David Branch doesn’t know the name of the man he met one day on 152nd Street and Crotona Avenue in the Bronx, and he never saw him again, but the returning UFC middleweight won’t ever forget him.
“That guy that was strung out on drugs and hard up on luck, he really did change my life,” said Branch, referring to the man who sold him a UFC 3 tape for three dollars nearly two decades ago. “I don’t know if I’ll ever meet him again or if he’s even alive, but meeting that guy and getting that tape, it really changed the course of a lot of different things. It’s really strange how fate goes sometimes.”
That tape introduced Branch to mixed martial arts, and combat sports soon became the life’s work of the former Local 580 ironworker, who parlayed a 6-0 pro MMA record into a call from the UFC in 2010. Looking back now, he wasn’t ready, but still managed to go 2-2 in the big show before getting released in 2011.
“I was a kid when I first got into the UFC,” Branch said. “I wasn’t even a professional. I was just fighting and I didn’t even know what the hell I was doing. I was just out there surviving. I was very green in the game and I was just a puppy. I didn’t understand anything. I was afraid of the lights alone.”
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For some, that would have signaled the end of the road. For Branch, he was just getting started, doing what the old bluesmen called woodshedding. He put his head down, gritted his teeth and learned his craft, in and out of competition.
Over the next five-plus years, Branch won 12 of 13 fights, won 185 and 205-pound titles in the World Series of Fighting promotion that he held simultaneously, and defeated the likes of Dominique Steele, Paulo Filho, Danillo Villefort, Jesse Taylor, Yushin Okami, Clifford Starks and Vinny Magalhaes, with his only loss in that stretch coming via decision to Anthony Johnson in 2012.
So when he became a free agent earlier this year, both Branch and the UFC wanted the same thing.
“Did I expect to get a call back?” Branch asks. “Hell yes. I was on everybody’s radar doing the stuff that I was doing outside the UFC for sure.”
He got that call, and now he’s back, ready to take on Krzysztof Jotko at UFC 213 on May 13. This time, he’s not just happy to be here. What will make Branch smile is a world championship, and nothing less will be acceptable.
“I’m an older fighter, I’ve been through everything, I’ve done a lot of things,” said the 35-year-old middleweight. “A lot of people think that if you make it to the UFC, it’s this big thing. I didn’t do anything yet. I still gotta deliver and I’m gonna deliver.”
“A lot of people think that if you make it to the UFC, it’s this big thing. I didn’t do anything yet. I still gotta deliver and I’m gonna deliver.” -- David Branch
If he sounds confident, he should, given his run outside of the promotion. But that’s not the basis of that confidence. Instead, he points to future boxing Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, a fighter who proved that getting older isn’t a death sentence in combat sports if you take care of yourself both in and out of the ring.
“I feel more like an MMA version of Bernard Hopkins, somebody who got better with time,” Branch said. “That’s where I’m at right now. I’m a fighter that’s fully aware of everything that’s going on right now. You’ve seen a lot of fighters fight with grace and guile as they got older. And Bernard Hopkins is the poster child of that conversation. I live fighting. I take care of my body, I don’t do drugs, I’ve never taken performance-enhancing supplements or steroids or anything like that, so my body’s not all out of wack. I don’t have these problems. So 35, for a man who’s taking care of his body, is 25.”
That means the middleweights should watch out for Branch, who says he is focusing on 185 pounds for now, while not ruling out an eventual move to 205 as well.
“I can’t go jumping up and down until I get a strap,” he said. “Once I get my hands on a strap - which I will, nobody’s gonna stop me – then I’ll sit down with my team and look at the layout and the business aspect to see if it’s even worth it. But right now, I’m focused on Krzysztof Jotko and destroying this man. That’s it.”
It took a while, but it may be safe to say that David Branch has arrived.
“I was a guy who was trying to reform his life and do something better for himself,” he said, referring to the best three dollars he ever spent. “I knew absolutely nothing. I started my journey at 20 years old and I’m here right now.”