December 29, 2016 at 2:16:45 PM EST
David Branch can't pick just one fighter as a comparison point. Instead, he goes for a median between two notable poles.
"Andre Ward is more of a well-rounded boxer," he said. "Bernard Hopkins took it to another level as he matured and aged."
Branch does reflect those traits. As a pro MMA fighter, like Ward, who can win with power or finesse, Branch has a balanced skill set, as evidenced by his 11 stoppage wins—five by knockout and six by submission—on top of eight decision victories. Like Hopkins, who just competed at age 51, Branch is thriving at a relatively advanced age, riding a nine-fight winning streak at 35.
For Branch (19-3), things seem to come in twos. In the World Series of Fighting promotion, Branch holds both the middleweight and light heavyweight titles. He defends the former December 31 against underdog Louis Taylor in New York City for the preliminary headliner of WSOF 34, an event featuring four separate title fights. It will be Branch's third defense of that particular belt.
Not too bad for a fighter who, for years, lived something of a double life. That duality again points to two polls for the native New Yorker, who, after pro MMA's legalization in the Empire State earlier this year, finally has a chance to fight in his home city.
"I never thought it would happen, but now that it has, it's not something that blows me away," Branch said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "I don't want to let it overwhelm me. I just need to keep destroying my opponents."
The neon buzz of Lower Manhattan is a far cry from where Branch grew up, shuttling through various neighborhoods in the South Bronx.
"I was a product of my environment," Branch explained. "I was taught from an early age that everyone's a piece of s--t and that nothing else matters. I was able to get out of that, but I was a product and it's all I knew. I grew up in a crack-infested area, around rapists."
Branch didn't come out unscathed. As a younger man, he sank into a lifestyle that included robbery, drug dealing and multiple stints in prison. As Branch puts it, "I was in the system."
At the same time, there was a second side to the Branch coin: martial arts, which he has now been practicing for 16 years.
"Martial arts teaches respect," he said. "And just having a fair fight. I've always felt like I was a discipline person, and martial arts played into that."
You can see it in that well-rounded style he shows today. You can see it in his record, which neatly parallels the WSOF itself. Dating back to WSOF 1 in 2012, he hasn't lost, methodically climbing the rope ladder that faces a relatively anonymous competitor until he had defeated Jesse Taylor for the inaugural middleweight strap. A year later, he bested Teddy Holder for the light heavyweight belt. He's the only champion WSOF has ever known in either weight class.
So, yes, Branch has been there before. Twice before, as a matter of fact. To hear Branch tell it, it will be no different Saturday.
"I'm going to stop Louis Taylor," Branch said. "I'm going to make it clear that he has no business in the cage with me. ... I just have to keep putting foot to butt."