A few hours before sunup on Sunday in Manchester, England, Michael Bisping looked like he'd had the worst night of his life. His face was all sorts of red and purple, and his left eye swelled up into something that looked like it might leap across the cage and eat the scuff-free face of Dan Henderson, the man who turned Bisping's flesh that color.
This was a good night for Bisping, however. He'd made his first middleweight title defense in his home city at UFC 204. With his 20th UFC win, he'd gotten a unanimous decision revenge on Henderson—the 46-year-old elder of the UFC roster who half-killed Bisping at UFC 100—and sent him into pre-planned retirement with a serenade of sour notes. Then he got on the microphone and raged against the 185ers that chirped at him from the sidelines. "Forgive my language," he said, "but all you fucking assholes in the rest of the division—[Chris] Weidman, what the hell? You lost your last fight. I've got three victories since you got your ass kicked off by Luke Rockhold. Rockhold, I knocked you out in three minutes buddy. Yoel Romero, you're suspended for steroids, shame on you. And Jacare [Souza], you just got beat off by Yoel. All of you: win a fight, get off the couch, and fucking let's do this."
And here's the thing: the way Bisping won the five rounds that preceded that rant—through attrition and resilience while being kind of an asshole—might as well be a metaphor for his entire career to date. Henderson's right hand nearly finished him at the end of the first round, and in the second, Bisping found himself on flattened by Henderson's fist again after kicking him in the balls. But Bisping composed himself. By the fourth round, when he hit Henderson in the reproductive organs again and mocked him for taking too long to recover, Bisping was in his groove pecking from the outside, cruising to victory. It was a close fight—the 49-46 score in Bisping's favor was dumb—but it was a hometown decision for the champion only in a literal sense.
Remember how laughable it sounded to put "Michael Bisping" and "middleweight champion" anywhere near each other until fourth months ago? He was a TUF champion given a rut-free road to stardom so he could be the cue-balled poster boy for the UFC's UK expansion, but he had a ceiling. He kept winning the fights he was supposed to win—he doesn't get enough credit for his footwork, cardio, and ability to weather heaps of punishment—but came up short against the likes of Henderson and Wanderlei Silva.
Still, winning and losing was less of a problem than personality. While Bisping can occasionally flip the switch and turn on the humility—as he did with his post-fight praise of Henderson—he spends much more time giving viewers reasons to loathe him. If you need a fighter to make a fight unnecessarily personal and abrasive, he's your guy. Same if you need someone to insinuate that a fighter isn't one of the "real men" because he retired young, or if you need someone to say The Other F-Word at a post-fight presser, or unload an itemized list of fouls on poor Jorge Rivera. Bisping's own son picked Rockhold to beat him in their rematch, even after he bought him a dog named Harry.
That polarization makes it easy to miss the adversity that Bisping has beaten through stubborn resolve and sheer longevity. He suffered more from MMA's performance-enhancing drug problem than maybe any other fighter: with the exceptions of Rockhold and Tim Kennedy, all of Bisping's losses at middleweight—to Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, and Henderson—came against fighters confirmed (or, in Silva's case, strongly rumored) to have a hormonal assist. Along the way, he suffered a detached retina that threatened his career. During a three-year stretch, he alternated wins and losses. And still, Bisping kept making some of the steadiest technical strides of any TUF champion; the Henderson rematch was a classic expression of the style that Bisping has refined alongside Jason Parillo, the coach who's been in his corner throughout his current five-fight win streak. The eye eventually healed. PEDs eventually became taboo. Bisping remains.
You can despise him for being a jerk in public or make snide jokes about his punching power or lack thereof. You can try to call bullshit on his last few wins—what does it really mean to squeak by the old and grey Anderson Silvas and Dan Hendersons of the world, or lump on a reportedly injured Rockhold? But look long enough for reasons to criticize Bisping and you'll have to put your eyes on a hard truth: with the win over Henderson, Bisping has won more UFC fights than anyone else in history. Not Gracie, not St. Pierre, not Jones: it's Michael Bisping, the middleweight champion. Michael Bisping, the guy who kept toiling even when he knew he was fighting guys whose abs and biceps came from a needle. Michael Bisping, the guy who endured deafening jeers that were at least partially his own fault. Michael Bisping, the guy who got here by taking the long way.
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