Allan Clarkin’s Black Knights gym in Burnley is more than a training facility.
After 35 years in martial arts, the 64-year-old’s practice is an institution in Northern England and the countless champions he has produced over the years is proof of that. The martial arts expert was brought into the world by his judoka parents and took his first steps on the tatami at two years old.
Decades before the term ‘MMA’ was coined, Clarkin was producing well-rounded fighters over a variety of different disciplines—from kickboxing to jiu jitsu and combat sambo.
Nearly 20 years ago, he met a teenager at a competition in Manchester that shared the same passion that he has. Little did he know, that teenager would go on to become the first British fighter to ever claim a UFC championship.
“My wife and I had taken one of the students to Manchester to compete in a kickboxing event,” he explained. “We were sat in the terraces waiting and we got chatting to these two lads, one of them being Michael and the other one being his brother.
“I told him that we were from Burnley and Michael told us they came from Clitheroe. Next thing we knew, Michael was traveling to Burnley with his father to train at Black Knights.”
Even back then, Clarkin remembered how Bisping’s dedication made him stand out from the field, an asset that has proved invaluable to him on route to claiming a UFC title at 37 years of age.
“He never missed training and for a 16-year-old he was fantastically competitive. He was one of the youngest in the game at that time and you could just tell how much it meant to him to be a fighter. He was very good at it too, and he loved it.
“Michael was a raw talent, but he was consistent. His father would drop him to training and then he got some of his friends from Clithroe to join too so he could get a lift with them if his father couldn’t bring him. When they weren’t available he would take the bus.”
In three years he spent under Clarkin’s tutelage, Bisping claimed three British titles. An “impressive” turnaround by all means according to Clarkin, but he wasn’t all that surprised after seeing Bisping’s intensity in competition.
“I remember his first fight very well. It was the first event that I ever promoted and I got him matched up, but he was a little bit overweight.
“I told the other camp and they said ‘let’s have a look at him’, and when I brought Michael in and they sort of laughed him off because he had such a baby face. He was still a very young kid.
“When the bell rang for that fight he flew across the ring, hit his opponent with a side kick and then he lifted him up and threw him with a kata guruma, the fireman’s lift throw, which wasn’t allowed at all,” he laughed.
“I waved my finger at him and told him not to. Then, when he came back into the corner at the end of the round his said ‘If I can’t throw him can I at least kick him out of the ring?’
“I said ‘Feel free to do that!’ That was the start of his kickboxing career and because of how he won that so easily, I knew he had a future as a fighter. He faced an experienced guy that night and at the end of the fight he didn’t know what day it was.”
The same aggression and forward pressing style of Bisping’s that has become a calling card during his time in the Octagon can be traced right back to his time under Clarkin too.
“I remember one fight that he had where he leaped out of the corner on the first bell and hit his opponent with a jumping sidekick to the head. The bell was still chiming and the guy was knocked out in his corner. He hadn’t taken a step before it had happened.”
A relentless trainer and competitor, Clarkin recalled the last time seeing Bisping in person was at the WAKO championships where he was using the competition as preparation for a regional MMA fight.
“I thought it was funny he was using this huge event to prepare for an MMA fight. He was fighting at heavyweight and I can remember watching the fight thinking that his opponent was trying to burn him out. The guy was just covering up and letting Michael go berserk on him.
“I ran over to the corner and told them what was happening. They got him back in the corner, told him what I had said, and he used a far more tactical approach and went on to beat the fellah.”
Being known for his ability with his hands throughout his reign on the regional MMA scene and into his UFC career must be a source of pride for Clarkin, with Bisping starting his martial arts journey in jiu jitsu at the age of seven.
Even as a teenager, it was Bisping’s volume that overwhelmed his opponents, as Clarkin remembers.
“I know he knocked Rockhold out with one shot, but he was never a single-punch knockout artist. It’s his output that’s the difference between him and his opponents for the most part.
“He can destroy peoples’ morale when he starts putting combinations together. He’s always in his opponents’ faces and he’s always shifting his body from side to side to make him harder to hit. He picks his shots very well too. He’s very hard to live with.”
Clarkin still sees the same qualities in Bisping now that he had shown during his championship run at Black Knights.
“In his last few fights, he’s really looked like the Michael I used to know. His output has been fantastic, he looks like he has his diet perfect and his timing has been incredible. When I see him putting out that kind of volume, that’s the Michael I know.”
Regardless of his many accomplishments in martial arts, Clarkin was overjoyed to finally see Bisping claim the UFC title back in June.
“Me and wife were just buzzing for him. It was fantastic to watch it,” he said.
Clarkin believes that Bisping defending his title on home soil will mean more to him than winning the belt against Rockhold back at UFC 199. Ahead of his meeting with his old rival Dan Henderson on Saturday night at the Manchester Arena, he had some advice for Bisping on his homecoming.
“If I could speak to him directly I’d just tell him to do what he’s good at. I’d just tell him to be the old Michael that I know and to move and throw his hands with the incredible volume that he can.”
Even if he defends his middleweight title on Saturday night, it is unlikely that Bisping will be shortlisted for ‘BBC Sportsperson of the Year’, given MMA’s standing in comparison to other sports in Europe. That being said, Clarkin thinks his former student should be acknowledged as one of the best British competitors across all sports for his achievements with UFC.
“He’s been at it for so many years and he hasn’t quit. He has always wanted to be a winner and he always gives thanks to Britain when he wins. He’s very proud of his roots and he goes out of his way to thank the people back home each time he competes in the UFC.
“He still wears that Union Jack gum shield. His heart is still here with us. He’s definitely one of the best British sports representatives we have.”
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