By Thomas Gerbasi
MANCHESTER, England, November 12 – It could have just been a casual lunch meeting between some business colleagues at the MEN Arena Thursday afternoon if not for the assembled media in attendance, the staredowns for photographers, and the refusal of any of the six mixed martial artists at the dais to touch any of the food due to the fact that they will have to make weight Friday for their UFC 105 bouts this weekend.
But when you consider the light banter, the quick jokes, and the smiles all around, it wasn’t your usual meeting of folks who are going to be punching each other in the face in two days. And if one fighter’s demeanor reflected the importance of getting a victory on Saturday, it was the hometown hero, Michael Bisping.
Two and a half years ago, Clitheroe’s Bisping was the young gun fresh off winning the third season of The Ultimate Fighter and the one tasked with spreading the word of the UFC to the UK public in the lead-up to his UFC 70 bout against Elvis Sinosic and beyond.
Bisping won that April night on the UFC’s first event in England in nearly five years, but so much has changed since then for ‘The Count’. He’s won four more UFC bouts, lost a razor-thin decision to Rashad Evans, headlined two events, and dropped from 205 to 185 pounds. He’s also coming off a devastating knockout loss to Dan Henderson in July that has seemingly made the dynamic a little different in the UFC’s return to Manchester than it was the first time.
Not according to Bisping though.
“Every time I fight, it’s the biggest fight of my life and you’re only as good as your last performance,” he said. “I was very excited to fight then and I’m very excited to fight now. Every fight in the UFC is very, very important, and you have to prepare accordingly. As far as that’s concerned, it’s pretty similar. I’m still very, very hungry and I’ve got a long way to go with what I want to achieve in this sport. I’m still trying to work my way up and get to the top. I’m still on a quest and I’m far from done.”
Standing in his way is the equally intense Denis Kang, a longtime middleweight contender who is hoping to put a dent in Bisping’s title hopes. ‘The Count’ has no intention of letting that happen, not again.
“My last fight didn’t exactly go as planned, so I’ve been itching to fight, get back in there, and get back to winning ways, which obviously I’m planning to do Saturday night,” he said. “Denis is a fantastic opponent with great skills, but I’m going out there for the win and to knock this guy out and get it done.”
If Bisping wins, it will certainly amp up a crowd that is already expected to be in a frenzy thanks to the presence of nine other British fighters on the bill, many of whom have lightened the PR load Bisping shouldered almost singlehandedly back in 2007.
“It’s fantastic to have them on the card and I’m proud to see them there,” said Bisping of his countrymen who are sharing the UFC 105 card with him. “In the run-up to this they lightened the burden, if you will, of interviews. There’s a lot of English guys on this card. At UFC 70 it was like I did every interview, and it drove me quite mad, to be honest. So it’s been a little bit easier this time. I don’t have to talk as much, which I’m sure some people are happy about.”
One of the biggest stories coming out of UFC 105 is Nottingham’s Dan Hardy, who has shot up the ranks with three consecutive Octagon wins. This Saturday will be his toughest test to date against Mike Swick, but if Hardy’s getting spooked by the pressure, he wasn’t showing it as he drew a roar from the media, his fellow fighters, and Swick himself, when he gave the Texas contender a “Runner-Up” trophy so he “wouldn’t leave England empty-handed.”
“I’m gonna be busy after the fight answering questions and sorting out a game plan for Georges St-Pierre, so thanks Mike,” said Hardy.
Swick, a good sport about the whole thing, was just as quick with his return fire as he approached the dais.
“It means a lot,” said Swick of his gift. “Coming runner-up in a press conference is pretty cool, but I just want him to know that I’m gonna give this right back to him after our fight.”
And despite the light-hearted tone of today’s presser, there will be fights on Saturday night, something headliner Brandon Vera made clear, as he nears his fight against one of his idols, UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture.
“If you hesitate, if you decide that you want to hold back, especially against Mr. Couture, you’re gonna get a bad ass whuppin,’” said Vera. “I don’t want to be on the receiving end of that. Come fight night, you’re gonna see potentially the best Brandon Vera that you have seen so far, and I won’t be hesitating at all – I promise.”
“Oh man, it got real serious in here,” blurts Vera.
Okay, we’ll save the fighting for the Octagon.