David Branch, one of the most accomplished mixed martial artists to come out of the five boroughs, will compete in a featured UFC 230 pay-per-view bout at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
He might never have gotten there if not for a commitment to the sport he made roughly a decade ago, when he was splitting time between a budding MMA career and his job with the Local 580 Ironworkers of New York City.
"When I first started fighting, I was burning at both ends of the candle," Branch told amNewYork at Thursday’s media event at the New York Marriott Marquis. "It was just too much. I was falling asleep at work, falling asleep in training. It was really hard for me to get both going."
After deciding to put all his energy toward making a go of professional MMA, Branch broke the news to his foreman that he was stepping away from his work walking beams and "wrapping the skin around buildings." He received nothing but support in return.
"I said, ‘Look, I really want to pursue fighting,’ and he said, ‘Get it done, kid. Don’t stop,’ " Branch recalled. "He said, ‘If you ever want to come back here, you’ve got a job. You’re a good worker.’ That was it."
Don’t expect Branch, who grew up in the Bronx and has lived in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, to return to his former career any time soon. In the years since, he’s accrued an impressive 22-4 MMA record and currently ranks No. 7 in the UFC middleweight contender rankings. After a middling UFC run early in his career, he went on to become a dual champion at both middleweight and light heavyweight in World Series of Fighting (now known as Professional Fighters League) before being brought back to the UFC in early 2017. He also runs David Branch Jiu Jitsu out of Hoboken, New Jersey, close to his current Jersey City home.
Still, Branch maintains ties to the ironworkers, with whom he worked for more than five years. He said many of them will join his family, friends and martial arts students at the Garden when he faces Jared Cannonier on Saturday. Their support isn’t limited to attending his fight, either.
"They wear my David Branch Jiu Jitsu stickers on their hard hats when they’re up there setting steel," Branch said.
Originally, Branch had been scheduled to face fellow ranked middleweight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. An injury to co-main event fighter Luke Rockhold led to some reshuffling in the last few weeks, with Cannonier joining the event as a late replacement.
Branch, 37, wasn’t pleased with the changes at the time but has come to grips with fighting the power-hitting former heavyweight, who will make his debut at 185 pounds on Saturday.
"At first, I really wasn’t too happy about it. It’s one of the things that’s just part of business," Branch said. "Everything happens for a reason, and there’s definitely a silver lining here. I’m going to make the best of it, go out on Saturday night, do my job, do it well, and go home to my family."
The chance to fight at Madison Square Garden means a great deal to fighters the world over. Dallas-native Cannonier on Thursday called it "every fighter’s dream come true."
For Branch, a New Yorker through and through, the Garden isn’t simply "The World’s Most Famous Arena."
"It’s right across the street from Sbarro and the train stations that I’ve always taken," Branch said. "It reminds me of the times where I’d walk with my mom, and I didn’t have money to buy tickets. We never really went to games or anything like that. [I] came up really poor.
"Everything happens for a reason," he added. "This is something that I have envisioned, and I’m ready to accept it."
Heavyweight title: Daniel Cormier over Derrick Lewis
Middleweight: Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza over Chris Weidman
Middleweight: David Branch over Jared Cannonier
Middleweight: Karl Roberson over Jack Marshman
Middleweight: Israel Adesanya over Derek Brunson