Reigning, defending UFC champion is a label many never believed would be attached to Michael Bisping’s name. Even he admits internal doubts, but yet, here he is, the reigning, defending UFC Middleweight champion of the world.
Bisping’s road to the top of the mountain was arguably more tumultuous than any other titleholder in UFC history. That’s just one reason why he’s the Rolling Stone “Fighter of the Year” for 2016.
Bisping is one of the longest-tenured fighters on the UFC roster. He debuted in June 2006 after winning Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter reality series and, since then, it’s been a roller coaster of triumphant highs and forgettable lows. After all the ups and downs, Bisping seemed destined to end his career as a high-quality fighter with a polarizing personality who could never quite reach the pinnacle of the sport. Then 2016 came along, and his 10th year in the UFC ended up as his best.
Although several MMA fighters had stellar years, Bisping’s stood out due to the variety of narratives it entailed and the amount of times he overcame the odds. Each high was bigger than the one before it, and every accomplishment was greater than the last. Bisping opened his 2016 campaign with a fight he’s requested for the better part of a decade. He finally got one of his dream matchups with former UFC champ Anderson Silva, a fighter almost universally praised as the top pound-for-pound athlete in MMA history that once held the belt currently in Bisping’s possession for a record 2,457 days.
Silva was slightly past his prime entering the February 28th fight, which took place in Bisping’s native England at The O2 in London. However, “The Spider” is always dangerous and was still a considerable betting favorite for the matchup that Bisping wanted for years, but could never position himself for while Silva held UFC gold.
It finally happened, though, and the result was one of the year’s most memorable five-round battles. Bisping was bloodied and nearly knocked out multiple times by the Brazilian, but he never quit and managed to outwork his foe over the course of 25 minutes. Superior conditioning and striking output led to a unanimous decision victory for what, at the time, was unquestionably the most significant victory on Bisping’s resume.
“I have the utmost respect for Anderson Silva,” Bisping said afterward. “This is the greatest fighter of all time. So for me, this was a personal challenge. This is by far the biggest win of my career.”
Riding the high of toppling a living legend, Bisping then took time off from competition to film a leading part in the upcoming xXx: The Return of Xander Cage sequel with Vin Diesel. He spent several weeks living in Toronto to shoot the movie, but then an unexpected opportunity arose.
Just days after Bisping was scheduled to complete his assignments for xXx, a 185-pound title fight between then-champion Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman was slated to headline UFC 199 on June 4th at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Weidman suffered a neck injury and was forced to withdraw from the contest, opening the door for Bisping to step in as a replacement and challenge for the gold on just 17 days’ notice.
Not only did Bisping accept the fight with almost no preparation time, but he did so against Rockhold, a threatening competitor who had thoroughly dismantled him in a one-sided affair less than two years prior. Rockhold was pegged as having the potential for a long title reign, and he opened as a 10-to-1 betting favorite for the rematch. Unfortunately for him, though, odds will never accurately measure the unpredictable nature of combat sports.
Bisping shocked the world when he stepped in the Octagon at UFC 199 and knocked Rockhold out less than four minutes into the opening round of the 185-pound title bout. Typically known for his patient and tactical approach, Bisping was forced to adjust due to the lack of a training camp and came into the fight throwing heavy haymakers. Eventually he caught Rockhold on the chin and put him down, leading to one of the most stunning title changes in UFC history.
Bisping’s desire to step up and grasp the opportunity to fight Rockhold led to an achievement many believed wasn’t possible. He won a title in his 26th UFC appearance, the latest into a career of any first-time belt holder in company history. Moreover, he became the first British UFC champ and set a bevy of other records, including most wins of any fighter in Middleweight history.
“I’ve always knew I was at this level,” Bisping said following his title win. “I’ve had my ups and downs, and I’ve lost some fights along the way. I don’t want to get into the whole (fighting opponents on) performance-enhancing drugs thing, but that was kind of an issue over the years. But I still believed. I always dusted myself off and picked myself back up.”
The fighter always knew he had what it took to get to the top of the UFC.
“I know I had a lot of detractors that didn’t believe I was at that caliber, but I want to thank those guys as well. They fueled me on and helped light that fire inside me. I always knew I could do this. I always knew I had punching power. I knew I had the ability, and tonight, of course, I got to show everybody,” he says.
Bisping could have easily rested on his laurels and reveled in the success of completing such a long road to the top. Instead, he pushed forward to the next challenge. One final obstacle was placed in the way of Bisping’s perfect 2016 campaign, and it was certainly a unique one.
Bisping’s first title defense was scheduled against Dan Henderson for October 8th at UFC 204 in Manchester, England. Bisping grew up just outside Manchester and the opportunity to go home and compete in front of his fans was too irresistible to decline. As was the chance to rematch Henderson, a fighter who famously knocked Bisping out in one of the most memorable finishing sequences in the sport’s history at UFC 100 in July 2009.
The loop of Henderson’s knockout has played countless time on highlight reels over the years. Bisping was essentially resigned to the fact his chance at revenge would never materialize, but then Henderson scored an epic knockout win of his own on the same UFC 199 card where Bisping won the title and suddenly talks of a rematch gained traction.
Although Henderson was 46 years old and entirely undeserving of a title shot under traditional standards, the UFC opted to give him a crack at the belt in his retirement fight. Despite his age, Henderson still packed crippling knockout power, which Bisping felt again in the rematch. This time, however, he didn’t fold.
The UFC 204 rematch between Bisping and Henderson took place in the wee hours of the morning at Manchester Arena, but the crowd was as lively for their hero. Henderson provided a massive scare when he knocked Bisping down in the first round and almost ended the fight, but just like he did against Silva 10 months earlier, Bisping showed a depth of heart and resolve that prevented him from falling victim in his home country.
Hurt and with a massive gash opened below his left eye, Bisping worked around Henderson’s power strikes and successfully implemented his own game plan to take a unanimous decision on the judges’ scorecards, marking his first successful defense of the gold. Not only that, but Bisping also passed Georges St-Pierre’s longstanding UFC record for most wins in company history with his 20th successful Octagon performance.
“Winning the belt was fantastic, it really was,” Bisping tells Rolling Stone. “But to do it in Manchester, winning the belt again, defending the belt, I think that tops it. That was the highlight of my career. … It was close but it’s never easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
Bisping opened and closed his year with wins over two MMA legends and future Hall of Fame inductees in Silva and Henderson. Between those, he knocked out one of the most lethal fighters in his division to take the title in a rematch of a fight he brutally lost.
He still wasn’t ready to call that his year, though, because Bisping tried to squeak in one final fight against St-Pierre at this month’s UFC 206 event in Toronto. Unfortunately, contract talks between St-Pierre and the UFC broke down and prevented the fight from coming to fruition. Bisping didn’t need St-Pierre to make 2016 a marquee year, though. He went from a fighter constantly on the outside looking in at the championship picture to holding the very belt he had hovered around for so long.
But at age 37 and with 27 UFC fights and nearly six hours of cage time to his name, the ride could soon come to an end. Bisping doesn’t intend on giving up the UFC title any time soon, but every champion eventually is dethroned, and when his time comes, Bisping will sail off into the sunset knowing he’s done something special and that 2016 was perhaps the highlight of it all.
“You can’t fight forever,” Bisping says. “I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. I’ll probably keep going until I lose the belt then just say, ‘Fuck it. Cheers.'”