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The Art of Taking Lumps

After 10 years of toll-taking in the Octagon, Michael Bisping finally gets his title shot at UFC 199

Getty Images
Getty Images

After his fight with Anderson Silva in February, Michael Bisping emerged looking like something out of the pages of Fangoria, just wheezing blood and horror from the holes left in his face. He got his arm raised, but even the most hardened fans of the mixed techniques had to cringe at least a little, as the 37-year-old Bisping hobbled back, one more time, into title contention like the lone survivor of a slasher film.

Seeing him like that, already with an abyss of a right eye, made you think: Has anybody in UFC history put himself through as much hell as Michael Bisping has? The answer has got to be no. Can’t be. His defense has been solid, but Bisping’s always been willing to absorb his share to dish a few. It’s no way to survive for a decade in the UFC, yet that’s what he’s done, and that’s who he is. It’s as if he’s completely OK with another man ripping his skin off if it means everybody can catch a glimpse of the size of his heart.

The damage in that last fight resulted from what he called a "rookie mistake." Bisping dropped his mouthpiece at the end of the third round and, sensing a halt in the action, lowered his guard to retrieve it. Silva took advantage and blasted Bisping with a flying knee on the fence just as the round was ending. That knee opened up a cut that ran from the bridge of his nose down under his left eye. There was a moment of confusion, as referee Herb Dean had to call Silva down from the fence where he was celebrating and inform him the fight wasn’t yet over. Somehow, in yet another feat of asshole defiance — which Bisping’s long been famous for — he recovered and won the fight.

Even if it was a twilight affair, beating the great Anderson Silva, whom many consider the best to ever take off his shoes, easily became the most triumphant moment of Bisping’s career. For years, as Silva batted back challengers as the UFC’s middleweight champion, that’s all Bisping ever wanted — yet he could never get to him. He’d climb the rungs into a no. 1 contender fight, lose it, then fall back in the queue. So it was sweet to take out "The Spider." That he beat him in England, in a fight made of grit and full of dramatic swings, made it all the sweeter. He could have walked away from the game right then and there and nobody would have blamed him. He didn’t.

Instead, circumstances have made it so he’s finally getting that elusive title shot at UFC 199 on Saturday night, in what will be his 26th fight in the Octagon. For all he’s been through, the situation is not exactly ideal. He was in Toronto filming a movie when word reached him that Chris Weidman was out of his rematch with Luke Rockhold after suffering an injury just over two weeks before the event. Despite being well north of 200 pounds, Bisping volunteered to step in to the 185-pound match, even though Rockhold ripped right through him a year and a half ago in Australia.

Say what you want about Bisping, but he keeps a short memory on that particular head kick, which led to a guillotine finish.

Just to salt things a bit on a UFC 199 media call last week, Rockhold — who is, as you might guess, a massive betting favorite — said he wouldn’t be needing to use any wrestling, head kicks, or jiujitsu in the rematch. He said he’d beat Bisping with his bare hands. That might be true: Bisping doesn’t possess traditional knockout power, so it’s not easy to see a clear path to victory for him. Rockhold might be better than him in every aspect, and he’s certainly much younger — at 31 years old, he’s in his prime. It’s as cruel and romantic as it is fitting: Bisping has spent his whole professional life fighting to get here — to get to what most would see as a "can’t win" situation.

If you ask him, Bisping will tell you he’s got Rockhold right where he wants him. Nobody tells his haters to "feck off" better and more frequently, and that attitude has endeared him to fight fans over the years as much as it’s pissed them off.

Still, the old warhorse represents more than himself, and he’ll show up at the Forum on Saturday night to try to bring England its first UFC title. It’s been a punishing journey. He has spent a grand total of five hours and 20 minutes inside the Octagon, the third most in UFC history. (He’s behind only Frankie Edgar and Georges St-Pierre.) He has dished out 1,393 significant strikes, but he’s also absorbed 828 (according to fightmetric.com). And talk about a man who wears his entire biography on his face.

For those who’ve followed him through his UFC run, which began 10 years ago this month, Bisping’s transformation has been thorough. His left ear is nothing more than a chewed gum wad, and his brow is thick with scar tissue. His nose has been smashed broad and now bends like an apostrophe. After his UFC 159 bout with Alan Belcher, he had to undergo multiple surgeries to fix a detached retina. His eye trouble goes back a fight further, though. Bisping went to São Paulo three months before the Belcher fight and got evaporated by a Vitor Belfort head kick.

"We all know the dangers of this sport, I mean, we’re trying to knock each other out," Bisping said of that fight. "I’ve been left permanently disfigured, if you will, from my fight with Vitor Belfort. Vitor Belfort head kicked me and that’s what caused my detached retina. Since then, I’ve had five surgeries, and my eye is never going to look the same again."

It’s been the elephant in the room ever since, yet he’s persevered through even that. One might say he’s gotten better. He adapts and keeps going, which is a complicated thing to observe. It’s at once fantastic, futile, contrary, and inspirational. He’s given a lot to the fight game, and the fight game has taken its share of him. At some point it feels a little sadistic to continue watching the two use one another in such ways.

I remember A. J. Liebling writing about his pilgrimage to visit the great former bantamweight champion Pete Herman out in Louisiana, whom he’d seen fight 30-plus years earlier at Madison Square Garden against Midget Smith. Liebling couldn’t understand at the time why Herman wasn’t getting out of the way of Smith’s late-round ripostes, which ended up costing him a decision. What stuck with Liebling in the intervening years was that Herman, it came out later, was virtually blind by the time he’d stood in there against Smith in 1921 — fighting largely on sensed movement, the whiff of missed punches, and the shuffle of feet.

Somehow that reminded me of Bisping, if only in that he’s dealing with more than he’s willing to let on. Nobody’s quite sure to what extent Bisping’s eye has been affected other than Bisping himself, but for the past few years there’s been plenty of whispers that it’s as bad as it looks. It didn’t help that he lost two out of his first three fights after coming back from surgery, with his right pupil flooded as black as a startled cat’s. A lot of people started push-brooming him toward the exits without a lot of ceremony.

But since then he’s responded with three wins in a row, posting one of the better runs of his long career. Now he’s back in his adopted Los Angeles for Saturday’s pay-per-view main event, making his way toward the thing that’s always been just out of reach. Bisping has survived against the middleweight division’s best for a decade, some of whom were on testosterone replacement therapy (a once perfectly illogical loophole to cheat) when he faced them — people like Belfort (whose TRT-fueled 2013 shocked the sport), Chael Sonnen, and Dan Henderson. The then-38-year-old Henderson scored one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history over Bisping at UFC 100–99 PPVs ago — in 2009.

(And speaking of fighters who’ve been mercilessly chipped away at, Henderson, who turns 46 in August, says people still thank him for knocking Bisping out seven years ago. He fights at UFC 199, too, and if there’s been mild concern for Bisping’s well-being, it’s 10 times worse for Hendo. His fight with Hector Lombard on Saturday’s main card has its own built-in quease factor. Henderson has been seen as an heirloom from the Pride FC days for the better part of a decade, but now he’s lost six of his past eight fights. His once prodigious chin has diminished over time, beginning with a knockout at the hands of Belfort during that same feeding frenzy that Bisping got consumed in back in 2013. His bout with Daniel Cormier ended up looking like a snuff film. Gegard Mousasi knocked him out, and Belfort did it again. Lombard has 19 career knockouts, and he’s facing a man with slowed reflexes. Which is all a roundabout way of pointing out that there might be some sad narratives coming out of UFC 199).

Of course, Bisping has it in him to win the middleweight title on Saturday night. Not many people thought he’d beat Silva and for a minute he didn’t. Then he did. He does have a way of out-desiring people. It’s a tall order against Rockhold, though, who since 2008 has lost just once (against none other than Belfort, also in 2013, giving him unwanted fraternity status with Henderson and Bisping).

"This is a mental thing," Bisping said this past week. "Fighting is of course an extremely physical thing, but mainly it’s mental. And I’ve learned a lot about myself and I’ve made huge leaps and bounds in the mental side of fighting. And all that will be on display. And my calmness and my confidence will be what got me that belt [on Saturday], believe you me."

Nobody can say he didn’t earn his shot, even if the match was made under rushed conditions. And there’s no telling how many more times he’ll make that walk to the cage before it’s all said and done, though you get the feeling he’s not done collecting scars just yet, regardless of the outcome on Saturday night. A belt would be nice, but the scars will live on as his true body of work.

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.