Bisping, Jardine big winners at UFC 89

BIRMINGHAM, England – The United Kingdom’s Michael Bisping moved one more rung up the UFC middleweight ladder with a clinical and classy performance against Chris Leben.

With much of the UFC’s success in the country linked to Bisping’s status as a legitimate player in his division, it was a risky move to put its golden boy in with a dangerous and unpredictable foe such as Leben. But Bisping rose to the occasion with a smart stick-and-move strategy that left Leben visibly frustrated en route to a unanimous decision victory in the main event of UFC 89 in front of a crowd of 9,515.

The tension that had brewed between them during the prefight news conference reached boiling point by Saturday evening, and the Englishman looked even more fired up than usual as he made his way to the octagon to the sounds of Blur’s “Song 2.”

Sensibly refraining from getting drawn into a brawl, the English fighter used a quick jab to open a cut under Leben’s right eye. Peppering him with straight punches, Bisping utilized footwork that would make Lyoto Machida envious, staying out of range of Leben’s flailing punches.

“The whole game plan was to circle to the left, stay away from the big bomb and out-box him,” Bisping said after the fight. “He was trying to get me to break the gameplan, but it’s what I needed to do to win.”

Leben was philosophical in defeat, and shrugged off his attempts to goad Bisping into a brawl. “I said to myself, ‘Man, I got to draw him in somehow,’ I was playing every card I had. I thought ‘Screw it, let’s trade.’ It was Bisping’s night tonight.”

UFC president Dana White seemed suitably impressed with Bisping’s performance, “Bisping came in tonight, took his time and picked his shots. I’ve never seen Chris ripped up like that,” White said.

With the UFC desperate to build viable contenders for champion Anderson Silva in the middleweight division (and its plans to expand “The Ultimate Fighter” to include an entire U.K. team) it was essential for Bisping to win. Questions as to whether he was eyeing a title shot came thick and fast following the fight, with Bisping deflecting them with his typical off-hand manner.

“All people seem to be talking about is a title fight,” he said. “Whenever it comes I’ll be happy, if they said it was next fight or in five fights, I’ll be happy. You’ve got to earn that title shot, not just be given it, I want to earn the right and beat the best guys in the division.”

Bisping’s next opponent is set – White let it slip on Friday that he would face either Dan Henderson or Rich Franklin, depending on who wins their January fight.

With Henderson and Franklin not meeting until 2009 and preliminary TUF auditions taking place in the U.K. on Monday and in the U.S. the following week, Bisping can look forward to a few months layoff.

Jardine splits past Vera

Brandon Vera and Keith Jardine fought the full 15 minutes in a co-main event that had major implications for the light heavyweight division. Jardine himself billed the fight as “beauty and the beast,” referring (mostly) to their contrasting kickboxing styles: “He’s got a very pretty style, and I’m kind of ugly,” he said two days before the fight.

Once again, Jardine’s awkward style – combined with a workmanlike performance – helped him to victory. The contest, a classic case of two fighters neutralizing each other’s offense so that both looked ineffective, suffered a chorus of boos in the third round, to which Jardine seemed upset.

“I’ve never been booed before in a fight and that hurt,” he said afterward.

Winning via split decision, 29-28, 28-29, 29-28, the fighter from New Mexico with wins over Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin exorcised the demons from his knockout loss to Wanderlei Silva and cemented his position as both light heavyweight gatekeeper and potential title contender.

Vera’s striking looked clean and crisp, but he struggled to find his timing against Jardine. The UFC brass were perplexed at Vera’s performance, with White remarking, “It’s like he lost something. He doesn’t have that killer instinct, he used to be cocky – at one point he wanted to fight Chuck Liddell. He took a year off with all that contract stuff, but I just don’t know what happened to him.”

Jardine’s status in the light heavyweight division is complicated by teammate Rashad Evans’ title shot against common opponent Forrest Griffin. With Jardine holding a win over Griffin and former champion Liddell, Jardine said, “the division is weird. Forrest is the champ right now but who knows who the best guy is. There are a lot of undefeated guys and a lot of guys coming up, it could take a year or so before things settle.”

“For me, I’m just starting over right now,” he added. “I’m done messing around. I’m going to work my way back to the top.”

The rest of the show

In other action, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou started briskly against Brazilian Luiz Cane but fell apart in the second round and was rescued by the referee following a barrage of shots against the fence. The African’s status as a light heavyweight enforcer is starting to crumble – after high-profile wins in PRIDE, he has struggled to maintain the same level of success in the octagon and will no doubt slip down the ranks as a result.

Welterweights Chris Lytle and Paul Taylor fought a hard three rounds and were awarded Fight of the Night, picking up $40,000 bonuses each. This is the third time Taylor has been in a Fight of the Night, but it is notable he was the losing party in each contest, this time via unanimous decision.

Marcus Davis slapped a tight guillotine on young Paul Kelly, citing the vast experience and age difference as a major factor in their fight: “I have over a hundred fights, I already told him, you’re a young kid, you got a long future in this. He hugged me and said thanks.”

U.K. prospect Dan Hardy made an emphatic UFC debut against crafty veteran Akihiro Gono, picking up a close yet deserved split decision win in an entertaining and eventful three-rounder, while British lightweight Terry Etim clinically outstruck much-vaunted Canadian kickboxer Sam Stout for a decision win.

Complete results:

Michael Bisping def. Chris Leben via unanimous decision (30-27, 20-27, 29-28)

Keith Jardine def. Brandon Vera via split decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)

Luiz Cane def. Remy Thierry Sokoudjou via TKO (RSF) 4.15 Round 2

Chris Lytle def. Paul Taylor via unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 29-28)

Marcus Davis def. Paul Kelly via submission (guillotine) 2.16 Round 2

Dan Hardy def. Akihiro Gono via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28)

Shane Carwin def. Neil Wain via TKO (GnP) 1.31 Round 1

David Bielkheden def. Jess Liaudin via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)

Terry Etim def. Sam Stout via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)

Jim Miller def. David Baron via submission (rear naked choke) 3.19 Round 3

Per Eklund def. Samy Schiavo via submission (rear naked choke) 1.47 Round 3

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Updated Saturday, Oct 18, 2008