Finding His Mark
When Michael Bisping steps into the Octagon against Vitor Belfort at UFC on FX 7 on Jan. 19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it will be more than a one-on-one fi ght. An arena packed with Brazilians will scream for their countryman to relieve Bisping of his senses, and, if they have their way, carry the Englishman’s head away on a pike. However, that bit of hyperbole doesn’t scare the brash Brit in the least. Fighting is a career path that he never intended, but now relishes.
Michael Bisping arrives at the Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach, California, and the dozen or so fighters in the pro class start wrapping their hands and stretching. The calendar reads November 6, and the general elections are looming over the day, but Bisping has only one opponent in mind. A few days ago, the announcement was made: Michael Bisping will take on former UFC Champion Vitor Belfort in the main event in the UFC’s return to Brazil. For the next 73 days, Brazil’s “Phenom” will weigh on the Englishman’s mind. Right this second, however, he’s just trying to get past his training partner’s reach.
“Big mothafuckah!” Bisping’s unique choice of words and small town English accent echo throughout the room. In the cage with him stands a 6’8” southpaw who is trying to knock his block off. In preparation for Belfort, he’s sparring with as many lefties as he can get his gloves on. It’s 11 weeks before the fight and a few weeks before he fl ies in choice punching dummies. Right now, he has to take what he can get. Lunch at the deli before steaks at Morton’s.
Kickboxing sparring day is the absolute best day to visit a high-level MMA gym. For three minutes at a time, bodies fly around the Ultimate Training Center to the rhythm of padded fists and shins hitting unpadded flesh. After every bell, the fighters take their 60-second sabbatical, sucking in as much oxygen as possible before the next excruciating round.
You have to hand it to Bisping, the man can move. It’s perfect considering the speed and power Belfort brings to the table. The Brit’s gloves are a blur of white against the black walls and mats of the gym. Punch, step, angle, kick, punch, and, hopefully, victory. Nothing fl ashy, just breadand-butter ass kicking.
After training, it’s time for lunch. Words to the wise: any fight fans who are in Huntington Beach around lunch time and looking to meet their idols, go to the Sugar Shack on Main Street. Surf City USA, as the town calls itself, hosts the annual U.S. Open of Surfing but also attracts professional fighters. Dating back to former champions Tito Ortiz, Ricco Rodriguez, Tank Abbott, and Rob McCullough, the Orange County beachside community is a haven for fighters plying their trade, and it has been for more than a decade. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools pop up in a way that would make Starbucks blush.
Bisping made this part of the world a regular stop for himself over the last several years, but he made the permanent move to Orange County one year ago. Bisping’s former hometown of Clitheroe, Lancashire, England, is in stark contrast to the beachside community where he now chooses to raise his three children.
“It’s November, and it’s 90 degrees,” he blurts out. Almost on command, two mini-skirts walk past our patio as if visual evidence appeared on cue to confirm his statement. “In England, it’s pissing down rain every day. Doing what I do for a living, fighting in the UFC, I can live anywhere in the world as long as I show up on fight night in shape.”
Bisping doesn’t look like your stereotypical fighter, which makes him stand out even more in a locale filled with lifted trucks, mohawks, and fight clothing. He has no visible tattoos. His brownish-blonde hair is parted on the side and combed over. He does wear a fight shirt provided by a sponsor above his blue jeans and boots, but that comes with a cash incentive. The 33-year-old’s past doesn’t even sound like that of a stereotypical fighter. Other than actually being great at fighting, you wouldn’t guess the man makes his living in the realm of violence.
Every fighter starts out his career differently and with a different endgame in mind. These days, no matter where you start, you want to end in the UFC, making the most money in front of the most fans. Almost a decade ago when the 6’2” fighter was just getting his career started, he had far more modest ambitions in mind.
“When I first started fi ghting, my goal was to make enough money to quit work and go up to college long enough to get a qualification so I could get a job on a building site—maybe a bricklayer or a plumber or something half decent enough. So, this far exceeded my goals and expectations.”
What started out as means to an end became the ultimate end, and a fine one at that. Bisping’s biggest break came in the form of UFC’s flagship show The Ultimate Fighter 3. The first two seasons were major hits for the fight promotion and Spike TV. The final fight of the first finale between Stephan Bonnar and eventual winner Forrest Griffin injected the sport with life and laid the groundwork in making stars out of its cast. At the time, being cast on TUF was like holding a winning lotto ticket. You just had to literally punch it in.
A 205-pounder at the time, Bisping won the show at his weight class and instantly became a commodity for the UFC. He was brash, confi dent, a developing striker, and, very importantly, English. The United Kingdom was a major target for the growth of the UFC brand in 2006. Bisping was going to be the face (or heel, if you’re into pro wrestling jargon) of the company as they moved across the pond.
But creditors don’t take potential as payment. The winning lotto ticket that the TUF crown represented was paid in installments, not all at once. The newly minted celebrity was positioned for a fantastic career, but the bills were piling now. Forced to quit his job to film the television show meant he had to throw out his earlier plans to make fighting a means to position himself for an honest living. Whatever money he would make from here on out would have to come in the cage.
As soon as he won the TUF 3 crown in June 2006, he was eager to start his true UFC career and receive a steady stream of checks with the word “Zuffa” on the top. Visa
issues kept him on the shelf until December of the same year, meaning he was forced to sit and watch 10 events go by without getting in on the fun.
“I was flat broke at the time,” says Bisping. “In fact, I was supposed to fight on the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 4, but I couldn’t because my visa didn’t come through in time. Dana White must’ve known I was hurting for cash because I didn’t have a job at the time. So Dana calls me up and says, ‘You’re going to fight in December on the New Year’s card. How are you doing for money?’” Bisping’s pride forbid him from asking for a handout, but he got one anyway in the form of a $10,000 check signed by his new boss.
“I fought the first fight in the UFC, won my fight, so I got my purse and sponsorship. Then [UFC owner] Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana pulled me backstage and gave me a fucking huge check, taxes already paid on it. Six figures. I was flat broke. I had to bum my mom for gas money. You’ll never hear me badmouth the UFC or how they treat their fighters. They’re fucking awesome if you ask me.”
That six-figure paycheck came with an epiphany. The man, who carefully planned out a few years in an infantile sport for the sake of a savings account, had now become a true professional fighter.
In Bisping’s case, “professional” comes before “fighter.” You can tell a lot about a fighter by the reason he entered the sport. The same blue-collar, no-nonsense approach he would have taken with a construction career he never started was now focused on MMA. His first UFC check kept the lights on. His second paid off his mortgage. When fighting replaced bricklaying, he handled everything the same way. Hand calluses replaced by black eyes. Lunch pails replaced by smelly gym bags.
Back at the Sugar Shack, the middleweight is trying to stay a middleweight. He orders avocado, spinach, turkey, and egg whites. The waitress brings our food. His eyes dart between our plates. He orders again, this time a club sandwich. That order is cancelled and replaced by sausage and toast. “I want to make a manwich,” he says. His demeanor and candor go hand in hand. He’s an intriguing individual. Always engaging. Blunt, but stops short of insulting, as if everything that runs through his mind immediately comes out his mouth. Sitting on a patio 100 yards from the beach, I can see what The Ultimate Fighter producers saw in him six years ago.
No one has more experience with TUF than the manwich eating individual sitting in front of me. He won TUF 3 and came back to coach TUF 5 and TUF 10. Through bad decision-making, or perfect editing, the show can tattoo a permanent image of a fighter in fan’s minds—an image nearly impossible to alter. A microscope was put on the brashness of the Englishman. A perception subtly changing.
“They did a pretty good job of making me look like a dick, and I’m not a dick,” Bisping says, while coach and friend Tiki Ghosn mutters “au contraire” with a smile on his face. “Dana gave me the best line once. He says, ‘Mike, guess what? If you don’t want to come across as a dick on TV, don’t act like a dick on TV. It’s pretty fucking easy.’”
Michael Bisping’s whole career has been on the cusp. A top fi ghter at either middleweight or light heavyweight for the bulk of his tenure on the UFC roster, knocking on the door of a title shot without ever walking in. After losing to future champion Rashad Evans at UFC 78, Bisping did what many 205-pounders do after a loss—drop the manwich, hit the sauna, and go down a weight class.
The middleweight division brought with it a three-fi ght win streak in 2008, his fi rst coaching gig on TUF, and a matchup against all-time great Dan Henderson on the biggest stage the UFC has ever produced—UFC 100. The historic event is still the highest selling pay-per-view in company history, which was headlined by WWE superstar and UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar. Add a whole season of hype on Spike TV, and the stars aligned to put the small town Englishman on the biggest stage of his career.
The rest is history. Dan Henderson did a Dan Henderson, and sent Bisping into unconsciousness, like so many opponents before him, with his trademark overhand right. Bisping awoke with referee Mario Yamasaki hovering over him—a victim on the business end of the Knockout of the Year, and as great a career setback as you can get.
“I’m not bothered about it,” Bisping says, more than three years after that fateful Las Vegas Saturday night. “It’s part of my fighting career. There’s no shame in it. Dan Henderson’s one of the best in the business. He caught me.”
The media wasn’t quite as forgiving. This wasn’t Bisping’s first loss, but it was his most memorable, and it’s still the only time he’s been finished. Some fighters are never able to recover from being brutally finished, but Bisping isn’t just any fighter. He needed a comeback fight, and he needed it to be big. That comeback came in the form of Pride FC star Denis Kang at UFC 105 in his adopted hometown of Manchester, England.
“Before the Henderson fight, the press was all over me,” says Bisping. “The media all wanted interviews. After that fight, no one cared. You could feel it. Even backstage before my fight, the press would walk straight past me. They didn’t even speak to me. They’d walk past me to get to someone else. They wrote me off. I was done. Finished. I went out there and destroyed him in the second round, and before you know it, you’re back in there again. That was a personal, moral victory.”
To this day, it is Bisping’s most meaningful fight.
The rollercoaster that is Bisping’s fi ghting career led has led to Brazil and a fi ght against Belfort. The 35-year-old “Phenom” is coming off a submission loss in a UFC Light Heavyweight Title fight against Jon Jones, where he nearly secured an armbar victory in the fi rst round, only to take a beating at the hands of the champ for the next three rounds. He’s looking to bounce back, and he wants Bisping to be the trampoline.
“Vitor Belfort is the hardest fight in the middleweight division outside of Anderson Silva,” says Bisping. “A lot of people didn’t want the fight. I know Forrest Griffin turned down the fight. A lot of people talk shit, but not a lot of people want to step in and fight Vitor. I didn’t hesitate for
A Belfort win propels Bisping farther in his career than he has ever been. In his mind, he’s the number one contender, but he has competition in that realm. Undefeated Chris Weidman is coming off a brutal stoppage win over top-ten fighter Mark Munoz. Set to face the surging Tim Boetsch at UFC 155 in December, many experts are saying a Weidman win should give him first dibs at Anderson Silva’s gold belt. Bisping, obviously, disagrees.
“Chris Weidman? Who’s he fought? He beat a fat Mark Munoz, who was coming off an injury, out of shape, he looked unfocused. Those are the facts. He beat Demian Maia, who’s fighting at 170 pounds now, in one of the most boring fi ghts I’ve ever seen. Before those two fights, no one at this table knew who the fuck Chris Weidman was, and now he’s the best middleweight fighter in the world?”
Anderson Silva is a looming figure over this conversation. The UFC Middleweight Champion is on a record setting run in the UFC, going undefeated in his 16 appearances in the eight-sided cage. He is on top of the mountain. However, Silva’s penchant for taking long layoffs and picking and choosing fights makes it frustrating for other fighters in the division who have their eyes on his belt. Bisping, however, understands.
“I don’t blame him for not wanting to fight Weidman,” he says. “Anderson gets paid a percentage of the pay-perview, so I can understand why from a business standpoint. He’s the champ. It’s not like he’s ducking anybody. He’s proved time and time again his credentials, and he’s the true champion.”
Bisping’s matter-of-fact, no-nonsense outlook on life and fi ghting has evolved a lot since his first days on TUF 3. He’s been fighting in the UFC for seven years, longer than most MMA fighters’ careers. While he is still the same Michael Bisping that relishes in fl ipping the double-bird to a booing crowd during a weigh-in, some of the rough edges have been polished—and the public is noticing.
“One place I’ve definitely noticed is on Twitter,” says Bisping. “Obviously, you have a lot of fan interaction on Twitter. It seems like multiple times on a daily basis people say, ‘I used to fucking hate your guts, and now I’m a big fan.’ A lot of people say that every day, and that’s cool. I’m getting older, and I’ve mellowed. Now, I am who I am. Maybe before, I was trying too hard, who knows? People seem to be receptive of it. People are warming up. You can hear the occasional cheer here and there when I fight. So, it’s all good.”
Imagine being an undefeated, 26-year-old fighter on a UFC reality show. For 13 weeks, you spend it with cameras in your face 24/7, adrenaline constantly pumping through your veins. You feel obligated to be witty, funny, and controversial. You’re young, and you know you have to make an impression. Maybe you try a little too hard, and the image you’ve crafted isn’t exactly what you set out to create.
“You don’t want to be a boring bastard,” he says. “I could please everybody out there, but I would be a boring bastard, and if I was a boring bastard, we probably wouldn’t be doing this interview right now.”
Everything coming out of Bisping’s mouth is to the point and said with confidence. The man truly believes in himself and his potential. He knows he wants Silva, and he knows he can beat Belfort. For a guy that entered fighting to be a better bricklayer but landed off the mark, he landed in a nice place.