A complete breakdown of the main event this July 18, 2015 at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland.
One Sentence Summary
Phil: A middleweight turf war, as the long reigning leader of the Powerless Volume Punchers gang takes on the king of the BJJ Guys With Suspect Gas Tanks.
David: The flopping pretender from that really bad Anderson Silva fight tries to make us forget about all that by beating the poster child for PED victimization.
History lesson / introduction:
Phil: Once near-universally-loathed, Michael Bisping has gradually transformed himself into an unlikely and fairly popular anti-hero in the UFC. In addition, he's fought a ton of chemically enhanced opponents, which rarely fails to engender sympathy. Anyway, this fight is part of a long-established holding pattern where he beats #8-20 ranked competition and loses to anyone better than that. It's a pattern which is inevitably going to break down one day.
David: Bisping is a lot like the MW Kenny Florian. A lot of technique took him as far as it could, but now he exists in a sub Dan Marino hyperspace of marginal contention. Unlike Florian, his improvements haven't been as dramatic, but despite all that, he's a reasonable draw.
Phil: Thales Leites is a bit of a strange comeback story. A one-dimensional BJJ fighter who made his way to a title shot against Anderson Silva off one of the only cases I can remember of the "no spiking on the head" rule actually being enforced, when Nate Marquardt hit him with the Marquardtdriver. After some time on the regionals, he came back as a short-notice opponent for Tom Watson and... looked completely physically different? He's rattled off five wins including three finishes since then.
David: Well you said it, not me. Not that I personally care. I'm almost at a point where I sense a little of the dos Anjos juju coming from Leites, but not quite. He really seems rejuvenated, and he was always a solid MW, his performance against Silva be damned.
What are the stakes?
David: Can we just devote a few words to how great, and even comical Mir vs. Duffee was? That wasn't just button mashing. This was more like watching a video game character bug out on an endless loop after the controller got ragequit smashed. My new favorite fight of all time? Maybe, maybe not, but I really hope Bisping and Leites take cues from both men and go full on Danger Will Robinson mode. Somebody getting the Yaphet Cotto Live and Let Die treatment like Duffee would make it even better obviously.
Phil: Mir-Duffman makes a wonderful addition to the pantheon of So Bad They're Good Heavyweight Gong Shows, alongside Frye-Takeyama and Krylov-Palelei. The bit at the end where Duffee went for Zangief's spinning lariat? Amazing. Sadly for him, that move isn't upper-body strike invincible in real life.
Anyway, let's get back to the boring business of discussing the stakes of this fight. We know where these two can go in the stratified middleweight division, and they're both likely close to their maximum possible position. Winner can conceivably go to get stomped by Jacare Souza, and the loser will probably be a bounceback for Lyoto Machida, or something. Bisping's got the bigger name, Leites has more ability to show something surprising.
Where do they want it?
David: Bisping has always had solid technique. He's a good boxer with a wide array of options everywhere else (good outside leg kick, for example). He's even developed a little power over the years. But the best part of his game at this point is, in my crazy opinion, his grappling. His wrestling is shockingly effective, and I never expected him to compete in the clinch with Chael Sonnen the way he did. On the ground he swivels his hips like a pro, and is adept at positioning when on top.
Phil: I am completely on board with Bisping's best skill being grappling. A lot of his game isn't cutting edge in the modern day but the one thing he has been incredible at is getting back to his feet. He's always willing to take a risk to get back to his feet by hipping out, scrambling back to the fence, and forcing his way back up. He does sometimes leave himself open doing it, but more on that later. Other than that, Bisping largely builds an escalating volume game around his jab. It's crisp enough and he moves well enough that while he doesn't take his head off the centerline or bring his hand back to cover his jaw, he can still use it to wear down the vast majority of opponents despite getting inevitably cracked now and again.
David: Leites has come a long way from his failed bid at the title against Anderson Silva. He was always pretty well rounded but lately he's become a much better puncher. Granted, his mechanics haven't really improved, but the velocity of his punches have.
Phil: What Leites really has now is two things: integration, and physicality. He bulked up in his time off, and now he can seriously threaten with punches as well as mixing them up with takedown attempts. Essentially he's layered the old wrestler archetype of takedown or rushing power punch over his pre-existing BJJ base.
Insight from Past Fights?
Phil: One thing which is really notable about Bisping's past fights is that he doesn't actually have great TDD. Not by modern standards. He doesn't pivot off, or actively attack takedowns, going instead for the classic sprawl. The main way in which he discourages takedowns is that they drain both fighters' gas tanks, and he's almost always the better conditioned man. He's still amazing at getting back to his feet, but he'll take risks to do it. What this means is that people misunderstand what he's good and bad at: Bisping's grappling kryptonite is not elite takedowns, but elite top control. This is most visible in his loss to Tim Kennedy, who simply checkmated Bisping's risky attempts to stand up on multiple occasions, kept him grounded, and didn't gas out. Similarly, Mayhem Miller took the first round with top control, but then became ridiculously tired. TLDR? People thinking that Bisping will just stuff Leites all day may be misrepresenting his grappling skillset.
David: The classic sprawl feels like a lost art, but if you want to see whether or not it still has value, go watch Lawler vs. MacDonald II. Or just watch it just to watch it because it's awesome. The problem for Bisping here is that his sprawl isn't quick enough to create a comfortable enough distance. Being able to sprawl effectively is better suited for the athletes of prizefighting rather than the technicians, and Bisping is definitely a technician. But he's strong in the clinch, where he's able to land effective close quarter strikes. Leites is more like a prime Denis Kang right now, and Bisping took care of him, but only after Kang just withered like Vince Vaughn's avocado trees. Leites won't falter like that even if he's had cardio problems in the past.
David: Bisping's eye I guess. The damage is noticeable, and I have to think the effect on his vision is too. Bisping was never defensively great either.
Phil: Beyond that, there's a lot been said about whether Bisping is declining. I'm not sure that he is, rather it's just that middleweight is way better than it used to be. When's "Prime Bisping"? Is it the one who lost to the ghost of Wanderlei Silva? Still, Bisping's physical state is one to keep an eye on. So to speak.
David: Leites has become a bit of brawler lately, which will suit him in a fight where he doesn't have to worry too much about getting rigor mortised by Bisping the way Duffee did. Plus Bisping won't have the advantage on the ground. Thales Leites by TKO, round 2.
Phil: That is a bold pick. I still think Bisping's chin is mostly holding up, although C B Dollaway did hurt him. In general I can really easily see Leites getting a submission, or even picking up more rounds than Bisping... but the fact that it's five rounds pushes me towards Bisping's traditionally excellent gas tank and gradually higher-paced style. While I stand by Bisping's TDD as good-not-great, it was enough to keep C B Dollaway in a kickboxing match for the most part. Michael Bisping by unanimous decision