The phrase "Cinderella story" gets tossed around often enough in the world of combat sports to have lost all meaning by now. Like most of the things we say when we talk about fights, it is a grandiose cliche. But if there were ever a fighter for whom that term was fit, it is Michael Bisping. "The Count" made his professional MMA debut in April of 2004, more than 12 years ago, and spent more than 10 of those years in the UFC, repeatedly trying and failing to work his way to a title shot. When former champion Chris Weidman was forced to withdraw just two weeks prior to his rematch with current titlist Luke Rockhold at UFC 199, Bisping was finally the right man at the right time. He gladly accepted the chance.
Doubtless the UFC would have loved to make it happen before: Bisping is a bonafide needle-mover, a heel of the highest order who appeals to casual and hardcore fans alike, whether they root for him, or root for him to lose. He has long been the biggest British star in the promotion, a vital link to an MMA market Zuffa has coveted for well over a decade. But Bisping has always fallen short. Too fragile, too inconsistent, and too . . . well, too average to compete with the athletic freaks that have tended to make up the list of middleweight contenders.
So when Michael Bisping, after a decade of fruitless campaigning, was granted a shot at middleweight champion Luke Rockhold on just two weeks' notice, everyone agreed it was a fight he was bound to lose, just as he had when he and Rockhold met for the first time a year and a half before.
Add to that the fact that Luke Rockhold was supposed to be the next big thing at 185 pounds, and the matchup felt like nothing so much as a ritual sacrifice. In a piece published during the leadup to the bout, my colleague and Heavy Hands co-host Patrick Wyman asked, "Can Luke Rockhold be Anderson Silva's true successor as middleweight kingpin?" It was a question very much worth entertaining. Rockhold was 31, right in the midst of his athletic prime. Bisping was 37. The fight was to be the final nail in the coffin of Bisping's impressive but incomplete UFC career.
And then, less than four minutes into the first round, destiny struck. A counter right hand followed by a shifting left hook connected as Rockhold retreated, undoubtedly as confident in his chances as was the rest of the MMA world. The punch sent Rockhold tumbling to the canvas. When he sprang uncertainly back to his feet, Bisping followed with another left, and that was that.
The greatest irony of Michael Bisping's knockout is that it was Michael Bisping who delivered it. Though his punching power has been unfairly maligned throughout his career, it is a fact that Bisping is not a knockout artist. Prior to UFC 199, his last stoppage win occurred in August of 2014, in the fourth round. To find his last first-round finish, you'd have to go all the way back to UFC 85 in June, 2008. And to find an actual knock out, rather than a technical knockout forced by volume and attrition, you have to travel all the way back in time to Bisping's six professional fight, over a decade ago.
To say that a Bisping KO defies expectation is quite the understatement, saying nothing for the circumstances surrounding it.
The other irony, however, and the one that most intrigues me, is that the hook is actually Luke Rockhold's favorite punch. He has knocked down and staggered numerous opponents with that very shot, usually thrown as a retreating counter, including Bisping himself. In turning Rockhold's own tactic against him, Michael Bisping's stunning victory takes on a whole new layer of brilliance.
For the bulk of his career, Michael Bisping was something of a classical British boxer, utterly reliant on the jab and the right hand. He would fence with the left, keeping his distance until he felt ready to leap in with the straight right. Rinse and repeat--and sometimes get caught on the way out.
But recently, under the guidance of the brilliant Jason Parillo (who has also turned Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino into a much sharper, more technical boxer) Bisping's boxing has evolved. He has shored up some of his defensive flaws and redoubled his commitment to angular movement. He has coupled his unrivaled experience with a newfound depth of technical skill. And he has learned to complement his respectable 1-2 with a killer left hook.
Against a southpaw like Luke Rockhold, few punches are more dangerous. Most will tell you that in a matchup between an orthodox and southpaw fighter (called "open stance") the cross is the predominant weapon. With each fighter's lead hand opposing that of his opponent, the jab becomes more difficult to land, while the rear hand is fairly easy to line up with a short outside step. As effective as this tactic is, however, it is also predictable. Southpaws have been evading lead rights since time immemorial. Though easily lined up, the cross is also easily spotted. As it comes rifling straight down the center, the southpaw fighter has a number of ways to avoid it and, because the rear-handed punch starts so far from the target, plenty of time to react.
The hook, quite literally on the other hand, is sneakier. A shorter shot, the hook has a habit of slipping through the opponent's defenses while he responds to the right hand that precedes it. This is true even in a fight between two orthodox fighters. For a southpaw, it's even worse. In open stance, the hook remains hidden behind the southpaw's own shoulder until the last second. If he is effectively distracted by the right hand, then the left hook is all but invisible, and it lands like a veritable stab in the back.
SURPRISING THE SOUTHPAW
Watching the twenty seconds leading up to the knockout, Bisping's intent is clear. As he fight wore on, he discovered new and better ways to press his advantages while avoiding those of his opponent. First, he played with closing the distance and taking angles, and discovered how Rockhold would react.
1. Rockhold stands on the edge of punching range, pressuring Bisping.
2. Bisping answers his pressure, taking a long step not only forward but to his left, placing his lead foot outside that of Rockhold.
3. Obeying conventional wisdom, Bisping leads with the right hand.
4. But Luke has more than enough time to pull his head out of range.
5. Bisping follows with a shift, stepping forward with his right foot.
6. A thudding outside low kick follows as Rockhold continues his retreat.
For Michael Bisping, there are several valuable pieces of information embedded in Rockhold's response here. First of all, he is willing to give up the outside angle, allowing Bisping to line up his cross and work his way around to Rockhold's blind side. Second, he retreats in long, straight lines with his right hand low and his guard relaxed. And third, in doing so Rockhold all but shows Bisping his back, turning his entire body sideways as he skitters out of the pocket, enhancing Bisping's angle and leaving Rockhold incapable of quickly firing off a counter.
The outside low kick is a test run for Bisping's knockout blow.
Ten seconds left for Rockhold, and he is still utterly confident, looking for holes in Bisping's defense while Bisping does the same to him. Having keyed in on the left hook, Bisping next tries to force it.
1. Rockhold stands on the edge of punching range.
2. As Bisping steps forward and takes the outside angle, he reaches for Rockhold's right hand with his left.
3. Unfortunately Rockhold is aware of the right hand that follows. He slips it.
4. He is also prepared to counter Bisping, whipping that right hand around and clipping Mike on the chin.
5. While BIsping's own hook misses the mark.
More data. Rockhold still pulls back in a straight line, giving up the outside angle in the process, but he is wary and ready to counter. To lean forward and shift without a clear opening would mean eating another right hook on the jaw, and Bisping might not survive the next one.
As the seconds tick away, Bisping makes the mental adjustments and resets, this time allowing Rockhold to come to him. With four seconds remaining till the decisive blow, Rockhold turns up the pressure.
1. Rockhold comes forward with disdain written on his face.
2. Bisping fires off a quick jab.
3. And then retreats, putting the onus on Rockhold to lead.
4. Rockhold opts for a jab of his own, a shotgun blast that sees him lunge into the pocket as he connects.
5. With his right hand committed and his body sideways, Rockhold cannot counter without first turning to face his foe. Bisping seizes on the opportunity, stepping into the outside angle.
6. Once again Bisping leads with the right, this time a right hook to the solar plexus.
7. As Rockhold retreats, Bisping shifts after him. The left hook looms behind Rockhold's shoulder, invisible . . .
8. . . . until it's too late.
9. Rockhold topples, senseless, unable to enjoy the last few seconds of his championship reign.
A follow-up shot as Rockhold scrambled to his feet and a few crushing ground strikes, and that was it. Luke Rockhold, the next middleweight great, was beltless once more, having never defended his UFC title.
All of the pieces were there, just as Bisping expected them to be. He pieced together this knockout from the fragmented exchanges that took place in the minutes leading up to it. Those exchanges are telling, too. Luke Rockhold is an extremely dangerous opponent. Though technical in his own right--especially on the ground--his set of skills is decidedly more shallow than Bisping's.
And as for "The Count," his toolbox seems deeper with every passing fight, and each weapon in it sharper than ever before. Michael Bisping is 37 years old, and he is most certainly slowing down. He is also smarter and better than ever before, with more experience than all but everyone else in his division. Though totally unexpected, it is fitting that Michael Bisping should be the champion.