Michael Bisping has never been the Ultimate Fighting Championship's most popular fighter, particularly in the United States. The largest ovation Bisping received on U.S. shores probably came as he was stretched out on the canvas at the Mandalay Bay Events Center after being knocked out by Dan Henderson in Las Vegas 15 months ago at UFC 100.
If UFC president Dana White awarded world championship slots solely on the basis of popularity, Bisping would never come close to getting an opportunity to compete for the promotion's middleweight belt.
Drawing power is certainly a part of it, because the UFC is a business and it makes its money from pay-per-view and ticket sales and wouldn't succeed if it consistently put on fights the public was not interested in seeing. Still, without a résumé of success in the cage, a fighter isn't going to be considered.
And while Bisping's résumé still isn't complete enough, he's moving inexorably toward title contention. He can go a long way toward helping his cause by defeating Yoshihiro Akiyama on Saturday in the main event of UFC 120 at the O2 Arena in London. The card will be broadcast on Spike TV in the U.S. on a tape-delay basis Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific,
"If he beats Akiyama, I'd think he'd probably be a couple of wins away," from fighting for the title, White said.
Bisping has long been one of the most reviled fighters in the UFC, alongside Josh Koscheck, but it's an unfair tag. He's an entertaining fighter willing to fight anyone. He's accessible to fans and media, never turning down an autograph request or an interview. And while he's talking his share of trash since winning the light heavyweight title on Season 3 of "The Ultimate Fighter," it's usually only when prodded. He talks when his opponent talks. Akiyama has had little negative to say about Bisping and, as a result, Bisping has done nothing but heap praise upon the talented judoka.
"I think he's an outstanding fighter who is one of the icons of the sport," Bisping said of Akiyama.
Bisping is 5-2 as a middleweight in the UFC, with wins over Charles McCarthy, Jason Day, Chris Leben, Denis Kang and Dan Miller and losses to Henderson and Wanderlei Silva.
A win over Akiyama on Saturday would go a long way toward improving Bisping's standing in the division. Champion Anderson Silva showed the first signs of being human since he won the belt in 2006 when he struggled with Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 in August. Sonnen dominated the first four rounds and the first half of the fifth until Silva slapped on a fight-winning triangle choke as time appeared to be winding down on his title reign.
While Silva deserves major credit for winning in a fight in which he struggled and didn't have his best performance, it showed the first hints of vulnerability. Contenders have more reason than ever to believe they can beat Silva, though it's not as if Silva is on the way out, Bisping pointed out.
"He's one of the most fantastic fighters I've ever seen and to do what he's done, to go unbeaten for so long in the UFC for as long as he has, says a lot about him," Bisping said. "We can't expect him to lose it. We as the other fighters in the division have to improve ourselves and try to take it from him. He's not going to give it away."
And despite the antipathy toward Bisping from the fan base, Bisping is improving. The only fight he lost conclusively was the knockout loss to Henderson, when he circled the wrong way and got drilled by a powerful right hand. The other losses on his 19-3 ledger are razor-thin defeats to Rashad Evans and Wanderlei Silva.
The loss to Evans was by split decision and came at UFC 78. In his next two outings, Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 and then won the light heavyweight title by stopping Forrest Griffin at UFC 92.
The loss to Silva came at UFC 110 in Australia and was one that could have gone either way.
"Anyone who thinks Michael Bisping isn't a world-class fighter is just hating," White said. "Look at what he's done."
And Bisping has gotten better since the loss to Henderson, which he showed both in the loss to Silva and in impressive wins over Kang and Miller.
He's still not perfect and would be a massive underdog if he were facing Anderson Silva, but Bisping has always been a hard hitter and he's now begun to show growth in other areas of his game.
"I believe my defense is better than it's ever better and I think my punching power has gone through the roof," Bisping said. "I've worked very hard on my footwork and I'm understanding the boxing side of things a lot more. My boxing has come on tremendously."
Bisping, though, knows he isn't going to get as much mileage out of talking about his improvements as he is by showing them. He raves ad nauseam about Akiyama's talents and the way Akiyama was handling Leben before being submitted in his last outing, and knows that handling an experienced fighter like Akiyama would be his best argument about his own growth.
He'll get a chance to do so in front of a sellout crowd at the O2. Despite complaints by some hardcore fans about the card, it's been a hot ticket in England and Bisping is promising a show.
"Matching Akiyama and myself is very smart by the UFC, because it's one of those fights where I don't think it can help but be exciting," Bisping said. "For me, it's even more important. Not only am I fighting in front of my countrymen, but there is a lot at stake in this fight. I know what this can mean to my career and I've taken this fight as seriously as any I've ever hard."