In a world of spectacular rises and overnight collapses, Michael Bisping's career stands out as a master class in perseverance. In his record 39 MMA fights, he has outlasted a generation of fighters. It's a career easily three times as long as most of his peers.
Bisping is the rare champion defined as much by his losses as his victories. We're often drawn to the fighters who never see a hint of adversity in the ring. The ones so good, that to even lose a round is akin to defeat. When these athletes inevitably loose, they are often never the same. Some even retire outright.
Michael Bisping was one of these athletes on the night of July 11th 2009. He was the new, hot star in the UFC. His 17-1 record was only blemished by a split decision loss against Rashad Evans, a razor thin fight against a fellow undefeated future champion.
The UFC had a star in the making, and they knew it. They had positioned Bisping for greatness, rolling out the red carpet for him in a new weight class. A coaching spot on the ultimate fighter against Dan Henderson had ratcheted up the tension for months. It set the stage for a defacto title eliminator on the eve of the greatest night in combat sports: UFC 100. The narrative wrote itself: Bisping would defeat living legend Dan Henderson and earn a title shot against the mythical Anderson Silva. It would be a classic nation vs nation title fight. Brazil verses the United Kingdom.
But a funny thing happened that night: Bisping was knocked out in the second round.
And not just knocked out, but in the kind of brutal fashion that made Dan Henderson an instant icon to American fans that may have missed his work in Pride. It was a crushing blow for Bisping, who had never been knocked out, submitted, or TKO'd. The kind of defeat that might relegate him the highlight reels of history.
But if we we're going to make a film about Michael Bisping, that would only be the opening scene.
The match with Silva didn't happen, both Silva and Henderson went on the experience the best years of their careers. Silva would continue a legendary run as middleweight champion, racking up eleven title defenses along with national glory in Brazil and sponsorship deals with Reebok and Burger King. Dan Henderson would parlay his victory into a lucrative contract at Strikeforce, where he would defeat Fedor Emelianenko (back when that still meant something) before a hero's return to the UFC.
During this time, Michael Bisping went back to the grind. He scored some more wins in the UFC against tough fighters like Dan Miller and Yoshihiro Akiyama, keeping his head down and steadily working his way back into the title conversation. Three years after his disastrous defeat at UFC 100, he had fought his way back into a second title eliminator against Chael Sonnen. Bisping was a short notice call up, replacing Mark Munoz just eleven days out.
It was an all too familiar place. Another massive stage, this time on network television. Again, the prize for the winner was Anderson Silva. For Bisping, it was redemption. The story, again, wrote itself. The humbled (sort of) hero against the self proclaimed Bad Guy. It was a feel good narrative, one we were all on board with.
Disaster struck for a second time. Bisping lost to the grinding wrestling of Chael Sonnen, in front of an estimated audience of 4 million people.
Two major stages, two setbacks. Title eliminators don't come easily in this sport, and losing two can be a career ender. But this is where we get to what makes Bisping special. He just kept working. No new weight class, no team switch, no savior nutritionist.
In the fight game, Bisping developed a reputation for steadiness. He wasn't going to try and reinvent himself at the first sign of trouble. He knew what kind of fighter he was. He was a technical boxer with phenomenal cardio. His strong footwork ensured he never had to rely on his chin, and his defensive wrestling made him nearly impervious to ground specialists (only submitted twice in his career). He was a classic all-arounder. He could knock people out, he could submit them, or he could just out work you.
We haven't even mentioned the recent revelation that Bisping fought the later half of his career with extremely impaired vision, possibly no vision, in one eye. Courtesy of a spinning back kick from Vitor Belfort, whom we should note was using PED's at the time, which broke Bisping's orbital bone and would ultimately lead to his eye being removed entirely. It would have been mandatory retirement for any other athlete. But not only did Bisping continue, he said nothing about the true condition of his eye until after his retirement.
In some ways, he outworked everyone. Savvy fight fans will note than by the end of his career, Bisping would very often get the last laugh on his opponents. He ultimately avenged some of his most crushing losses such as Dan Henderson or Luke Rockhold. And for the ones he didn't, a suspiciously high number of them were later revealed to be using performance enhancing drugs (aka steroids).
It's worth praising Bisping for never failing a drug test, especially for an athlete who came up in an era known for blatant abuse of PEDs. Bisping was consistently vocal about PED use in MMA, proudly and loudly proclaiming himself a clean fighter and welcoming the era of increased drug testing when many others were squeamish.
Ultimately, it was Bisping's grit and resilience that allowed the fans to see his best work in the later half of his career. As he got older, he performed better against objectively tougher opponents. He knocked out Luke Rockhold in his prime. He outmaneuvered Dan Henderson and Brian Stann. And yes, he finally got that match with Anderson Silva, taking him the full five rounds and practically coming back from death after a brutal knee and barrage of punches. Bisping still earned a unanimous decision over the living legend.
Finally, ninety nine fight cards after his crushing loss to Henderson back in 2009, Bisping stormed the octagon in Inglewood, CA. He knocked out Luke Rockhold in the first round to take the middleweight title he had been chasing for seven years. The story hardly wrote itself by this point. Bisping was no longer the surging young star, nor was he the comeback kid. He was someone that just wouldn't quit. If he lost his shot, he would just get another one, and then another one. He was the definition of grit.
When we take stock in Bisping's career, he's maybe the only fighter that stayed relevant in multiple eras of the sport. He came up in the "blood sport" era, when the UFC struggled to stay afloat with it's four weight divisions. Then the UFC exploded, absorbing entire organizations, securing a major TV deal, and nearly doubling it's roster. Many fighters were left behind in this era. The fighters got better, and the media scrutiny picked up. Bisping thrived, becoming a TV commentator and personality, while still winning in the octagon.
And finally, when the UFC got serious about PED testing, it marked a turning point for many fighters. Within the first few years of the USADA program, dozens of high profile names failed drug tests. Bisping wasn't one of them. He would continue to do some of his best work in the cage, and retire on top.
So here’s to Michael Bisping,who started as the UFC’s “British fighter” but ended as one of their most successful men in and out of the cage. He played just about every role in his career: the hot young prospect, the comeback kid, the hero, the heel, the commentator, and the champion. There will never be another like him.