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UFC London post-fight patterns: Intro to the Count

What if you'd never seen Michael Bisping fight before?

Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

I went to the UFC London event. In some brutally bad luck my MMA partner in crime Andrew came down with norovirus on the day of the event, so I went out of London to collect the tickets from his wife while he was recovering, before going back through the City to the Greenwich O2 to meet the friend who'd snagged his ticket. We navigated crowds which were combed by pretty girls with tablets hunting for FightPass submissions, just in time for the first fight. I ended up sitting next to a chap who'd come to the O2 with his teenage son.

"I don't really know much about this UFC stuff." he confessed. "I'm more of a boxing man, but him..." he nodded to his son. "He's obsessed with it. Tells me about it all the time."

We'd occasionally chat in the brief breaks between the fights. He laughed when I tried to hedge my way out of picking the Khabilov-Parke fight ("Nah. You have to pick one of ‘em!") and shook his head through the predictably dismal heavyweight bout between Danho and Omielanczuk. "They're just not really in the shape they should be in." he said, disapproving. "I mean, how much money do they probably get? A grand?" He loved the scrambling battle between Davey Grant and Chico Vera, though.

Occasionally I'd try a quick summary of who the fighters were and how they fought. It wasn't hard- MMA is uniquely good at having its participants explain themselves through the fight anyway. You don't need much of a primer to be able to understand Gegard Mousasi; that Brad Pickett comes forward, and never gives up, and tries to take the fight everywhere is something which about 30 seconds of a Brad Pickett fight will adequately show. The man next to me was already cheering for Pickett when he came in. "That was great" he said after the first round against Rivera. "They're really going for it, aren't they?"

There are other fighters who typically take a bit longer to understand. They carry longer stories, and represent a more complex history and a deal more ambivalence. For the main event one of MMA's antiheroes came out to the cage to a standing ovation. The crowd was singing along to Song 2, and the mobile phones were out. If my new friend had gotten a good idea of some of the fighters we'd seen already, I doubted that he could get any kind of holistic picture of Mike Bisping in a single fight. As it turned out, I was wrong.


Michael Bisping fights like Michael Bisping

Bisping has fought a lot of great fighters in his MMA career, but he always came up short. Those in their prime tended to finish him. He fought Rashad Evans when Evans was still raw, and got edged out. He fought Wanderlei Silva on the downslope, and got outfoxed. This fight was his biggest though: a fight in his home country against the greatest Middleweight of all time. It was Michael Bisping's redemption, or his consolation prize, or his white whale. Whatever you like.

Some fighters drastically change the way they fight over the years. Michael Bisping fights in almost exactly the same way that he always has, drifting on the outside with the left jab, and a right hand which he's always been just a touch slow to retract. The main innovation he showed in this fight was a sneaky lead leg snap kick to the body, hid underneath his combinations.

Against the expectations of most, Bisping started winning fairly clearly, right from the beginning. As Dan Hardy pointed out, he takes his feet with him when he punches, and this proved to be an issue for the former champ, because throughout his career Anderson has feasted on people who don't, by slipping and rolling underneath over-committed blows and countering when the opponent was unbalanced.

Silva was wobbled and even knocked down. The knockdowns were held up as evidence of a deteriorated chin, but were at least partly (paradoxically) enabled by the way Bisping doesn't throw himself into punches. At times he was able to approximately replicate what Weidman did- taking smaller steps in, staying on top of his own feet, using probing shots to push Silva's body further and further out of position. Worth noting that in most of the past fights where Silva's legendary iron jaw was in effect, he was taking punches braced, and when he got hurt by Bisping it was when his posture was absolutely wrecked, or his feet were parallel.

A lack of counter opportunities forced the former champ steadily back into the cage, where he waited again for an overcommitment that'd allow him to wrap up the smaller fighter in the clinch. He's MMA's flow and redirection fighter, and Bisping's short, choppy volume seemed to have him uncomfortable. For everyone who thought Bisping would always have been an easy meat for the champ, it was obvious that he probably always could have given him at least some trouble.

Could Bisping really have won, though? Even if there were some stylistic elements at play, the Count has always, always been hamstrung by not being a great athlete. His primary advantage (namely cardio) is the consolation weapon of the hard worker.

He wasn't up against an elite athlete, though, or at least not any more. This was Anderson Silva at forty, after long layoffs, after a deeply embarrassing steroid controversy and a badly broken leg; an Anderson with a slight hint of a muffin top starting to expand over the top of his shorts. By now the hill of speed and power that Bisping -the de facto Sisyphus of his division- had always been pushing his rock up was eroded.

A problem for Bisping became that genius isn't measured in quantifiables; that it's never as simple as the heights of a great fighter being worn down until reduced to the relatively flat and even plain of a good one. There were brief moments when Silva consciously or unconsciously pulled together ragged bits of past brilliance into something cohesive. He'd get into an exchange, and he'd be the Chute Boxe brawler again, raging and beckoning. Hurting the Brit, he'd start bobbing up and down faster and faster, eating up space by stepping in with steps so deliberately bloodthirsty as to be almost fastidious. Silva in Kill Mode is as characteristic and as recognizable as a cat starting to wriggle its haunches before pouncing. It must be terrifying.

At one point he leaned down, flicked a jab into Bisping's thigh then immediately punched up and split the guard with the same hand. At these moments his genius is not just easy to understand, but irresistible. The man next to me had to laugh and applaud ("Oh ho, that's good!"). Proud Englishman and all.

Michael Bisping is a bit of a dick

Bisping has made his bread as one of MMA's longest-tenured heels. Partially it's an issue of critical mass- he's famous for feuds and money fights, so anyone looking for a path up the division knows who to call out. That said, there's no smoke without fire, and Bisping is indeed a bit of a dick sometimes. Whether it's implying that a fighter who retired just didn't have the balls, or not keeping what happened in sparring behind closed doors ("let's just say that I'm the unofficial Strikeforce Middleweight champion").

You get the impression there's three warring parts of Bisping. There's the man who wants to be seen as a real, respectful martial artist and not a cage fighter; there's the man who believes that you say what you mean and you stick to your word; and then there's basically the angry, cocky kid from the streets of Manchester. His consistency and his drive may come from the way that none of the three of these have ever faded away, or even become dominant.

So, at the close of the first round, Silva came in after a scrappy exchange. He raised his arms to embrace Bisping, with a big smile. Bisping gave an "are you fucking kidding me" kind of laugh, and shoved him away.

Michael Bisping bends the rules

Bisping has always been a grimy fighter. Virtually all champions or veterans are in one way or another, but Bisping (alongside his once-teammate Cheick Kongo) is a bit of an outlier, even by MMA's standards: kneeing Jorge Rivera in the head while grounded; threading his fingers into the cuff of Tim Kennedy's gloves; landing a pretty solid headbutt to the jaw of Chael Sonnen; playing up to the refs. Anderson Silva, on the other hand, is one of the greatest bullshitters in MMA, whether grabbing the shorts or applying generous gobs of vaseline, then quickly ducking behind the images of the respectful martial artist or the poor uncomprehending foreigner, laying on a wide-eyed and hilariously deceitful "who, me?"

The fight was about what you might expect between these two. Which is to say that it consistently tested the borders of legality. There were eyepokes, clashes of heads, and a clean kick to the balls from Silva. The big moment came at the end of the third round, when Silva landed a partially blocked headkick, then laced a right uppercut under Bisping's armpit and a left straight down the middle, and started hunting Bisping around the outer edge of the cage, landing strikes. Bisping lost his mouthpiece.

This is a classic and time-tested way to get a break. On balance, I don't think it was that this time, but the way Bisping insistently tried to get Herb Dean to stop the fight to put it back in was puzzling. Taking his eyes off Silva was a tactical error of the kind which a canny old-schooler just doesn't make. The only thing I can think of is that he was slightly rocked, and that one of those strikes had temporarily rejigged the priorities in his mind so that the idea of appealing to the ref briefly and catastrophically outweighed the far more pressing issue of survival. Something like a less dramatic version of Michael Chandler's "chill bro" attempt to call off the fight against Will Brooks. People do strange things when they've been hit in the head.

As Bisping complained to Dean, Silva -never one to pass up a chance- hit him with the flying knee. From our seats it looked very bad: Bisping getting backed up and then being briefly splayed against the black threads of the fence, slumping down as Silva ran off in triumph. The crowd was deafening. You couldn't hear the horn at all.

Michael Bisping gets finished

Bisping was defined for a long time by the Dan Henderson KO at UFC 100. It was the most iconic image of the biggest card in UFC history, coming at the as it did at the zenith of a North American fandom bubble; at the intersection of the not-yet-rotted Ultimate Fighter brand and the wave of fans which came in with Lesnar. You'd find the gif or the image in the comment sections of every article and every single thread about Bisping, playing out thousands (millions?) of times and always the same: Bisping circles away and Henderson throws the hokey cokey leg kick, then knocks Bisping dead with the right hand, with a flying forearm afterwards for good measure.

The question became: how would Bisping get up from this? As it turned out he came back from it by standing back up, dusting himself off, and going back to the cage, as mouthy and unrepentant as ever.
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Later the resurgent TRT-fuelled Vitor Belfort kicked him in the head and pummelled him to a TKO. How would Bisping get up from this? By standing up, dusting himself off, and going back to the cage, as mouthy and unrepentant as ever.

Bisping slowly worked his way up the ladder, and Luke Rockhold put him away with a headkick and a one-armed guillotine. How would Bisping get up from this?

Michael Bisping gets up again

It was chaotic in the O2 Arena. People were out of their seats and shouting about what the hell was going on. Bisping propped himself up on one hand, complaining. As Silva danced, Bisping pulled his way to his stool. Something started to flash through the crowd: Fight's still on?! Fight's still on!

Silva didn't understand or chose not to understand Dean trying to tell him that the fourth round was coming; Ed Soares seemed to pick it up faster, but got stuck arguing the point with the officials. Silva climbed the cage, basking in the increasingly confused roar of the crowd, and it looked like he thought they were trying to get him to climb down for the victory ceremony. It's hard to know what Silva was thinking, whether at some level he was blocking it all out just for a few more seconds of another highlight reel win. When he finally realized, he swore and climbed down.

Bisping's face was a ruin. Still, he stood up, came out, and fought much the same way he did, like he always has. He pushed Anderson into the fence. He missed on combinations, but didn't overstep into the clinch. He landed strikes.

Again, the live event has its own distortions. All I could see was a bloody, mangled man doing his best to stay on his feet against an unmarked opponent, in a round punctuated with a superman punch which snapped Bisping's head back. I'd go back and rewatch, and realize it was a relatively clear frame for the Mancunian, but that wasn't how I saw it then. Over to my left, the man and his son were mirroring each other: leaning forward, hands up and clenched. The fifth round seemed more of the same, with Bisping backing Silva up but then getting backed up, getting staggered by Silva's snap kick to his face.

Michael Bisping is alright

As soon as the fight was over, I'm a bit ashamed to say that... we left. Partially it was that it was a gutsy performance that I didn't want to see slotted into the rest of the Bisping canon. I didn't want to see another disappointed, defiant post-fight interview ("fair play to ‘im." / "I'm still here!"). Partially it was cynically that I just wanted to get to the tube station before the crowds set in. Mostly it was because slow bar service had encouraged me to buy too much beer on the last run and I really needed to get to the loos before they were drowned in urine by everyone coming out of the arena.

So we missed the announcement. We missed Bisping winning. The train home was relatively subdued, and maybe that was because the people who filter out first are always the disappointed ones. As unlikely as it seemed, myself and my friend Victor didn't realize who won until we got home.

bispingspoilz

It was only when I (after many struggles) got Fight Pass running that I saw Bisping in tears and climbing the fence, leaving the cage to see his Mum and wife, and praising his opponent as the best martial artist of all time. I thought back, and wondered what the guy sitting next to me had thought of his first live UFC event. Would he have slightly distorted images of what you're likely to see, what with the two separate uppercuts to the testicles in different fights, and two weird buzzer-beater KOs-that-weren't? Maybe.

I think he probably got a good view of Michael Bisping though. There are bouts which define fighters as their greatest win or proudest moment; and there are ones which define fighters as who they are, and it was close to being both of those things. He's not the cleanest fighter and he doesn't have the prettiest style. He's got an almost unbreakable stubbornness for just getting up to try again, and again, and again, which never quite totally occludes the way he can can be a bit of a dick. He's a family man. He's alright, Michael Bisping.