Just days before his 39th birthday, Jorge Rivera finds himself in a surprising position as a co-main eventer on the UFC 127 pay-per-view show that will air live in the United States on Saturday night.
Rivera, a journeyman fighter who has been in and out of the promotion since 2003, has rung up three consecutive wins and faces U.K. favorite Michael Bisping in an event being held Sunday afternoon local time in the sold-out Acer Arena in Sydney.
The Milford, Mass., native is making the most of his turn in the spotlight and has taken to marketing the fight with Youtube videos spoofing UFC prefight packages. The clips make fun of Bisping – in particular his punching power – calling him "pillow hands" and claiming that Bisping holds the UFC record for most full power shots to the head without ever knocking anyone down or out. Rivera also labels Bisping a "professional decision maker," a jab at Bisping's propensity for going to the judges' scorecards in his recent wins.
They are by no means the world's funniest home videos, but there are some snickers to be found. They are kind of silly, with one of Rivera's coaches in a British accent making fun of Bisping's speaking patterns and accent – and ribbing him for getting a decision win in the 2007 Matt Hamill fight, one of the more controversial decisions in company history.
Bisping (20-3), who turns 32 on Monday, hasn't been laughing.
"It's pathetic," said Bisping, who himself has been known for talking up fights but felt demeaning an opponent to this level crossed a line. "He's 38. He's in the co-main event of a big show and he comes across like a moron. All he's doing is embarrassing himself."
In one of the video segments, Rivera (18-7) noted how Bisping felt Rivera wasn't at his level and wasn't happy when Rivera's name was given to him as an opponent. Bisping acknowledges that he wasn't thrilled when Rivera's name was brought up at first, as his goal for this year was to pick up a few wins which would get him into position for a middleweight title match before the year is out.
"I was hoping for a top-five opponent to start building for a run at the title," Bisping said. "They told me he's won three in a row. But two of the three, I barely even know. Nissen Osterneck – I've never even heard of him. Rob Kimmons, I've barely heard of; the only reason I know him is he lost to one of the guys I beat [Dan Miller]. Nate Quarry, he's a good fighter. Rivera looked pretty good in that fight."
"I have respect for the guy, but he's 38, and what he's doing cheapens the sport and cheapens himself to the fans. What's he doing it for? A few Youtube hits?"
"Now that boxing trainer of his [who played Bisping in the clips], I'd like to wring his neck."
Bisping is known for being both one of the most popular and most disliked fighters on the UFC circuit, depending on the location of the fight.
He won the third season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, the season with the second highest ratings in history, and was an instant star to the public. MMA was practically an underground sport in the United Kingdom at the time, and Bisping became the face of the sport's growth. Four years later, he and Dan Hardy are the country's two most popular native fighters.
Bisping started out as one of the most popular newcomers the UFC ever had in the United States as well. But several things happened along the way to reverse that. The first was the UFC 75 win over Hamill in one of the most-watched televised MMA events in history. Bisping was then awarded a split decision on a show in London. To the U.S. public, it was an American – a deaf American at that – going to the U.K. and being robbed in a hometown decision.
While Bisping wasn't a judge, he does say he should have reacted differently when questioned after the fight about the decision, when he blew up at those questioning whether he deserved the win.
Then, he was a coach on the reality show in the U.S. vs. U.K. season. His opponent was Dan Henderson, a quiet guy, and Bisping's outgoing and sometimes cocky personality made for a strong contrast. Back home, they loved Bisping for it as he coached Team U.K. to great success. But in the States, that made Bisping the villain, coaching against a popular fighter who represented the country twice in the Olympics. He did enough on the show, including some things he also regrets these days, to amplify that.
"But I'd rather be booed than have nobody care," he said.
Bisping acknowledges being irked by a lot of the criticism, such as claims that he's not a finisher or has no power – or that he's a midlevel fighter who has been propped up by the UFC.
There have been so many cries about Bisping being overrated over the years that when you actually look at his record, you see someone who may instead be underrated. Has he proven himself to be the top contender rivaling Anderson Silva, his long-term goal? Probably not. But he's legitimately in the upper echelon.
His record seems to indicate that the knock about being unable to finish is undeserved. Of Bisping's 20 wins, only four have gone the distance while 12 knockouts and four submissions comprise the vast majority. And his decision wins have been against tough guys. Besides Bisping's win over Hamill, foes who have gone the distance against him are all fighters known for their durability.
Yoshihiro Akiyama has only officially been knocked out once in his career – and that was in a fight in which he was outweighed by about 70 pounds against Jerome LeBanner, one of the world's best heavyweight kickboxing knockout artists. Dan Miller, meanwhile, has never been stopped in his career. Chris Leben has only been knocked out twice in his career and has a reputation for his ability to take a big punch.
Of his losses, Bisping was competitive with Silva, a legend in the sport. And he lost a split decision to Rashad Evans, a former light heavyweight champion. The only time he's been stopped was by Henderson; it was a resounding knockout in the most high-profile fight of his career at UFC 100.
"I don't want to take anything away from [Henderson]," Bisping said. "He's a big name and a hell of a fighter."
If anything, Bisping's respect for Henderson did him no favors. He trained so hard that he left his fight in camp, and was forced to learn several valuable lessons about training and dieting.
"I started camp too early," Bisping said. "I had a 15-week camp. I was overtrained and came in so skinny."
When fighting at light heavyweight most of his career, Bisping was small for the class and cut almost no weight. In moving to middleweight, he tried to get his regular weight down to 185, which he accomplished. But this week, with a few days until fight time, he's 200 pounds. He will cut water to get to 185 and fight close to 200, like most fighters in the division.
UFC 127 will mark Bisping's second fight in Australia, where he expects to get a great reaction. He was in the No. 2 match last year in the UFC's Sydney debut, in which he lost a decision to Wanderlei Silva in a fight that was close until a late third-round flurry clinched it for Silva.
Wanting two weeks in Australia to get acclimated to jet lag and the time change, Bisping arrived in Sydney at the beginning of last week. He said the UFC's growth Down Under is similar to what happened in the U.K., only accelerated.
Reaction to the Sydney show reminds him of being in Las Vegas for a big fight, with the event visible all over town and people recognizing him and talking up the fight.
"I've been blown away," Bisping said. "After one year, it's like night and day. I expected it would be like in England, but it's crazy."