Fight Night card, but in the end, the fans win with this one. I expect this fight to be competitive throughout, and it’s tough to pick a winner. Both fighters employ a successful striking game, and I expect this to play out on the feet for most of the bout. I’m going to have to go with Jotko in this one, as much as I’d like to see Hall turn in a vintage highlight-reel KO. Jotko will look less flashy, but I think he’ll mix in a heavy clinch game to wear Hall down, limiting his ability to use bursts of energy required for his attacks. Hall has shown a tendency to slow down and allow his opponent to land offense late in fights when the bout isn’t going his way, and I could see that happening here. I think it ends up being uglier than fans like, but I’m taking Jotko to win a close decision over Hall.