If Michael Bisping had been informed seven years ago that he would eventually have a shot at redemption for one of the most humiliating moments of his life, and do it in front of his hometown, he admits he wouldn’t have believed it.
That’s exactly what’s going to happen at Saturday’s UFC 204 event (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view), though, when the British-born UFC Middleweight champion Bisping (29-7 MMA, 19-7 UFC) rematches longtime rival Dan Henderson (32-14, 9-8) at Manchester Arena in England.
Bisping will either redeem himself from one of the most memorable knockouts in UFC history, or, he will be on the wrong end of another demoralizing and likely embarrassing outcome courtesy of 46-year-old Henderson, who will attempt to become the oldest titleholder in the UFC’s existence.
To fill in the gaps, Bisping and Henderson first met at the seminal UFC 100 event in July 2009. After building a rivalry as opposing coaches on Season 9 of The Ultimate Fighter reality series, the pair collided inside the Octagon at UFC 100 with a shot at then 185-pound champion Anderson Silva on the line.
Bisping’s strategy in the fight was off from the outset. He frequently circled towards Henderson’s power hand, which has led to enough knockout blows that fans and analysts of the sport have nicknamed it the “H-Bomb.” Despite being repeatedly pestered by his coaches to adjust tactics, Bisping continued to repeat the same error over and over from the first round and into the second.
That’s when it happened.
Henderson threw a weak low kick then loaded up on a right hand with all his might. The lightning-fast strike connected clean on the chin of “The Count,” putting Bisping out cold on impact as he fell to the ground stiff and with his toes curled. The fight was done there, but after dealing with endless trash talk on the “TUF” series, Henderson felt obliged to humble Bisping with one more shot. He dove through the air and planted a forearm on an unconscious Bisping’s chin in an image that’s since been plastered on UFC highlight reels and used as the primary logo on Henderson’s fight merchandise.
Several minutes passed before Bisping regained his wits and got back to his feet. But by then, the hellacious knockout had already gotten across to fight fans across the globe whether they were watching or not. Much has changed since then, though, and Bisping is eager to erase the past and create a new moment for the world to remember.
“UFC 100 was a long time ago,” Bisping tells Rolling Stone. “It was a terrible performance. I was very skittish. I wasn’t committing, I was on the back foot constantly. It was just a bad performance and a bad game plan. I was overtrained. I’m not trying to discredit him. God bless Dan Henderson, he go the job done on that night, but I’ll get my chance for revenge. I want to beat this guy. He knocked me out, it was good. But Dan Henderson is famous for one thing: That’s knocking me out at UFC 100. I made your career, and after UFC 204 that will be eradicated.”
Although Henderson won the fight, he never got his title shot. Instead, he became a free agent and opted to sign a more lucrative contract with the now-defunct Strikeforce organization, where he went 3-1. He returned to the UFC in November 2011, but various circumstances prevented him from finding the right path to a title shot.
Bisping, meanwhile, continued his pursuit to the top of the rankings. He failed time and time again when in position to solidify a championship fight for himself, and that caused many to write him off. But when Chris Weidman suffered an injury less than three weeks out from his title fight against former champ Luke Rockhold at UFC 199 in June, opportunity came knocking.
On short notice Bisping stepped in to face Rockhold, another man that had previously defeated him in highlight reel fashion. It was all under less than ideal circumstances, because Bisping was filming a role for the xXx sequel in Toronto when news of Weidman’s injury broke. That didn’t stop him lobbying for the fight, though, nor did it stop him from accepting it when offered.
Despite being dropped with a head kick then submitting in his first encounter with Rockhold, Bisping came out with no fear in the rematch. He fought more aggressively than usual and clipped Rockhold with big punches to win the belt by first-round knockout in stunning fashion, finally completing his decade-long climb to the UFC’s most prestigious position.
It took Bisping 26 fights and more than 10 years of UFC competition to win his first title, and whether it was Henderson, a trilogy with Rockhold or a matchup with another contender, he says losing the strap less than four months after his reign started is simply a non-option.
“There’s a lot to lose because I’m very proud to be the world champion,” Bisping says. “I’m planning on hanging on to this for a very, very long time. Me and Dan have history, there’s a story there, a lot of people want to see it, so I get a chance for revenge. I get to get that one back off Dan. And if I lose, it doesn’t matter who it is, I lose and I lose the belt. Simple as that. So that’s not good. I got to win this fight regardless.”
Bisping caused jaws to drop with his title-winning upset at UFC 199, but Henderson did a slice of the same earlier on that same card. With just two wins in his previous eight bouts many believed Henderson was fighting for his career when he took on frightening powerhouse striker Hector Lombard at the June event. “Hendo” overcame the odds, though, shutting Lombard’s lights out in the second round with a brutal knockout that concluded with a flying blow that somewhat mirrored his finish of Bisping so many years earlier.
At 46 and with nearly 50 pro fights, Henderson says he was entirely prepared to retire from the sport after a spectacular win over Lombard. But that’s when he got an unexpected call from UFC President Dana White revealing that the company was interested in booking a rematch with Bisping, and with a UFC belt on the line, no less.
Henderson couldn’t possibly turn it down, especially with the chance to conclude a Hall of Fame worthy career with a storybook ending. Henderson says he was ready to hang up his gloves, hit the beach with his family and bid goodbye to the sport he debuted in back in June 1997, but the offer to not only humble Bisping again, but also take his UFC belt away was more than he could resist.
“I was ready to move on after the last fight, but obviously this is an opportunity I wouldn’t pass up,” Henderson says. “I feel good about this fight being my last fight. Win or lose I’m going to make sure I give it everything I have and make sure I have no regrets. That’s all I can do in life and in this sport. I’ m going to make sure I take full advantage of this opportunity and put him on his ass again.
“I’ve said that win or lose this is my last fight,” he continues. “I’m very stuck on that. I have no desire to go on afterwards – win or lose – obviously I would like to finish win that belt. That would be an ideal ending for me, but I’m ready.”
Henderson enters UFC 204 with an opportunity unlike any athlete in the sport has been presented with to date. It’s the dream of almost every combat sports competitor to walk away on a high, but so rarely does it happen. Usually fighters are chewed up and spit out, fighting far beyond their expiration date while chasing a final moment of glory or a final payday.
It wasn’t long ago when Henderson was stuck in a skid of five losses and six fight – albeit to top competition – and seemingly headed in an ugly direction where the exit door for his career would be covered in blood and brain trauma. The sport can turn on its head in an instance, though, and now the longtime veteran will be granted a final crack at the lone achievement that’s eluded him during his career – a UFC title.
Although Henderson has a Strikeforce belt and two titles from the now-defunct PRIDE Fighting Championship in his collection, UFC gold has been his most struggle some feat. He fell short of the Light Heavyweight belt against Quinton Jackson at UFC 75 in September 2007 then was submitted by Anderson Silva in Middleweight championship bout at UFC 82 in March 2008. They say the third time’s the charm, though, and Henderson hopes to make good on that before he moves on from competitive fighting.
“It’s the last goal that I have for myself in the sport,” Henderson says. “To finally be able to accomplish that is going to be a great way to finish my career. It’s all about the sport, winning, and the belt. I feel like I can keep going for another few years, but it does tax on you mentally as you get older. Honestly, it’s just time. I would like to spend a little more time with my family and my kids and not miss as much as stuff as I do because I’m off training or off at a fight somewhere. I’ve loved this sport for a long time and I’ve been blessed to have a career as long as I’ve had.”
Bisping not only has revenge on his mind, but he is also responsible for maintaining the integrity of the title. The UFC Middleweight strap would be devalued by Henderson winning then riding off into retirement, mainly because the next champion would have the asterisk of never having beat Henderson to capture the belt.
Bisping insists he won’t allow that to happen, and it’s just one more reason for him to perform. There’s much on the line for him at UFC 204, from redemption to defending the title to being the first fighter to ever reach 20 UFC wins. Because of that, there’s no shortage of motivation for Bisping to deliver in Manchester, the city where he grew up. Henderson is pressure-free, however, because all of this is gravy on an already prestigious career. He will go down as a legend of the sport regardless of UFC 204’s result, but for Bisping, the rematch represents a moment that will shape his legacy. And he knows it.