Michael Bisping sat in the middle of a crowded locker room, drenched in sweat, chest still heaving from nine minutes and 14 seconds of sanctioned combat, but you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
It was the same smile the world saw last Saturday night at The Forum in Inglewood, California, moments after Bisping shocked that world with a first-round knockout of Luke Rockhold that earned him the UFC middleweight title.
But the first one, on June 24, 2006, backstage at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, was where everything really began for “The Count,” a kid from Clitheroe with royal blood in his veins and just as much regal ambition for what had just become his day job.
“You’re not gonna see me in any factories for quite some time,” he laughed that night, fresh from a second-round stoppage of Josh Haynes. The win garnered the Brit a UFC contract and a career, not always a guarantee back in those early days of The Ultimate Fighter.
In 2006, not every fighter who competed on TUF got a contract or a chance to compete in the big show. If you didn’t, it was a crushing blow and a trip back to the regional circuit to basically start all over again. For Bisping, that wasn’t an option. He had his dark days and he wasn’t going to go back to them.
“Careerwise, nothing ever grabbed me, so I went to college and I ended up doing a course for advanced electrical engineering,” he told me before the Haynes fight. “It just bored me to tears. I did it for three months and just left because I was falling asleep in the classes.”
So he worked. And worked. And worked some more.
“You name it, I’ve done it,” he said. “But they were all the crappy jobs though, nothing too flamboyant. I was a slaughterman, builder, and laborer.”
He and his girlfriend (now his wife), Rebecca, soon had two children, and the future Bisping wanted for his growing family wasn’t panning out the way he pictured it.
“You always think you’re going to be great and you’re going to do things, but then I got in my early 20s and I was quite disappointed,” he admitted. “And if I was being realistic, my life was going nowhere really. And it was going nowhere fast and I wasn’t getting any younger.”
Mixed martial arts was Bisping’s lifeline, and a little over two years after he turned pro, he was on the verge of changing everything forever. And he did. He blasted out Haynes and sat watching his new set of peers at the Hard Rock. Some were devastated by losses, others celebrating victories, and there was still a main event to be fought that night between Kenny Florian and Sam Stout. There would be no elaborate post-fight press conferences, television spots on FOX, no recap on ESPN.
But Michael Bisping had a job he loved, a career to look forward to and no more factories.
“I never had anything handed to me, and everything that I’ve had, I had to work for,” he said. “My mum and dad never had much money and I had a humble upbringing. I’ve done the crappy jobs, I worked 12-hour days in the middle of the winter, getting up when it’s pitch dark and going home when it’s pitch black. Now I’ve left that all behind for the moment, and fingers crossed I won’t go back to it. That definitely gives me a little extra drive. I’ve moved on from that and I don’t want to go back. It keeps my feet on the ground, keeps me working hard, and keeps me training and focused.”
The story could have ended there and it would have been a happy one, but no fighter worth his salt settles for simply having a job. Bisping would turn his sights toward a world title, but over the last decade, it appeared that it just wasn’t in the cards for him. Bad luck, bad matchups, injuries, falling short at the most inopportune times. You name it, he went through it.
Eventually, while he would say the right things when it came to getting a title shot, you could hear it in his voice that he knew it was going to be an uphill climb. He supplemented his fight income with gigs as a FOX Sports analyst and as an actor. The Bisping family added a third child and his first two were growing up fast as the fighter who was always just one of the lads approached 40. A pair of eye surgeries threatened his career, and losses to Tim Kennedy and Rockhold in their first bout in 2014 didn’t help matters.
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But in 2015, it was as if Bisping channeled that hungry kid who fought for his career in 2006, and he won back-to-back fights over CB Dollaway and Thales Leites. This year, he beat a certified legend in Anderson Silva, and 17 days before UFC 199 on June 4, his phone rang with an offer he waited a decade for. Sure, in true Bisping fashion, he got his title shot on short notice against someone who already finished him, but some things you just don’t turn down.
And when it mattered, Bisping delivered. Ten years of blood, sacrifice and pain were in the left hand that started Rockhold’s descent into the ranks of former champions, whether the two fighters knew it or not. At 3:36 of the first round, Michael Bisping was a world champion.
Then he smiled. The same smile we saw back in June of 2006. It was ten years between them, but The Count turned King will likely say that the wait was worth it.