UFC 199: Post-fight patterns – Bisping’s Isle

At around 5:30 on Sunday morning, a small group of hardcore fans in homes around the UK were watching the main event of UFC…

By: Phil Mackenzie | 7 years ago
UFC 199: Post-fight patterns – Bisping’s Isle
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

At around 5:30 on Sunday morning, a small group of hardcore fans in homes around the UK were watching the main event of UFC 199. If they were like me, then the light of what would become a beautiful summer’s day was starting to come in through their windows, and the birds were starting to sing outside. If they were like me, then they had to stop themselves from jumping and shouting and waking up their flatmates, or wives, or girlfriends, who wouldn’t appreciate their Sunday lie-in being ruined. Maybe some of them couldn’t stop themselves because they were buzzing with adrenaline, with no-one to talk to and nowhere to go.

Apart from those few, his home country slept through UFC 199, and now the question is: how to wake it up, to the impossibility of the fact that Michael Bisping is the UFC Middleweight Champ?

The unlikely expansion

Mike Bisping’s first introduction to the Ultimate Fighting Championship audiences was when he won The Ultimate Fighter Season 3. The Cage Rage champion, amateur DJ and former kickboxer would be the centrepiece of the UFC’s plans to expand across the pond, and to set alight a new market for MMA.

As with many of the UFC’s expansionary plans, it wouldn’t work out quite the way they thought.

The first problem: the UK is stratified. The buttoned-up and ethnically homogenous image presented to foreign audiences is inaccurate, but there are more subtle and fairly immovable divisions running through Great Britain. The underlying power structures and the class system are entrenched and powerful, with an obscure, opaque Old Boys political system overlaid by a similarly insular Old Boys media.

The media is not only bureaucratic and aging, but backwards-looking. The image it sells to itself and others is nostalgic, and focused on a version of the past which culminates and loops back eternally sometime in the ‘60s (Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, UKIP, James Bond etc). New elements take a while to be absorbed, particularly if they’re controversial, like people punching each other in the face in a cage. Hence, slow top-down acceptance of the sport.

The second problem: Zuffa’s misapprehension of how available marketplaces for MMA would work. The assumption has always been that people who love combat sports, or specifically boxing, would be those that loved MMA. As an English-speaking boxing nation, the UK would be the ideal beachhead for the UFC’s expansion into Europe.

There has been some success here, but I think they misunderstood the basic linkages. With its strange mix of blue-collar characters, bizarre violence, and consistent, chaotic matchmaking, MMA has always hewed closer to professional wrestling than to boxing with respect to the fans it attracts. Fans and the UFC themselves don’t like the comparison, however, priding themselves as they do on how MMA is as real as it gets, and have deliberately ignored the obvious connection. This likely contributed to a misunderstanding of just how fast MMA could catch on in the UK.

The third problem: as far as popular perception goes, MMA is the UFC and the UFC is MMA. Due to the time difference, UFC events are traditionally shown at the worst possible time in the UK, with a main card which normally starts at 3 in the morning.

The heel

The final problem, of course, is that even Brits like winners, and Bisping never won at the right times, or enough.

He started off his UFC career well, with stoppages over outmatched opposition, but a controversial decision over well-liked wrestler Matt Hammil started him on a path which culminated in his coaching role against the even more well-liked Dan Henderson on the Ultimate Fighter.

By this point, Bisping had moved on from his cocky early days, and established himself as one of the most roundly-loathed heels in the sport. Snarky, arrogant, foul-mouthed, and with a widespread perception that he had been protected for the benefit of the aforementioned UK market. People enjoyed making memes about how much they hated him. Like this video:

When Henderson knocked him out at UFC 100, it all exploded into the biggest and longest wave of derision unleashed in the brief history of modern MMA. It was impossible to open a Bisping comment thread for literally years without finding the Hendo KO posted in there somewhere.

The fight also started a holding pattern, one dictating that when Bisping took a step up in competition, he’d get pushed back down again. Again and again, he’d get turned away. He beat anyone below the fringes of the top 10, but in moving beyond that he lost by close decisions, wide decisions, strike stoppages and submissions.

Over the years the young fighter visibly changed. He’s probably better looking than he was when he started out, but it’s a face that reflects the years of his trade, with cauliflower ears and features flattened and broadened from thousands of impacts. When he smiles or frowns the small pads and ties of scar tissue shift beneath the surface. His right eye is darkened by a detached retina.

As he aged the division deepened around him. When Bisping had started out, middleweight was one of the weakest collection of fighters in the UFC, but Zuffa’s purchase of Strikeforce caused an influx of talented fighters. Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi dropped down from light heavyweight. Chris Weidman took the belt that Bisping had never fought for. To many, it became clear that if Bisping couldn’t even have gotten a title shot in the shallow Anderson Silva era, then he was never going to get one in 2015 and beyond.

It also became clear that the idea of the UK as a white-hot market for MMA had been wrong. The disconnect between the established mainstream media and the fans was too wide; the sport showed at the wrong time; the potential marketplace too tied up in boxing and footy. The UK MMA scene slowly evolved, driven by organizations like BAMMA and Cage Warriors, but always beneath the surface of public perception. Essentially, there was no “Bisping’s Isle.” There never has been.

Grudging acceptance

The MMA landscape is littered with the figureheads of failed and semi-successful expansion attempts which never quite panned out (can you remember who won TUF China?), but Bisping was able to successfully leverage his own notoriety. He coached the Ultimate Fighter again. He went to Australia, and Macau, and Canada, and Brazil. He became the fighter everyone called out- it seemed like every middleweight on roster felt like they could handle the feather-fisted British guy, and everyone knew it meant a fight which fans would pay attention to. He took a role behind the desk as an analyst for Fox Sports.

Meanwhile, something was slowly changing about how the fans felt about Michael Bisping. More and more people grudgingly admitted that the blunt snark was refreshing. He revealed himself as a family man with little time for the jewelry and cars which obsess a lot of fighters. He stayed clean as swathes of drug-testing failures decimated the division around him, including a number of those who had fought and beaten him.

There was a realization that he was, in his abrasive way, an honest guy. He wasn’t someone building up for big fights who’d slink away and nurse his wounds if he lost. He could get knocked out, the internet could say what it liked, but Bisping would always remain uncowed, ready and willing to give his damndest and fight and run his mouth against anyone.

Consolation prize

The fight against Anderson Silva in London, therefore, felt like a kind of consolation prize. Bisping had never gotten the shot when Silva was champion, but now that Anderson was clearly on the downslope, it felt like an appropriately matched and fun fight. Bisping scraped the win, just about, and mostly validated the idea that Silva was slipping.

Then, when Chris Weidman pulled out of UFC 199, Bisping immediately volunteered to fight for the title. Again, this was seen as a kind of validation; a reward for a long career. He’d finally get to fight for the belt, even if there was almost no chance he’d win.

The fight against Rockhold was very different from the one against Silva. This was not Bisping against a man who was clearly on the downslope. Instead, at 37 years old, Bisping was fighting a younger, bigger, stronger, more diverse and infinitely more dangerous opponent in the prime of his career, and one who had brutally finished him 18 months prior.

As a light volume puncher and cardio machine, the Lancastrian was coming in on three weeks notice, with no training camp. He professed that he probably couldn’t even win on cardio, traditionally viewed as his only real weapon.

Given this absurd stacking of the deck, it’s reasonable to ask whether the win was just variance, MMA throwing out another one of its insane “anything can happen” outcomes… but in the end, Bisping beat Luke Rockhold in ways that only Michael Bisping could.

The aging fencer

Bisping’s most purely identifiable technical trait is that he fights by keeping his weight over his feet and carrying them with him. This affects his power, but it allows him to throw a shot, and move, and throw again.

This seems a small and inconsequential thing, but when Bisping fought Anderson Silva, Bisping was able to knock the middleweight great down. It wasn’t simply because Anderson’s chin was deteriorated, but because Silva’s tendency to over-use head movement as a striking defense could be made into a liability by the Brit, who could manipulate Silva’s body into de facto checkmate positions. Effective head movement is so infrequently used in MMA that the counters to it are used even less frequently, and when they are, the effects are devastating (as demonstrated earlier in the 199 card, when Dustin Poirier doubled up on a left hook to knock down a swaying Bobby Green).

Similarly, Rockhold’s tendency to leave himself exposed and rely on his frame could be and was exploited. In the case of both Rockhold and Silva, there were areas where almost no-one would step into due to the massive offensive threats posed by the fighters in question. The counter right hook and counter jab of Rockhold and Silva have been directly or indirectly responsible for multiple finishes, and single shot fighters would try to surge in and overcommit, straight into Silva’s and Rockhold’s vicious clinch games. Bisping, almost alone in the division, could remain in the interstitial areas just past those counters and move or attack for crucial fragments of time.

It may sound improbable, but Bisping’s ability to punch and move, and punch and move made him more capable of badly hurting two champions than he was simplistic brawlers like Chris Leben, who simply marched forward with their posture bolt upright and absorbed strike after strike.

Still, a single stylistic advantage is one thing, but to expect him to be able to capitalize was asking an aging fencer to lace his rapier through the gaps in the armour of a knight in motion… but that’s what Bisping did.

Pillow hands

Armchair psychology is one of the laziest ways of analyzing fights. Whether a fighter looked scared, smug, or cocky is something which rarely means anything. Something genuinely did seem a little off with Luke Rockhold, however. He seemed more concerned with how impressively he was going to win the fight than with the actual threat to the belt he’d worked so hard to win. He seemed fine with disclosing a pre-existing knee injury, which is not normally a smart thing to do.

He’s a confident fighter in the cage, but the way he acted seemed exaggerated. A smile flickered over his face when Bisping’s first strike was an oblique kick (an “attacking the knee, are we?” smile) He pursed his lips and almost rolled his eyes whenever Bisping threw a punch.

As mentioned in our preview, Rockhold often takes loping diagonal steps on the retreat, and leans back, leaving his lead leg in front of him, extended like a tripod. As he did once in their first fight, Bisping was able to push the champion back with short and peppery combinations, while still being able attack as Rockhold was compromised. First he did it with his own outside kick, and then he stepped outside the extended leg, almost to Rockhold’s back, and landed a left hand across the bows. The champion’s chin briefly thrummed like a guitar string, and, impossibly, he staggered.

For all the talk of pillow hands, Bisping has always been a murderous finisher when he has opponents hurt. He charged in and landed another clubbing left which left the Californian slumped by the fence.

Michael Bisping, 2016 UFC Middleweight Champion. By first round knockout.

Of all the crazy outcomes MMA has thrown out over the last two or three years… this has to be the most shocking.

Underdog stories are often about potential unfulfilled becoming a reality: Talented individuals are inconsistent, or unmotivated, yet suddenly realize their capabilities in a single moment. Alternatively, they’re built of incomplete information- TJ Dillashaw is improving faster than you expect; Holly Holm’s first-layer takedown defense is good;  Matt Serra hits harder than we thought for a BJJ guy.

There was almost none of that here. Bisping has been consistent; perhaps the most consistent fighter in the UFC when all’s said and done. The information on him was as complete as you could ask for. Every time, he came out, fought as hard as a he possibly could and then he won or lost. You can point to small technical improvements in his game, but recently this came at the expense of undeniable physical deterioration. The only thing which really stands out is what always did: his sheer dogged unwillingness to quit and to accept what everyone else seemed to know: that he just wasn’t gifted enough to take a UFC belt.

One of the very best things to see afterwards was the sudden outpouring of affection from the MMA media and fans when Bisping became champion; the sheer number of people who suddenly found themselves exploding with joy that this unyielding, funny, prickly, sarcastic, emotional dickhead that they’d seen through all of his ups and downs had somehow clawed his way to a championship belt, just when no-one thought he could.

The worst thing (or perhaps second-worst) was how quiet the mainstream media was in the UK. A small article at the BBC, a small presence in the Guardian, where Josh Gross’ article got little play and was quickly supplanted by one about how Bisping had called Rockhold a faggot.

H/T to u/CarpetBouncer on R/mma

(H/T to u/CouchBouncer on r/mma)

I heard nothing on the radio. At work, no-one knew a thing.

I understand: MMA is a brutal sport to hear about over your morning tea, but for a country which normally revels in its sporting heroes, the level of silence was deafening.

I get it: Bisping is, to put it lightly, a touch unreconstructed. But he tries. He’s always made an attempt to present himself as a martial artist rather than as a cage fighter, as an ambassador for the sport. It’s just something which gets away from him. The extended quote: “I’ve knocked you out twice now! You faggot… oh shit I shouldn’t have said that.” is peak Michael Bisping.

MMA in the UK creeps slowly onward. Relatively new arrivals in the mainstream press include Dan Hardy writing for the Independent; Simon Head at the Sun; and Gross at the Guardian. Still, beyond these and a few other stalwarts, it might be nice to see some more support for a fighter who carried torch for this country for years; who just kept at it until he won the belt, at a point in his career when most fighters are fading shells of themselves.

A fanbase which hated Michael Bisping learned to love him. I don’t think that it ever realized quite how unknown he was in his own country… but maybe that country can learn to love him too, if it’s given half the chance.

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Phil Mackenzie
Phil Mackenzie

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