Luke Rockhold is officially back.
The former UFC middleweight champion, who has been out of action for over a year, returned with a punishing performance on Saturday night, as he tapped out David Branch with strikes in the second round of their main event match-up in Pittsburgh.
It was a long road back for Rockhold, who suffered an embarrassing defeat last June when he fell to current middleweight champion Michael Bisping in a shocking first-round knockout.
Rockhold had been ready to return to the Octagon as early as June, but the UFC struggled to find him a worthy opponent until now. In fact, Branch not only accepted the match-up, but predicted that he would give the former champion a very rude welcome home to the Octagon.
As the first round got underway, Branch nearly backed up his bold prediction.
Branch wasted no time going on the attack with a barrage of punches all aimed directly at Rockhold’s chin. The former champion countered with a series of kicks to the body, but Branch didn’t back away from his aggressive strategy.
With Branch still going after Rockhold aggressively, the former two-division World Series of Fighting champion landed a fast combination as the fighters backed up against the cage.
Branch landed several hard, stinging shots that rattled Rockhold momentarily before the fighters got locked in the clinch against the cage.
Rockhold was able to build a little momentum before the end of the round, including a takedown before the horn sounded.
As the second round got underway, Rockhold opted for a different strategy, as he took Branch to the ground after grinding him against the fence, looking to out-wrestle him.
Once he got the fight to the canvas, Rockhold immediately moved into the mount as he started raining down a barrage of punches with Branch just trying to survive. Branch rolled and gave up his back as Rockhold continued to pour on punches in bunches with referee Dan Miragliotta getting closer and closer to stopping the fight.
Before he could step in, however, Branch tapped the canvas to signify the end of the fight, as Rockhold earned a submission finish due to strikes in his first return to action since June 2016.
The tap came at 4:05 in the second round.
“I’m happy we got the win,” Rockhold said after the fight. “I wanted to take my time and be patient, but he rushed the fight. Good for him, he did what he had to do, but I did what I had to do. Now I’m coming for that belt.
Ever since his loss to Bisping last year, Rockhold has been on a mission to return to the middleweight championship and he didn’t lose sight of that goal after bludgeoning Branch into submission.
In fact, Rockhold immediately turned his attention to former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who was granted the next shot at Bisping’s title at UFC 217 in November.
“GSP — I don’t know what I need to do, you want me to beat some sense into you? You don’t belong here,” Rockhold said while addressing St-Pierre. “You’re gonna get crushed.
“You better back out. Get out of this thing while you still can. This is my fight.”
Rockhold obviously has some unfinished business with Bisping considering they are tied at one win apiece against each other, but it’s not likely St-Pierre is going to bow out to hand him the fight.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Rockhold could be on stand-by just in case the Canadian happens to fall out of the bout between now and Nov. 4 because there’s little doubt he would jump at the opportunity to face Bisping again — even on short notice.