Michael Bisping’s UFC career will likely end as it began over a decade ago – an underdog who is fearless, almost to a fault, writes James Dielhenn.
Embrace him now because soon he will be gone. By March, if you believe him. Yet as the curtain begins to descend on the career of the man who put UFC on the map in Britain, only now is he receiving the adulation that should have been forthcoming years ago.
Bisping held the all-time record for UFC wins (20) until three weeks ago when Georges St-Pierre beat him, and tied his tally. He is the first and only Brit to win the sport’s top prize. Nobody has headlined more UFC events, such is his kudos, and he has fought across five continents in a 14-year career, the longevity of which is unparalleled at the top level. Yet one decision taken this month has sky-rocketed Bisping’s reputation in a way that even he could never have expected.
“A walk in the park,” is how the rugged Lancastrian described his short-notice call-up to fight Kelvin Gastelum. It was a remarkable, and perhaps unadvisable, reaction to losing his middleweight championship earlier this month against St-Pierre. The safety-based logistics to enable the quick turnaround were a fight in their own right, and additionally Bisping must travel from his California home to headline the UFC’s debut in Shanghai. Naturally, it isn’t even the first time that he has fought on Chinese soil.
His explanation for fighting twice in November is typically forthright: “The best way to rectify [losing] is to get straight back on the horse,” he said. “Physically I’m totally fine. Mentally, of course I’m a little bit numb so I want to rectify that and exorcise my demons.” It is an old-school attitude that has seen Bisping heralded as a hero, in some ways even more so than when he finally won the world title in his 36th fight when he had three weeks’ notice to challenge Luke Rockhold.
“Bisping has been celebrated, but at the wrong times,” considered Dan Hardy, who came up alongside him in this brash sport in the mid-2000s. “He was celebrated when he was knocked out by Dan Henderson, but not when he won the world championship. There has always been a strange perspective towards Bisping but you can’t deny him. In the later years, he has accepted it. He has realised that he plays a character. He will go in the Hall of Fame and be considered a legend.”
Bisping’s loudest critics called his coronation as world champion a fluke. He had lost three previous fights that would have guaranteed him an opportunity at the title, and only gained his chance when injury struck Rockhold’s original opponent Chris Weidman.
“It’s not perfect circumstances but this is my lifestyle,” he told Sky Sports at the time, in June 2016. “It’s short notice, so bittersweet, but I’ve worked a lifetime for this. I’ve got to take him out early so I’ll go back to my younger days – live by the sword, die by the sword.”
“He did all the footwork before his title shot but it never came to fruition,” Hardy said. “But then, you cannot deny what happened against Luke Rockhold. He knocked out the champ in the first round.
“It was making the most of an opportunity. Every one of his wins and losses played a part in that knockout. I hope he gets the credit.
“The point that it turned against him was when he beat Matt Hammill. He was a vocal, polarising character who was beating Americans so people were waiting for him to lose. When Bisping got the decision he was very outspoken afterwards so people turned against him.”
Those same people, recognising we are approaching the conclusion to the 38-year-old’s career, are suddenly softening their tone. A sensational 2016 saw Bisping consecutively beat the legendary Anderson Silva, then the champion Rockhold, then his old rival Dan Henderson in a hat-trick that very few fighters could better. Had he beaten St-Pierre earlier this month, it would probably be recognised as the best UFC run ever.
Bisping insists he will retire after fighting in London in March, which would be his 40th fight. MMA in Britain will continue and might even gather pace, thanks partly to the emergence of Liverpool’s Darren Till who is unbeaten and gunning for a world title fight.
But Bisping will remain the benchmark – even for those who climb to the pinnacle of the mountain, can they sustain it like he did? The loudmouth Brit won’t be scrapping and shouting for much longer and, when he is gone, the UFC will be a quieter place.