He’d been knocked out and choked out, out-wrestled and out-pointed. Just like water always finds its level, so too do fighters.
And his record was telling us that Michael Bisping’s level was not that of a middleweight champion.
Oh, the razor-thin split decision loss to Rashad Evans in a light heavyweight bout in 2007 didn’t really say that, but the infamous knockout by Dan Henderson at UFC 100 did.
A 2010 defeat to a faded Wanderlei Silva, who had entered their bout having dropped five of six (four of the losses by knockout), was another piece of evidence to add to the pile.
Bisping was always defiant in defeat, refusing to give up on his dream. It wasn’t always easy – “There were times when doubt started to creep in,” he said, chuckling – but Bisping managed to slog ahead.
He didn’t so much as ignore the critics, of which there were legion, as he understood them.
“I lost key fights, but to be honest with you, I never fought to the best of my ability in them,” Bisping said. “I have the confidence of knowing what goes on in the gym. I knew what the critics were saying, but their criticism was well-founded. I’d made some key mistakes along the way.”
The UFC has had some long-shot champions over the years, but with the exception perhaps of Matt Serra, who knocked out Georges St-Pierre to win the welterweight title in 2007, there has never been a more unlikely one than Bisping.
No one fought more fights, no one waited as many years, no one was as old the first time winning the belt, as Bisping was on Saturday when he stunningly, amazingly, convincingly, knocked out Luke Rockhold in the first round at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
He was 37 years, three months and eight days old when he became a first-time champion. Randy Couture defeated Tim Sylvia when he was 43 years, eight months and 10 days old, but he’d already had four previous stints as a UFC champion.
No one was as old as Bisping when claiming the title for the first time.
That speaks to his amazing conditioning, which makes up for a lot of physical deficiencies. Bisping isn’t the fastest or the quickest or the strongest, but he is always magnificently conditioned and prepared to fight hard the entire bout.
From the first day he walked into the ring, he had that competitiveness and desire, but it wasn’t always channeled properly. He hired Jason Parillo as his striking coach in 2012 and while Parillo did an excellent job cleaning up his boxing, it was in another area that Parillo proved his worth.
“The biggest impact that Jason had, and before I say that, I want to make sure my boxing has massively improved with him, but more importantly, he improved my mentality,” Bisping said. “He helped my confidence and my calmness in there. I would always be too emotional. Jason worked hard with me to get me to stay nice and cool and calm and not turn so emotional.
“When you’re angry and you’re frantic, you are never the best version of yourself, so how could you possibly be the best fighter you could be?”
They had many conversations, often long, deep and involved ones, and Bisping began to reap benefits.
After a loss to Rockhold in 2014, a group of reporters surrounded Bisping and basically said, “Well, Michael, this is the end of the line. What do you have to say?”
What Bisping said was what he always said: He might have had more pluck and more grit than he had talent, and he vowed to forge ahead and continue the chase, no matter what.
He put together back-to-back wins over C.B. Dollaway and Thales Leites afer losing to Rockhold, but the possibility that he may fight for the belt really began in February, when he defeated the legendary Anderson Silva.
“When I beat Anderson, it definitely became a reality,” he said. “I just knew at that point that a title shot couldn’t be far away.”
He got it when Chris Weidman was injured and had to pull out less than three weeks before the fight with Rockhold. Because of his conditioning, Bisping jumped on it and though the world was shocked, he was not.
“I was confident I could beat him and I think it led to a much smoother performance,” Bisping said. “I knew I had the punching power and I always believed in that. I could read Rockhold. I could read everything he was going to throw before he threw it. He kind of telegraphed what he was going to do, kind of moving his shoulder before his arms and that allowed me to move my head out of the way. I was able to parry all of his shots and we knew the left hook was going to land.
“Jason watched him closely. I watched him closely. He always drops his right hand and he carried it very, very low. I knew the hook would be the money shot.”
It was, and now the real money will come. And it was all made possible through hours and hours of torturing his body to remain in peak condition, and a spirit that would never take no for an answer.
No one else believed, but he did.
And for Michael Bisping, that was enough.