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Few athletes know the power of television as well as Michael Bisping. The Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight contender has compiled an 18-2 record, taken on all comers, has displayed an action-packed style, and is accessible to media and accommodating to fans.
Yet, on a list of the most disliked – perhaps despised would be a better word – UFC fighters in the United States, Bisping would be near the top of the list.
Dan Henderson, who knocked out Bisping in the second round of UFC 100, insists the anti-Bisping sentiment extends beyond the U.S. borders and to England, where Bisping is from.
"You know what," Henderson said prior to UFC 101 in Philadelphia in August, "I even have a lot of British fans coming up to me and telling me they're happy I knocked him out to finally shut him up."
Since his stint as the coach of the U.K. team on Season 9 of "The Ultimate Fighter" on Spike TV, Bisping ranks alongside swine flu and leprosy to American mixed martial arts fans.
To be kind, they don't really like him all that much.
He didn't go into the show as the most popular fighter, either, given his reaction following a hotly disputed victory over popular American Matt Hamill at UFC 75 in London in 2007. He was surly at the post-fight news conference and concedes his behavior "was not my finest hour." Just prior to the news conference, he learned his father had been attacked in the arena parking lot and he was on edge.
Hamill is deaf and cuts a sympathetic figure. He's also popular among American fans, many of whom thought he deserved the decision over Bisping. When Bisping was surly and aggressive at the news conference, despite it being out of character for him, he turned off a number of fans.
Bisping, though, is a good guy to those who know him. He's not crazy about the negative reaction he gets, but understands that it's part of performing in public.
"I wouldn't be honest if I said it didn't bother me," said Bisping, who fights one of the UFC's most beloved figures, Wanderlei Silva, in the co-main event of UFC 110 at Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia, on Feb. 20 (Feb. 21 in Australia.
"I'm not sure really why they feel the way they do," he said. "Of course, I have a lot of loyal fans. The ones I meet personally, almost exclusively, tell me they're fans and they aren't down on me. But I know the [haters] are out there."
Bisping, though, would rather be on the extreme end of the meter than the middle, where few would care about him. Athletes in team sports don't have to worry about such things because ticket and pay-per-view sales aren't their concern.
In fighting, however, it's very important. Fighters need to give a fans a reason to want to see them fight, either live, in an arena or on pay-per-view.
Boxing's Oscar De La Hoya became rich beyond belief by carefully cultivating an image and appealing to a wide variety of people. There were hardcore fans who didn't care much for his pretty boy image and wanted to see him knocked out.
They bought his fights in hopes of seeing him lose.
There were women who weren't typically boxing fans who were attracted to his good looks and easygoing manner.
They bought his fights in hopes of cheering him on.
And there were casual fans, who went to a fight or bought a pay-per-view every now and then, who paid attention when the media didn't.
They bought his fights because they'd heard of him.
The result was that De La Hoya became the biggest pay-per-view draw in the business.
Bisping would rather be beloved by fans than despised, but he'll choose despised over indifference any day.
"I'd prefer they cheer for me, but I just prefer they feel strongly about me one way or another rather than just not caring at all," Bisping said.
He was a fierce advocate for the U.K. team and some fans thought he was cocky. Others didn't like the fact that he missed a fight because he overslept. And others disliked the fact he got into a war of words with U.S. team member DaMarques Johnson.
By the time the season ended, American fans were desperate to see Bisping get his comeuppance.
He fought poorly in the bout against Henderson and was knocked cold by a huge right hand in the second round. As he lay flat on his back, the sellout crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center cheered deliriously.
He got a much warmer reception when he fought Denis Kang in front of a hometown crowd in Manchester, England, at UFC 105 in November, but he's not sure what to expect from the Australian crowd.
His children have Australian passports, giving him a connection with the country, and he's hoping for a warm welcome.
Fighting Silva, though, will be difficult. There are only a handful of fighters in the UFC – Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Randy Couture and Georges St. Pierre – who are even remotely as beloved by the fans as Silva.
Even the fact that Silva is in the worst stretch of his career, having lost five of his last six, hasn't stopped the love fest between the happy-go-lucky Brazilian and his fans.
Bisping's chief concern, though, isn't whether he'll be cheered or not. Despite his poor recent form, which has caused Silva to drop from light heavyweight to middleweight, Silva is still one of the game's hardest punchers and best offensive fighters.
He has knockout power in both hands and tries to end the fight with every punch he throws. Silva has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but one would never know it from the way he fights. He plows forward, throws bombs all the times, and acts as if he's never heard of fighting on the ground.
Bisping knows full well what to expect. His close friend and training partner, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, has fought Silva three times and knocked him out at UFC 92. He's provided Bisping with crucial insights.
"He's been with me the last few weeks of camp and he's been a great help, showing me good drills and things that are beneficial to use with Wanderlei," Bisping said. "It's been tremendous having him. He'll be in my corner and I just think having him around has been a massive advantage.
"There's no guessing what Wanderlei will do. He's not a massive technician; he'll come out swinging bombs and try to take me out. The thing is, if your defense is tight, and I've obviously worked hard at tightening mine, and you have good defense, speed and the right game plan, Wanderlei can be an easy guy to beat."
As he said those words, Bisping stopped. He recognized the implications and could see headlines blaring, "Bisping: Silva is easy to beat."
He wasn't suggesting Silva is an easy fight; instead he was making the point that there's nothing subtle about Silva's game plan.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying at all that he's not a tough opponent," Bisping said. "He's very strong and he can take you out very easily if you make a mistake. Stylistically and tactically, it's pretty much right there in front of you and you know kind of what you have to do against him."
Bisping displaying discretion? More comments like that and he might even win over some American fans.
- Michael Bisping
- Wanderlei Silva