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UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and his newly ordained challenger, Michael Bisping, fancy themselves as gentlemen rising above the fray of a rough-and-tumble business.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a Thursday conference call promoting their UFC 199 main event on June 4 in Inglewood, Calif. – their first chance to exchange pleasantries since Bisping was announced last week as a substitute for the injured Chris Weidman – featured both fighters complimenting one another at the outset.
"You earned this, I’ll give you that," Rockhold said to his challenger, who has won three straight bouts. "You earned this fight.”
“I wish you all the best,” Bisping replied. “Listen, we’ve got mutual friends, I’m sure you’re a great guy.”
From there, though, the gloves came off. Not only are both considered real gamers in the cage, but outside, they’re among the wittiest fighters in the sport of mixed martial arts. With Bisping a decided underdog competing on short notice against an opponent who finished him just two years ago, the fight buildup could be as entertaining, if not more so, than the bout itself.
And both fighters obliged Thursday, as they weaved in compliments to set up punchlines, sticking and moving with artistry usually reserved for the Octagon.
“You beat a champion,” said Rockhold, referring to Bisping’s Feb. 27 victory over the legendary Anderson Silva. “You beat a champion in Anderson Silva and you would have probably won that fight handily if you didn’t complain about your mouthpiece and get clipped. But, you will not be a champion. I will humiliate you next week. It’s going to be so one-sided.”
“Instead of using big words, Luke, you're only humiliating yourself,” Bisping countered. “Spell ‘humiliation.’ Go ahead. I'll give you a hand — h-u-m ... finish it off. Go ahead. You can't do it.”
For quite some time, it appeared Bisping, a 37-year-old native of Manchester, England, who now lives in Orange County, Calif., was destined to be the best UFC fighter to never get a title shot. In a decade-long UFC stint which dates back to winning "The Ultimate Fighter 3" as a light heavyweight, Bisping has the third-most victories in UFC history with 17. That number doubled as the most wins for a UFC fighter who has never gotten a title shot.
Each time Bisping rose to a position in which a victory could have gotten him a crack at the belt, Bisping stumbled, with losses to the likes of Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort and Rockhold, who submitted him in the second round of a November 2014 bout in Australia.
The Rockhold loss appeared the end of the road for Bisping as a potential title challenger, but wins over C.B. Dollaway, Thales Leites and Silva, combined with the luck of being in the right place at the right time when Weidman had to drop out, finally got him his championship fight.
Rockhold, however, says Bisping’s feel-good story will come crashing to a halt in the UFC’s first event at the venerable Forum.
"Mike, he’s a tough dude, he took this fight, but this will not be his fairytale,” said Rockhold (15-2), who has won five straight fights, all via finish. “This will be his swan song. This will be the end of him. I am going to go out there and dominate this guy like he’s never been before. I believe I beat him; he had the most one-sided fight of his career last time out."
Bisping (28-7), naturally, disagrees, and sees a different outcome this time around.
"OK, all right, cool," Bisping countered. "We’ll see about that when you’re on the floor and you’re looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘[Expletive], I just lost my belt to a guy that came in on two weeks’ notice,' and took your belt that you worked so hard for."
And while Bisping has tried to play things cool, it’s plain how much this opportunity, the one he never gave up on when most of the mixed martial arts world had written him off as a veteran on the backside of his career, means to him.
“I have to win this belt,” Bisping said. “I have to beat you to get a chance at redemption. You’re very, very confident that you’re going to humiliate me, listen — do not underestimate me, my friend, OK? All right, you did well, you beat me once, try and pull it off twice. It has never happened before, and it will never happen.”
Rockhold spoke Thursday with the confidence of a champion who happens to be fighting a guy he’s already beat. And while it’s highly likely there will be plenty more banter between the duo over the next week, we’ll let the champ have the last word this time around.
"I know exactly who you are," Rockhold told Bisping. "I know exactly who all these guys are. I’m not underestimating you, I know exactly who you are. And I know exactly what I’m going to do. That’s the difference between me and you and the rest of these guys. I know what I’m going to do, and the rest of you guys think you know what you’re going to do."