Hey! Where’s David?
I don’t know what you’re talking about. There are no significant changes here.
I can see your name under the title.
No shady behaviour here, sir.
You spelled “behavior” wrong. Brit.
Ah. Drat. Well, David was called away last minute. So I briefly stole his job.
Damn. OK. Explain the stakes to me.
Michael Bisping is a fascinating case study in maximizing your earning potential and how you are perceived. He’s a perennial top 10 middleweight, who to the best of my knowledge has never actually defeated another top 10 middleweight while they were ranked (Brian Stann may have been ranked #10?). Cung Le, on the other hand, was considered to be something of a part-time fighter, albeit an extremely talented one. He got into the game late in life, made some waves, captured the Strikeforce middleweight title, and then vacated it for Hollywood. He returned after the UFC’s buyout of Strikeforce, but his last fight was almost two years ago. Bisping, meanwhile, comes in to this bout on the heels of his upset loss to Tim Kennedy.
The stakes, therefore, are a little difficult to quantify. Both men are floating in divisional limbo: Bisping’s long-held hopes of a title shot are probably a pipe dream at this point, as he’s dropped further in the rankings than he’s been in years, he’s getting older and the division is deepening around him by the day. Meanwhile, Le’s future in the sport is also in question- at 42 years old and with a sporadic fighting schedule, it’s difficult to see him seriously contending higher up the division.
So this fight is essentially a shotgun blast, expending the drawing power of two fading stars in one shot in order to lend some name value to the UFC’s east Asian expansion efforts.
You really sold me on this one.
For those who like their traditional martial arts, Cung Le’s background is a veritable smorgasbord of TMM goodness. He is most famous for his Sanshou achievements, but also competed in Wushu and kickboxing, and actually started in Tae Kwon Do. As a result, despite his barrel-chested physique Le is light on his feet, using an unearthly balance to cut in on opponents at angles, flicking kicks at every unprotected area.
The defining element of Le’s game, and his strongest potential weapon, is simply how talented he is. This may seem reductive and lazy, so let me explain: it’s tempting to think of him as a dilettante or a movie star, but he brings an overall game to the table which it is simply impossible to accurately predict or prepare for. Here’s a man who was famous for breaking opponents down with the kicking barrage… but his last win was a one-punch obliteration of Rich Franklin. Prior to that, he used his oft-ignored wrestling game to win a decision over Patrick Cote. There are not many athletes who have the sheer ability to show completely different looks in their late 30’s and early 40’s (For example, Yoel Romero), but Le is arguably part of that rare breed.
If Le is the unknown, then Bisping is the familiar and the quantifiable. The British kickboxer is a patient striker who generally works from the outside. His striking game is generally built off his jab, which is crisp and neatly chambered, allowing him to keep his center of mass over his feet and stay mobile. “Built” is the operative word, as Bisping utilizes a step-wise approach: he normally starts off only throwing the jab. As his opponent slows or is discouraged, he risks compromising his base more to throw one-twos, then adds in his kicking game, and then finally moves through to his favoured finishing technique: knees from the double collar tie.
Bisping’s strongest weapon is his cardiovascular endurance. He always comes to fight in excellent shape, and it’s hard not to argue that this game is constructed around tiring his opponent out, both physically and mentally. He has a reputation as a difficult man to take down, but what he’s really good at is getting back to his feet once taken down. Using sneaky hips and a dogged determination, he battles his way back to a standing position. Once there, he starts to pump that jab again. Tired from expending the energy of taking him down, facing a visibly fresh opponent who continues to move and pepper their face, his opponents begin to break.
Unfortunately, Bisping’s step-wise approach has a number of flaws. Firstly, he needs a certain degree of success at each level to be confident in moving on to the next one. If his jab is not working as efficiently as he likes, then he stays stuck in that first gear, generating minimal offense. This means that rounds can be stolen from him, as when Wanderlei Silva beat him with flurries just before the bell. Secondly, his focus on standing up at all costs can be used against him, as when Tim Kennedy returned him to the mat with a series of cunning grappling tricks seemingly custom-made to exploit that tendency. Lastly is perhaps the most key point: his style only obliquely approaches his best strength.
To clarify, Cain Velasquez and Nick Diaz are cardio-based fighters. Velasquez immediately implements a ferocious wrestling and clinch based attack from the opening of the fight, and Nick Diaz uses energy-sapping body punches. They employ strategies which feed directly into their advantage in endurance. However, Bisping rarely actively grapples, and does not have a powerful body attack. Therefore, the way that his cardio advantage is only exploited indirectly and the fundamental frailty of that indirect strategy have been key reasons in why he’s never achieved his expected level of success. His most famous losses were against ferocious hitters with cardio issues in Dan Henderson and Vitor Belfort, who blasted him to pieces before he could even begin to make inroads towards tiring them out.
For Cung Le, his problems are a bit more nebulous. I think they can be best described as consistency, or perhaps just polish, the kind of smooth veneer of capability which can only be attained by fighting often at the highest level. There have been several points in his career where it just seems that he’s been just plain surprised with his opponent’s attacks: his crushing loss to Wanderlei Silva and his bizarre, upset come-from-behind KO loss to Scott Smith. He’s a talented striker, and an underrated grappler, but there are transition spaces which belong uniquely to MMA where he can get thrown for a loop. There isn’t much of a solution for this, other than training, sparring and fighting. He has also shown issues with his own cardio, as his high-octane kicking offense tends to tire him out a little, but I think the issue is more mental than physical- he can keep a pace for several rounds, but if he starts losing, he fades quickly.
So what does it all mean?
A couple of years ago, I don’t think anyone would have picked Cung Le. He remains the underdog, but it’s easy to see how he could beat Bisping.
However… I don’t think that he will. In part, a tendency to pick him may be because Le was seen as overperforming in his last fight, where Bisping underperformed- it leads to a perception of one man being on an upwards trajectory, while the other is falling. While it may be true, I’m not sure that it necessarily means that those paths intersect, and that Bisping falls past him.
Le’s problems are in mentality and experience, and these are the two areas which Bisping is well-equipped to exploit. Even if he doesn’t directly lead the fight into areas where his cardio can be brought to bear, The Count is simply an extremely well-rounded veteran with a frustrating style, who is comfortable fighting back from bad situations. Conversely, when Le hits a hiccup or encounters a hole in his own experience, it can be seen to clearly disconcert him. Bisping’s grimy, demoralizing clinch game and underrated top position striking are other elements to stack in his favour should the fight move into a grappling phase.
Finally, Le has gotten the majority of his knockouts through volume. While he blasted Rich Franklin with a single shot, I’m not sold that he can pull that kind of one-hit destruction off again. In a potential 25-minute fight, I think that Bisping is the more proven commodity to win the mental game, and steadily pull ahead.
Le’s physique looks greatly physically improved. This may portend improvements in his cardio, explosiveness, or potentially even discipline if he’s focusing more seriously on the fight game. On the other hand, it may just be a useless Frank Mir Muscle Suit.
Bisping had eye surgery back in October of 2013, and his eye is still visibly altered. Fighters take fights while injured all the time, but hopefully Bisping is telling the truth when he says there are no ongoing issues, because going into a prizefight with a damaged eye is frankly irresponsible.
Michael Bisping by unanimous decision
About the author