I’ve been a Michael Bisping fan since the beginning of The Ultimate Fighter 3. I liked him when he became the show’s villain during his feud with teammate Matt Hamill. I liked him a few years later when he returned to reality television and turned every American fan firmly against him when coaching Team UK opposite Dan Henderson’s Team USA. I even liked him after his infamous UFC 127 antics against Jorge Rivera, and when he took his feud with perennial goofball Jason “Mayhem” Miller way too seriously.
Over the years, I’ve defended Bisping as a title contender in various editorials, on Twitter and in debates with friends and other writers. Basically, in any format I’ve been able to speak on “The Count’s” behalf, I’ve done so. As someone who’s written about the sport in some capacity for five years, I’ve always tried extremely hard not to let my personal fandom affect my analysis of a fighter, but I’ll be the first to admit that I always found that the hardest to do with Bisping. That’s probably why it’s so difficult for me to admit that Bisping’s time as a legit title contender has come to an end.
Over the past five years, it’s hard to find a fighter who has had their worthiness as a top contender debated more than Bisping. From the moment he decided to drop to 185 pounds and compete in the middleweight division, he was viewed as a title contender by some and an overrated gatekeeper by others. Even after Bisping recorded almost 20 fights in the division, hardly anyone on either side of the fence showed signs of wavering until Bisping lost to Tim Kennedy earlier this year. “The Count” consistently defeated fringe contenders for half a decade, taking out guys like Chris Leben, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Brian Stann in order to keep his stock up. While he had the win-loss record of a contender and a few flashy names on his resume, Bisping was still in a constant battle for respect among fight fans due to his lack of wins over top-caliber opponents. That one big win that’s needed to actually earn the shot at gold just kept on eluding Bisping, and huge opportunities against Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort over the last few years ended up with Bisping suffering less than favorable results.
The Belfort loss, which came in early 2013, probably signaled the beginning for the end for “The Count” as a legit title contender. Although Bisping bounced back nicely with a third-round stoppage win over Alan Belcher, an eye injury suffered in training later in the year ended up putting Bisping’s return to the cage on hold for almost an entire year, and his subsequent return against Kennedy ended up marking one of the worst performances for Bisping’s 20-plus fight UFC career. In the past, the common knock on British fighters had been their lack of wrestling skills, but Bisping never fell into that category. He even proved how good his defensive wrestling could be when he gave Sonnen fits trying to get him to the mat a few years ago. That’s why it was surprising when Kennedy was able to force Bisping to spend roughly half of their five-round affair fighting off his back, and it stands as the reason many of “The Count’s” fans felt that Bisping’s run as a contender came to an end that night. A win over Cung Le a few months later provided a little hope for Bisping’s fans, but then came his fight with Luke Rockhold. After getting thoroughly beaten by Rockhold a few weeks ago, it became clear to everyone that Bisping could no longer be considered one of the elite at middleweight.
There’s little doubt that Bisping still considers it possible to earn a title shot,. He’s made it clear in pretty much every interview since he’s been in the UFC that he wants nothing more than a title, and you can expect him to keep calling for the fights that will put him in that position. It’s the smart move for any fighter, especially one who has the talking skills and popularity of Bisping. Odds are that “The Count” still has one or two major match-ups left in him. However, with Bisping firmly sitting on the outside looking in (for the first time in years) as far as the belt is concerned, the time has probably come for the UFC to start booking the Brit in match-ups that have less to do with the rankings and more to do with what the fans want to see.
Even the most devout Bisping fans have to admit that the Englishman has been sheltered by the UFC during points of his career in order to preserve his chances at earning a title fight. There were times when he fought men a bit below his skill level in order to keep his winning streaks alive. Now that Bisping appears to be on the decline, the UFC can effectively stop worrying about who it throws Bisping into the cage with and just look to put together the most interesting match-ups possible. That freedom to pair Bisping with big names, coupled with the Brit’s own star power, makes Bisping one of the company’s most valuable fighters at the moment. Given his international appeal, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Englishman become one of the staples of the UFC Fight Pass events that traditionally broadcast from overseas.
It’s admittedly difficult to get many fight fans to care about fight cards streaming online at odd hours of the day, but a fight between Bisping and another star in limbo—Rich Franklin, for example—could draw some eyeballs as the featured bout on a United Kingdom card on a Saturday afternoon. Fights against fellow veterans like Franklin or even Nick Diaz could get people talking, no matter how far away from the belt both fighters seem. Those are the type of bouts that not only help raise a fighter’s profile, but their bank account as well. Also, don’t forget that Anderson Silva has shown plenty of interest in fighting Bisping in the past, and since “The Spider” has a UFC contract that seemingly will allow him to fight until he’s 55 years old if he wants to, it wouldn’t be too terribly surprising to see Bisping eventually get the fight against the man he was chasing for the majority of his career.
While his time as a title contender has likely come to end, Bisping’s career is far from over. He may not be fighting the Weidmans, Belforts or Machidas of the division any time soon, but “The Count” still has a plethora of interesting opponents waiting to square off against him inside the Octagon. His name value is strong enough that losses to lesser-known, albeit highly ranked fighters in Kennedy and Rockhold won’t be enough to hurt his drawing power as a Fight Night or Fight Pass main-eventer. Bisping still has plenty of solid paydays in his future.
So, while I certainly wasn’t the first to jump off the Bisping bandwagon and I won’t be the last, the Bisping fan left in me can sleep soundly knowing that “The Count” is still likely going to be in the spotlight for some time.