Snarky middleweight gatekeeper to the stars tries to keep the gate once again
Weight class: Middleweight (185lbs)
Michael "The Count" Bisping
25W-6L-0D (13W-6L UFC)
15 (T)KOs, 4 submissions, 6 decisions
UFC ranking: #8
Fighting out of: HB Ultimate
12W-2L-0D (2W-1L UFC)
4 (T)KOs, 6 submissions, 2 decisions
UFC ranking: #5
Fighting out of: American Kickboxing Academy
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Englishman Michael Bisping won his way to fame on The Ultimate Fighter, a long time ago. Afterwards, a controversial hometown win over beloved wrestler Matt "The Hammer" Hamill set the tone for much of the rest of his career: Bisping has been the most reliable foil the UFC could ever have asked for. Got an up-and-coming star who's a little bit bland? Need some attention on an international Fight Night card? Just add Bisping(TM) for guaranteed spice!
Fans have softened to him somewhat over the years, as he's gained some grudging respect for his willingness to take any fight and some sympathy for repeated losses to drug-users. He's beaten some pretty decent fighters as well. He's coming off a gruesome mauling of Rockhold's sometime-AKA teammate Cung Le.
Luke Rockhold was a young, up-and-coming fighter in Strikeforce Challengers (the "developmental" branch of the Strikeforce promotion) whose talent was immediately obvious to anyone who watched him. However, Strikeforce had something of a dearth of decent middleweights, so he was thrown to the wolves early on, and put in to fight "Jacare" Souza for the belt without ever fighting in Strikeforce proper. That he actually won after such a gargantuan leap in competition was extraordinarily impressive.
He came over to the UFC without ever losing the belt, but was brutally knocked out by Vitor Belfort in his debut. Since then, he's put together two straight first-round finishes over tough fighters in Costas Philippou and Tim Boetsch.
What are the stakes?
Middleweight is something of a logjam at the moment. The UFC's constant and insatiable hunger for Vitor Belfort title shots combined with Chris Weidman's sketchy health have put the belt on hold. Jacare Souza has established himself as next in line, but Yoel Romero is also surging. It's unlikely that a win gets either Rockhold or Bisping a title shot, but there's a good chance it puts them in there in some kind of eliminator.
The UFC would LOVE to get Bisping in there for the belt, so if he comes out and finishes Rockhold in some kind of highlight-reel manner, he can possibly expect to jump the queue straight up. In this hypothetical scenario, after finishing Rockhold he can move on to take out Chris Weidman, and then finally go and punch out God.
Does Rockhold establish himself as one of the elite at middleweight, or does Bisping finally get a marquee win?
Yes to the first bit, no to the second.
These are two superficially similar fighters: both are sturdy defensive grapplers who maintain a high volume striking style. Rockhold fights out of the southpaw stance, throwing a jab mostly as a lead to start combination punches, and has a solid left straight. He's all about forward motion, but if pushed back he favours countering with the check hook. His bread and butter is the kicking game: He works the body and the head in equal measure, with a nasty front kick to the ribs and the dreaded southpaw to orthodox liver kick complemented with an array of other more exotic techniques like switch kicks and even a tornado kick.
Bisping is the far more meat-and-potatoes of the two with respect to technique. He's an orthodox fighter, and his power punches are ancillary to his jab, rather than the converse which is true of Rockhold. Bisping stays very mobile, and the jab is the pry-bar of his style, which he inserts into the gaps in the mortar of his opponent's stand-up. He then widens those gaps, until he can open up with fight-ending offense.
Although his technique is flashier, Rockhold is far more straightforward in approach. He stands fearlessly in front of his opponent and unloads volleys of kicks and punches until the other fighter is badly hurt. Following his loss to Belfort, he probably found himself at something of a crossroads. Here some young, talented fighters take their loss and tone down their wild styles into something a little more refined, like Rory MacDonald after losing to Carlos Condit. Rockhold appears to have gone the other way, and has simply loaded up on yet more raw power. He's debatably been something of a slow starter in the past, but he came out of the gate and immediately obliterated poor Costas Philippou and Tim Boetsch. This kind of totally one-sided abuse of upper-level competition is something that only elite fighters tend to be capable of.
It's also something that Bisping, for all his long tenure in the UFC, has never really been able to pull off. In fights with the top 10, like Brian Stann or Alan Belcher, he's won reasonably convincing decisions, but he's never won a fight which he wasn't favoured to win in the first place, and he's faltered against underdogs such as Tim Kennedy and Wanderlei Silva.
Insight from past fights?
Common opponents generally provide some insight, but I'm not sure if they do this time. Rockhold beat Kennedy pretty handily, while Kennedy won a decision over Bisping. This tells us a few things, namely that Rockhold is an even better sprawl-and-brawler than Bisping is (even if that's not precisely what Bisping does). I don't know if it tells us much about this particular fight, which is probably going to be contested on the feet. Similarly, the Vitor Belfort contests featured both men getting blown away with the quickness.
I do think that Bisping's fight against Cung Le may be telling, because Bisping tended to fire back immediately with stinging shots whenever Le landed on him with kicks or punches. Rockhold has a tendency admire his handiwork with his head bolt upright after landing combinations, and Bisping absolutely must seize these opportunities to stop the bigger, younger, stronger fighter from getting comfortable and gaining momentum. He needs to get Rockhold smarting, get him moving backwards, and be careful not chase after him into the counter right hook.
A problem here for the Englishman is that whenever he's gone up against elite competition (Belfort, Henderson), Bisping has tended to freeze up and his striking output has plummeted.
Rockhold's submission game. If this fight hits the floor for some reason, Bisping is phenomenal at getting back to his feet, but often takes risks to do so. Rockhold is a really voracious submission grappler.
The old saying "styles make fights" is trotted out a lot... but we forget that sometimes, it isn't true. From a purely stylistic standpoint, a Bisping win is completely understandable. His straighter punches seem like they'd stand up well to Rockhold's slightly more uncontrolled barrages. He's well-conditioned enough to take body kicks, and capable of attacking back on the counter.
However, Rockhold holds whopping advantages in athleticism and finishing power in every phase of the game. While Bisping's approach involves less commitment and risk, it also leaves him with very little way to effectively leap over those sheer damage-dealing differentials. His best attribute is his ability to out-cardio and out-tough his opponents in attritional contests, but it's very hard to see that happening here.
It may possibly be closer than some think, but if he doesn't win by stoppage, Rockhold's ability to land eye-catching, damaging offense should be able to cement him rounds in a decision. Luke Rockhold by unanimous decision.