"If I can’t beat Vitor Belfort, then I don’t deserve to fight for the title anyway; it’s as simple as that." - Michael Bisping
Michael Bisping has been here before.
“Here” is one step shy of fighting for the UFC middleweight title.
The 33-year-old from Manchester who now calls Orange Country home first arrived “here” following his first stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter. After six weeks of trading verbal jabs and crosses with Dan Henderson, “The Count” shared the cage with the former PRIDE champion at UFC 100, a shot at middleweight champion Anderson Silva believed to be the spoils that awaited the victor.
Bisping memorably came out on the wrong end of things, the GIF of his defeat becoming immortalized on forum threads throughout the MMA community, a constant reminder of what was a good night gone horribly bad. To his credit, Bisping has found a way to embrace the outcome, signing off his first guest blog on Yahoo! Sports earlier this month with a cheeky nod to the now iconic image -- “Hit me up on Twitter @bisping, as ever, Hendo gifs are welcome.”
He was “here” this time last year as well, stepping up on short notice to fight Chael Sonnen as part of the UFC on FOX show in Chicago. A little more than a week before the event, Bisping vacated his spot opposite Demian Maia to replace the injured Mark Munoz opposite Sonnen. Again a chance to square off with Silva hung in the balance, and again Bisping came up short, losing a close unanimous decision to “The Gangster from West Linn.”
One win and 12 months later, the former Ultimate Fighter winner is “here” again, set to step into the cage with former light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort in the main event of Saturday’s UFC on FX event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a win over “The Phenom” the only thing standing in between him and a shot to fight for championship gold.
It’s clear that being in this position means a great deal to Bisping, who toggled between genuine openness and “turned up to 11, selling the fight” mode when we discussed this weekend’s main event and everything that comes with it late last week.
“I’ve never actually won the #1 contender match-up – I’ve had it twice, and I lost both times,” he started, explaining what a victory would mean by retracing his journey to this point. “For me, I could clearly look at people hand-on-heart and say, `I’m the #1 contender. I beat Vitor Belfort. I beat Brian Stann. I beat Chael Sonnen, even though I was robbed, and outside of Anderson Silva, I’m the best middleweight in the world.’
“I’m not here by accident. I haven’t been in the UFC for seven years because I can talk and give a decent interview. I’m still here seven years later, and not because I’ve got a British accent, and the UFC want the British market. I’m here seven years later because I can back up what I say, and when I beat Vitor Belfort, I’m the #1 contender and #2 fighter in the world.
“You see these guys in the UFC that get thrown around – they’re covered in blood, they’re swimming in their own blood, and they just barely survive. Every time I’m in there, even the ones that I’ve lost are highly competitive, highly contentious split decisions. I can survive with the best in the world. I believe that I’m one of the best, and that I can beat the best, I’ve just got to prove that, and that starts by beating Vitor Belfort.”
He knows there will be some, perhaps many, who cast his comments off as cliché – the same things he said heading into each of his previous “title eliminator” contests, and the same things most every fighter says heading into most every fight.
While securing the title shot that has previously eluded him is his primary motivation heading into Saturday’s showdown with Belfort, Bisping concedes that the opportunity to silence his critics is driving him as well.
“A lot of people have come on board these days, but there is still a lot of criticism – a hell of a lot of criticism of me as a person, and my fighting ability, and I take that personally. I want the respect that I think I deserve. People that train with me, my coaches, they know what I’m capable of. I know what I’m capable of, but I do have my critics.”
Laughing as he finished the sentence, Bisping admitted that he will occasionally spend some of his downtime combing through threads on The Underground forum, checking out what people have to say about him. It’s an endeavor that usually takes some time, as the outspoken Brit is always a popular topic of conversation.
“They’ll go on for quite a lot of pages, not just two or three comments,” he said, recounting his findings. “It’s like 10-15 pages of insults, so I’m certainly a hot topic to talk s*** about. I suppose when it’s all said and done, that’s a good thing.
“As long as people are talking about me, that’s what I’m here to do” he continued, the laughter giving way to a genuine discussion about his public image, actions, and the way he’s perceived. “I’m here to put on fights people are interested in, and whether they cheer for me, boo me, or whatever – as long as there is interest, I’m happy. I want my fights to spark interest, people to debate who is going to win or lose. I want people to be fired up for the fights, and I think I do a pretty good job of that.
“I’d like to say that all the a**hole moves that I pull are just an act, but unfortunately I’m a real person,” he offered candidly. “I never put an act on; I am who I am. Sometimes I’ll talk up the fight a little bit because I’m trying to generate interest, but I am who I am. I stand by what I say. Do I make mistakes? Yes I do. Do I apologize for them? Yes I do. I’m not perfect; I’m a human being, and I **** up all the time. Everything that comes out of my mouth is me, unfortunately. I am who I am, and I will always be the same. If people like it, awesome, and if they don’t, they can go to hell.
“I’m not really much of a trash talker, really,” he added with complete sincerity. “Unless you start talking about me. If you start talking about me, well, then the gloves are off, and I’m just fighting fire with fire.”
Earlier this month, Bisping took the time to take aim at a trio of critics that share space with him in the middleweight division, offering his personal assessment of Alan Belcher and Tim Boetsch’s performances at UFC 155. Just so he didn’t feel left out, he also made a point of mentioning fellow contender Chris Weidman as well.
“People say I look like an a**hole and not very classy saying things like that, but hold on a minute,” began Bisping, readying his retort. “If you go back and look at these guys on Twitter, and look at their interviews, they were talking s**t. Alan Belcher’s been calling me out for an eternity. As long as I’ve known Alan Belcher, him and his ****ing tattoo have been calling me out. Forgive me if I gloat a little bit when he comes up short, and looks basically like an embarrassment to himself.
“The same with Tim Boetsch. He was calling me out saying I haven’t got what it takes, and all the rest of it. I thought the pair of them looked dismal to be quite frank, so of course I’m going to take a little pop at them. Why not? They take pops at me.
“The way I see it is that they just cleared the way for me to fight for the title. Of course, I’ve got to get past Vitor Belfort first, and I intend on doing just that, but they’re now out the way. The only other one is Chris “Sick Note” Weidman, who is retired or got a bad injury or an eyestrain or whatever the **** it is. He’s taking time off again in his short career. He’s only had about three fights, and he’s taking time out again. I wish him all the best, but you haven’t got all day – you haven’t got forever – and before you know it, his career will be past, and he’s spent most of it sat on his ass.
“Just (one last thing) about Chris Weidman,” he continued. “He co-opted this (criticizing of me by Belcher and Boetsch), saying `Every time Bisping’s in these situations he loses, and he hasn’t got the head for the high-pressure fights.’ Well, Chris Weidman’s never been in a high-pressure fight in his life. I’ve fought legends and the best of the best; his biggest win is Demian Maia, who’s now at welterweight, and who never really set the world on fire, so he just needs to shut the **** up for a second. When he’s been in those situations, maybe he can talk, but he hasn’t been there yet.”
Bisping has, and he’s back for a third time.
Being unsuccessful in his two previous attempts to clear this hurdle is a bitter pill for the Briton to swallow. The fact that he finds himself “here” for a third time, however, is a point of pride for the middleweight, who carries a 24-4 record that includes an impressive 13 wins inside the Octagon into Saturday night’s pivotal contest with Belfort.
“I think it’s a testament to my fighting ability and my character that I’m here – still plugging away trying to get to the top,” offered Bisping. “A lot of guys might go on a run towards the title, they get defeated, and then they go away. After that, they lose interest, lose heart, fade into obscurity, and you don’t really hear of them. Maybe they’ll have a couple of fights on the undercard, but I’m here.”
While he fully expects to make good on the old adage “the third time’s the charm” tomorrow night in Sao Paulo, Bisping is quick to acknowledge that Belfort presents a lot of challenges, and he’s honest about what a loss means for his immediate title aspirations.
That’s why he was so quick to accept this challenge.
“Vitor Belfort is the hardest fight in the middleweight division outside of Anderson Silva in my opinion,” he opined. “And (beating him) puts me in a very good place. The UFC called me up and offered me this opportunity, and I took it straight away; I didn’t even think about it.
“A lot of people asked me, `Why’d you take that fight? That’s pretty dangerous,’ and I was like, `(a) it’s a huge opportunity, (b) this is what I do, and (c) if I can’t beat Vitor Belfort, then I don’t deserve to fight for the title anyway; it’s as simple as that.’”
But Bisping believes this is his time. He’s been “here” before, and feels he’s never been more prepared to take the next step in his career than he is right now.
“This is the best version of me that I’ve ever been. I’ve made a lot of improvements, and I’m up against it. Vitor Belfort is a tough, tough fight; just as tough as Chael (Sonnen) or Dan Henderson or the other two that I’ve lost to. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tough, but I believe in myself. I believe in my preparation, and my training, and I believe that I have the tools to beat Vitor Belfort.
“Of course, he thinks the same thing, and that’s what is going to make it an amazing fight. I’m truly excited to go down there and prove to the world that I can beat this caliber of fighter. I know I can. My coaches know I can. I’ve just got to deliver it on the night.
“I’ve done everything I can. My skill set is the best it has ever been. Obviously, Vitor has some unique problems for me to overcome. He hits hard and fast, he’s very athletic. He’s very experienced, (and) he’s got great jiu-jitsu. He’s a southpaw, so that’s a bit of a problem as well, but I’ve trained very, very hard, and my head movement is better than it has ever been. I believe I’m going to be the bigger guy, the stronger guy. I’m just as fast as he is. I believe that I have the bigger heart, and the bigger will to win.
“I’m going to go out there and out-fight Vitor Belfort. I don’t know how it’s going to come, but whatever it takes to do, I will win. I will not give up, and as long as there is a beat in my heart, I will continue to fight.”
And should he lose, don’t think this will be the last you hear from Michael Bisping.
“God forbid, if I fail, I’ll dust myself off, and I will climb up that mountain one more time, and I will keep going until I do it. I’m destined to be world champion, and I will be one day.”