But after second-ranked Luke Rockhold suffered an injury, he withdrew from the November 3rd card, sliding Jacare up to face Long Islander and third-ranked Chris Weidman, leaving Branch without a major opponent in his hometown for what could’ve been the defining moment his career needs.
Branch was instead paired with Jared Cannonier, an unranked light heavyweight who slimmed down to 185 pounds and had lost three of his last four fights heading into Saturday night.
“I was looking forward to fighting Jacare, he’s one of the guys that I came to the UFC to fight,” Branch told BQE Media at UFC 230 Media Day. “If I said that I came to the UFC to fight dangerous fighters, then I can start from the bottom up because they’re all dangerous. But I came to fight the elite level of dangerous fighters.”
As it turns out, Cannonier – nicknamed the Killa Gorilla – was the most dangerous after all.
After a first round largely controlled by Branch, Cannonier caught Branch 39 seconds into the second with a thunderous right hook, followed by several strikes on the ground before the official called the action.
The shocking upset win elevates Cannonier to an 11-4 mixed martial arts record, with Branch dropping to 22-5.
Cannonier also made use of an interesting octagon entrance. After climbing the steps into the cage in a crouched position, he sniffed the edge the cage opening and pretended to urinate on the cage pole.
It was two fights after Israel Adesanya, an up-and-coming middleweight who scored a first round knockout two fights earlier, employed the same entrance.
“I wasn’t insulting,” Cannonier said after the fight. “I love Israel, no disrespect, I’m a huge fan of his, but when I walk into the octagon, that’s my octagon. So I’m going to mark my territory and make my presence known.”
Other locals on the card included Julio Arce, a Bayside-based featherweight, who fell to 15-3 after coming up short in a brawl with Sheymon Moraes.
Bronx native Shane Burgos picked up a submission win over Kurt Holobaugh earlier in the night, while the aforementioned Weidman was knocked out by Souza in the co-main event, a fight that earned Fight of the Night and $50,000 for each participant.
Cannonier and Adesanya each received Performance of the Night bonuses worth $50,000 each.
In the main event, Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier submitted Derrick Lewis with a rear-naked choke in round two of their heavyweight title bout. Cormier improved to 22-1 with the win, dropping Lewis to 21-6.
Also announced was a UFC card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on January 19. It will be the first UFC card in conjunction with ESPN and streaming service ESPN+, a five-year deal worth over $1 billion.