When Michael Bisping wends his way to the UFC octagon in two nights time, it will be for the 28th and – almost certainly – final time.
In the 11 years since his debut with the world’s biggest MMA promotion, Bisping has posted an impressive 20-7 record; he’s experienced many highs and some tough lows.
For every TKO win, there’s been a difficult decision loss. For every winning streak, there’s been a solitary defeat that sends the Mancunian tumbling down the middleweight ranks. For all the braggadocio and bravado, there’s been the odd humiliation that left Bisping with a considerable amount of egg on his face.
Winning a UFC crown was all “The Count” sought when he won the third edition of The Ultimate Fighter in 2006, but until last June, it looked as if that dream would remain unfulfilled.
He won the TUF crown with a scintillating stoppage of Josh Haynes, and followed that with three more impressive triumphs before Rashad Evans used his wrestling to hand him his first loss. Bisping rebounded in customary style: three more wins and a place as a coach for the ninth series of TUF.
His adversary there was the former Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson, a true “nice guy” of MMA, yet Manchester’s Bisping could never settle. There was jaw-jacking and needling throughout, culminating in a real grudge match fight at UFC 100. The end result? One of the most iconic faceplant KO’s in UFC history, and it was Henderson leaving the Mandalay Bay Events Centre with his arm raised.
That defeat would haunt Bisping but he remained undeterred, posting a 5-1 run in the two years after that fight to secure another middleweight title eliminator with the equally loud-mouthed Oregon native Chael Sonnen. Sonnen took a very contentious decision to again leave the Brit in a sort of purgatory, where he would trade wins and losses for the next two years.
One of those defeats was to Brazilian legend Vitor Belfort, a man who courts as much controversy as he does plaudits, and that defeat saw Bisping suffer a severe retinal detachment that almost forced him to retire.
He made a return but was clearly on the downswing of his career. 2015 saw Bisping pick up decision wins over CB Dollaway and Thales Leites. Wins over veterans, and clear ones at that, are nothing at which to be sneered, but they were hardly the majestic performances “The Count” needed if he wanted to final challenge for a world title. That all changed on
27 February 2016.
Bisping stood toe-to-toe against all-time great Anderson Silva, considered by many to be the greatest MMA fighter of all time, and by all as the greatest middleweight to have ever set foot inside a cage. Over 16,700 people packed into the O2 Arena to see Bisping, who, for all his faults, is treasured by British MMA fans, face the biggest test of his career.
A solid opening two rounds saw the Mancunian edge clear, before a thunderous knee in the third almost put his lights out.Some generous officiating and a massive display of heart kept Bisping in the fight and he’d go on to record a decision win, a result that blew the roof off the O2. A three-fight win streak definitely put Bisping in the mix, but even he knew fate would have to intervene if he was to finally get a title shot.
Fate did intervene, in the shape of a phone call from matchmaker Joe Silva. Chris Weidman withdrew from his planned title fight with Luke Rockhold at UFC 199 last June, and Bisping was offered the chance to replace the New Yorker on 17 days’ notice, a chance he grabbed with both hands.
Given the ease with which Rockhold dispatched of Bisping at their first meeting in November 2014, and the way Rockhold decimated Weidman to win the belt, Bisping was the significant underdog. But when it mattered, and when everyone bet against him, he doubled down on himself and produced the biggest title upset in UFC history. A right hand wobbled the champion. Another dropped him. A series of left hands against the cage finished him. Bisping’s arms went up and Bruce Buffer’s instantly recognisable voice boomed out “AND THE NEW Middleweight CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, MICHAEL ‘THE COUNT’ BISPINNNNGGG!”
As an acknowledged MMA enthusiast and champion of British talent in all sports, Bisping’s achievements meant a lot to me. Yes, he’s got a chequered past – his repeated use of homophobic slurs to promote fights is crass, and him spitting at a beaten Jorge Rivera remains one of the company’s worst moments.
But he was the first British champion in UFC history. His loudmouth style and never-say-die attitude blazed a trail for young British martial artists, and with the likes of Darren Till now coming through, his legacy clearly lives on.
Georges St-Pierre, a career welterweight who hasn’t fought since 2013, was definitely an easier proposition for “The Count” than Yoel Romero or Robert Whittaker, but when you’ve put in the yards Bisping has, you have that freedom of choice. Win or lose against GSP at UFC 217, it doesn’t matter. Bisping’s legacy in the company and the sport are set, and here’s hoping he can go out in style.
The rest of the UFC 217 line-up is also stellar, comprising two further title fights and a bevy of great bouts. Canadian prospect Aiemann Zahabi, brother of lauded trainer Firas, opens the show in a fun battle against Ricardo Ramos, whilst CM Punk vanquisher Mickey Gall returns to action against Randy Brown.
The PPV line-up opens with a clash between declining veteran Johny Hendricks and rising Brazilian prospect Paulo Borrachinha. Borrachinha is very heavy-handed and will have a massive size advantage over former welterweight champ Hendricks, but he is still raw and could be exposed by the Oklahoma native’s wrestling.
Stephen Thompson and Jorge Masvidal then clash in a battle of top welterweight prospects, where Thompson’s karate background could be exploited by the ever-tough Masvidal’s high-pressure offensive style.
In the first of the three title fights on the bill, the best fighter in women’s MMA, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, looks set to secure the sixth defence of her crown against Rose Namajunas. The Pole is much more well-rounded than “Thug” and she seems to be consistently working her takedown defence, thereby shutting down the area in which most would expect her to struggle.
Then, to further set the stage for Bisping/St-Pierre, bitter rivals Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw square-off for the Bantamweight title. Gabrandt’s sheer dominance against longtime division staple Dominick Cruz to win the strap definitely puts momentum in his favour, but Dillashaw is consistently evolving his game and he could have too much speed and quickness for Garbrandt. The fight is a pick’em, but Garbrandt is a marginal favourite.
UFC 217 is the company’s best card this year and merits a watch because win or lose, Bisping is probably out for the count, and that’s something we should acknowledge and savour.