The Renzo Gracie-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt retained his middleweight championship with a unanimous decision over Clifford Starks in the WSOF 30 headliner on Saturday at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Branch (18-3) swept the scorecards with identical 49-44 marks, as he recorded his eighth straight victory.
Outside of a second-round point deduction for an illegal knee strike, little went wrong for Branch. He kept Starks (13-3) guessing with variety on the feet, repeated clinches and the ever-present threat of the takedown. Branch dragged the Arizona Combat Sports export to the mat in every round but the third. He did his best work in round five with a decision well in hand. There, Branch executed a takedown, advanced to full mount and assaulted Starks with aggressive ground-and-pound, tying the bow in his latest win.
In the co-main event, Jon Fitch snatched the vacant WSOF welterweight championship with a five-round unanimous verdict over Joao Zeferino. All three cageside judges scored it 50-45 for Fitch (28-7-1), who has won four of his last five bouts.
Zeferino (20-8) enjoyed early success with his hands, as he operated behind a probing jab and fired off quick two- and three-punch combinations. However, he became less and less of a factor as time ticked away. Fitch ran him through a maze of frustrating clinches, persistent takedowns and annoying ground-and-pound, slowly sucking the life out of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Zeferino fished at times for kimuras and leg locks from his back, his attempts proving unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, damaging leg kicks and timely takedowns carried 2011 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Vinny Magalhaes to a unanimous decision against American Top Team’s Jake Heun in a featured encounter at 205 pounds. Magalhaes (14-7) swept the scorecards with matching 29-28 marks from the judges.
After a competitive first round, Magalhaes made his move in the second. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 finalist battered Heun’s lead leg, delivered a pair of takedowns and applied some mild ground-and-pound. The Brazilian’s paced slowed noticeably in the third round, but he managed to stymie Heun’s momentum by securing another takedown and threatening him with a kimura. Heun (9-5) freed himself from the black belt’s clutches in the closing seconds, assumed top position and buried fists and elbows into Magalhaes’ ribs until the horn sounded. Unfortunately for “The Honey Bear,” the finish he needed failed to materialize.
Magalhaes has rattled off three straight wins.
Elsewhere, Cage Warriors Fighting Championship alum Abu Azaitar made a triumphant organizational debut, as he claimed a unanimous verdict over Danny Davis Jr. in a three-round welterweight showcase. All three cageside judges scored it the same: 29-28 for Azaitar (12-1-1).
Sloppy but effective standup served the Germany-based Moroccan well, as he backed down Davis with rolling overhands, winging hooks, close-quarters knee strikes and occasional kicks to the legs and body. Azaitar’s aggression seemed to catch the Xtreme Couture rep off-guard in the first round, where his efforts resulted in significant damage to Davis’ left eye.
Davis (11-11-1) rebounded with a strong round two, as he executed a takedown, achieved full mount and advanced to the back. He hunted briefly for the rear-naked choke but found no success. Azaitar kept the fight standing for much of the third round, leaning on active hands and sporadic low kicks. Davis struck for a takedown in the final 30 seconds, climbed to the back and threaded his hooks. However, it was not enough to sway the judges.
In other action, Abubakar Nurmagomedov (12-1) stopped Matthew Frincu (7-2) with punches 3:05 into the second round of their pairing at 170 pounds; Cage Fury Fighting Championships veteran Rex Harris (9-2) picked up a unanimous decision over Clinton Williams (7-4) in a three-round middleweight confrontation, drawing 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 marks from the judges; Steve Kozola (7-0) dispatched Matt Church (2-2) with punches 1:57 into round one of their battle at a 160-pound catchweight; Syndicate MMA’s Adam Acquaviva (5-2) submitted Andres Ponce (2-3) with a rear-naked choke 2:10 into the first round of their bantamweight tilt; and Zach Bunnell (1-0) eked out a split decision -- 30-27, 29-28, 28-29 -- over Jeff Roman (1-3-1) in their three-round clash at 170 pounds.