Michael Bisping, Beyond the Villain

By Tristen Critchfield Dec 6, 2015

Michael Bisping is the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s perpetual bridesmaid, a long-tenured, recognizable star who always seems to fall at least one bout short in his painstaking quest for promotional gold. Still, as he approaches his 37th birthday, it is hard to deny that the brash Englishman has carved out a career that is as successful as any non-titleholder within the Las Vegas-based organization.

Case in point: Although a minor elbow injury recently forced Bisping to withdraw from a scheduled clash against Robert Whittaker at UFC 193, it quickly became apparent that the middleweight could have the first half of his 2016 calendar booked whenever he desired.

As he drives to the “UFC Tonight” studios for a co-hosting gig on a late September afternoon in California, Bisping reveals that he has appeared on the radar of former light heavyweight champion and middleweight title challenger Lyoto Machida, a report which will air on Fox Sports 1 that night. Two days later, while serving as an ambassador at a fight card in Dagestan, ex-185-pound king Anderson Silva hints that he is going to make his return from a year-long suspension against Bisping on a pay-per-view card in Curitiba, Brazil, sometime in the first quarter of 2016.

“Just leave the Viagra out of it and I’m in,” Bisping quipped on Instagram, a thinly veiled reference to Silva’s dubious defense for a positive steroid test at UFC 183.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship settled on Gegard Mousasi as an opponent for a UFC Fight Night headliner on Feb. 27 in London, but those high-profile mentions were the latest additions to a thick file of evidence that Bisping might very well be the most called-out man in mixed martial arts. It takes a special type of talent to stay in constant demand, one that requires the ability to remain intriguing both on the microphone and in the cage.

“They do it because I’m a solid fighter. People want to try and take a piece of that, and they know it’s a big fight,” Bisping told Sherdog.com. “There’s a reason people want to call me out. Whether they like it or not, I’m a draw. People like to watch me fight. I take it as a compliment. I certainly don’t take it personally.”

When Bisping is on a fight card, he usually occupies a prominent position -- often in the co-main or main event. That preferential placement will continue against Mousasi, a former Dream and Strikeforce champion.

So criticize Bisping for what his trophy case lacks if you will. There is no UFC belt on his mantle, but he has not yet given up on that goal, not by a long shot. However, even if the Lancashire, England, native never reaches that summit, he has carved himself a nice little slice of the American Dream in his adopted Orange County, Calif., home: a beautiful family, a secure financial future and a slew of intriguing post-fight career options.

It is good to be “The Count.”

* * *

While he fared relatively well in the classroom growing up, Bisping’s most accelerated education usually occurred in dustups against students who were often two grades above him, many of whom were out to avenge beatings in prior scuffles with his two older brothers. For a kid who quickly took to liking all things combat sports, it was a decent bit of informal training.

“I guess I always had a chip on my shoulder,” Bisping said. “I was bored a little bit here and there, but to be honest, I was obsessed with martial arts at a young age.”

Although he dabbled in rugby and canoeing during his formative sporting years, it did not take long for Bisping to find an outlet for his true passion. By the time he was 15 years old, he was competing regularly in a “no holds barred” tournament known as Knock Down Sport Budo, an amateur competition in Britain which bore a resemblance to modern MMA.

“It was an international tournament, [with] guys from all over Europe: Sweden, France, Denmark, England. Four fights in one night. I started doing it when I was 15, obviously a headstrong lad. I won the majority of them,” Bisping said. “Even then, I didn’t think that this was something I could make a career out of. It was just a hobby. I had a natural competitive streak in me. I always enjoyed a good fight. What can I say? Some people are made up for different things, and I was always talented at that; and I always enjoyed testing myself.”

Early video evidence suggests that Bisping’s notorious heel persona began to surface during those tournaments. At KSBO 3, Bisping unwittingly offered fodder for his future critics when he rebuked a handshake offering from his opponent in favor of a front kick to the chest at the beginning of their bout. Dirty move? Not according to Bisping, who points out both combatants had paid their respects moments earlier.

“We bowed. The referee said, ‘Fight.’ There it is; it’s a fight,” Bisping said. “I was always very aggressive when I was younger. I was around a lot of violence as a child. I’m in the zone. When we bowed, the referee said, ‘Fight.’ I didn’t have any idea of shaking hands.”

Bisping declines to go into further detail beyond that reference regarding his childhood, instead preferring to speak in broad strokes about his past. However, he does acknowledge that those days played a major role in his development.

“I don’t want to get into it too much. My family was a very loving family, of course -- my parents, I love them dearly -- but there was a lot of violence in our household,” Bisping said. “Trust me ... it was a well-known house. There was a lot of violence, and that’s about as much as I’d like to say. I don’t want to throw my family under a bus. I saw a lot of things and I was around a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been around, but it made me the man I am today.”

Bisping’s participation in KSBO came at the urging of organization founder and longtime coach Paul Lloyd Davies, who, as it turned out, was downright prescient in forecasting his charge’s future success.

“He put a vision in my head and said, ‘Michael you’re going to be the best fighter in the world. You’re going to make a lot of money. You’re going to do movies. You’re going to do TV,’” Bisping said. “I thought, ‘Well, Jesus Christ, I’ve got nothing to lose.’ And I worked for it. Everything he said has come true. It really has come true. At the time I used to think, ‘This is farfetched. He’s getting too carried away. If half of what he says comes true, I’ll be happy.’ Well, it’s all come true: I do movies, I work on TV ... I’ve been in the top 10 forever. I thank him for putting that vision in my head.”

Bisping’s emergence did not occur overnight. He essentially ended his academic pursuits at age 16 to enter the workforce, but his lack of an educational background led to his toiling in a number of different jobs, a pre-UFC resume that included work as a tiler, plasterer, slaughterer, postman, door-to-door salesman, demolition worker and upholsterer. None of them, of course, stimulated him as much as competitive face-punching.

“I never really paid full attention to my academics. I never went to college; I did briefly, but I dropped out very quick -- 16 years old working in a small town with no opportunities in the middle of nowhere in northern England; there’s limited opportunity,” Bisping said. “Of course, at the time, I had no qualifications to rest upon. What are you gonna get? You’re gonna get s----y dead-end jobs, and that’s about it. I did them all. I did everything under the sun.”

Even without steady income or stimulating work, Bisping made an impression on those around him. When he met his wife, Rebecca, some 16 years ago, he was unemployed and living with his parents.

“She always knew I was capable of making something of myself,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Bisping had to temporarily abandon his fighting endeavors as family obligations unexpectedly took precedent.

“Obviously, we ended up having children pretty quickly. It wasn’t planned, but you know these things happen. I kind of put [fighting] on the backburner and just tried to get a regular job, pay the bills [and] just provide for the family,” he said. “I did that for a while, but there was a big void in my life. I felt like I wasn’t achieving what I could achieve. I was always ambitious, always wanted to work hard and provide the best for my family.

“If it was just me … maybe it wouldn’t have been as urgent the need. I really wanted to give my children the best that I could,” Bisping added. “The best way I could provide for them was my fighting ability. I’ve always been a fighter since I was a little kid, and I’ve always been very successful at it. I started to give all my energy and efforts towards that.”

Today, the couple has three children: Callum, Ellie and Lucas. Rebecca says her husband remains as as loyal to the family ideal now as he was then.

“Michael as a husband is a devoted husband,” she said, “and all he wants in life is for me, his wife, to be happy. Everything he does is for his children. Callum [the oldest] really looks up to Michael. They’ve got so much in common. Everything’s a competition in this house. Michael hates to lose. He can’t even stand to lose against his own son.”

That attitude is all in good fun when Bisping is playing dad at home, but his competitive instinct has been crucial during his rise from reality show competitor and reviled heel to perennial Top 10 middleweight.

Once his career got going, Bisping took to stardom relatively easily, as he proved to be quite comfortable on camera during filming of “The Ultimate Fighter 3.” However, he did not truly take his place as one of the Las Vegas-based promotion’s most-hated fighters until his controversial split decision triumph over “Ultimate Fighter” castmate Matt Hamill at UFC 75 in London. The two 29-28 verdicts rendered in favor of “The Count” that night at the O2 Arena drew boos from even Bisping’s countrymen, as most everyone outside of judges Jeff Mullen and Cecil Peoples thought Hamill deserved the verdict. Bisping did little to win himself any new fans during a less-than-gracious post-fight outburst.

“Do you want to go three rounds? Of course I won the decision,” Bisping taunted. “Get the [expletive] out of here. Get that smile off your face.”

Perhaps because of that persona, the Englishman’s career has been defined more by a handful of devastating defeats than a multitude of success. Detractors cackled in delight when Dan Henderson followed a debilitating H-bomb with an unnecessary flying right hand on an already-unconscious Bisping at UFC 100. Later, Bisping wound up on the highlight reel of a mysteriously rejuvenated Vitor Belfort in Brazil, suffering a vicious knockout loss as a result of a head kick from “The Phenom” in 2013. Fair or not, those two TRT-influenced defeats -- the only two knockouts losses of his 34-fight career -- stand out on a ledger that includes triumphs over the likes of Chris Leben, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Alan Belcher, Brian Stann, Cung Le, C.B. Dollaway and Thales Leites, among others.

Those setbacks are also a primary reason why Bisping has been one of the most outspoken athletes against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in MMA.

“I’ve never taken a performance-enhancing drug in my life, and I say that categorically. I know that is not the trend, and the more and more I’m finding out, the more and more I’m disgusted with people,” Bisping said. “[It’s] disgusting and anyone that has done it, I don’t know how they sleep at night. They parade around with their belt or whatever it may be, or they flaunt their success. Well, they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Fans might not always agree with the Brit’s views on every issue, but his stance on this matter, along with a career full of negative tests, has been admirable. Of course, the narrative of Bisping as the villain is largely a myth anyway. At home, Bisping is a consummate family man who makes breakfast for the kids, goes jogging with his dog and calls his wife “the boss.” He is accommodating to media requests, and even when he goes into fight-selling mode, his opponents have to be at least somewhat grateful for his shtick. If there is hate, it is largely within the relatively anonymous confines of message boards and social media.

“All my interactions are very pleasant. I know there was a period where I was seen as the bad guy, but I don’t think it’s like that anymore,” he said. “Generally, I’ve calmed down a lot. I’ve certainly learned; I’ve matured. I’ve been in the public eye for 10 years. I was a young lad -- I’m still a young lad, but more mature. I know that for a fact. Have I said things maybe I shouldn’t have said? 100 percent. Have I acted in ways I shouldn’t have? Yeah, 100 percent. I don’t regret any of it.”

Suddenly, Bisping is on a roll, and the despised character he often plays momentarily takes hold.

“It is what it is,” he said. “Of course, I’m always going to be the bad guy fighting in America. I’m always going to get booed. Did I play up to that sometimes?... It’s not so much that I played up to it, but if you’re gonna boo me, then go [expletive] yourself. I’ll give you something to boo for. I’m not gonna sit there and beg you to like me. I’m not gonna fall on my knees like Chris Weidman and beg you to be my fan. If you don’t like me, then kiss my ass.”

Still, those close to him insist that not everything is an act.

“So the Michael Bisping you see on camera is … the real Michael Bisping,” Rebecca affirmed.

Others, meanwhile, know an entirely different side of “The Count.” Kendall Grove, who won the middleweight tournament on Season 3 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” has endured his share of ups and downs over the course of a career that has seen him compete in the UFC and Bellator MMA, as well as a number of regional organizations. If it were not for Bisping, Grove claims, his fighting days might have ended long ago.

“One day he reached out and said, ‘Hey, you ever need help, just let me know. I’ve got your back.’ I was struggling in my career and I got let go from the UFC,” Grove said. “I was trying to get fights. He was like, ‘Hey, come out. I’ll pay for your trip. I’ll pay for your training. I’ll pay for everything.’ It’s been cool like that ever since. He kind of helped me revive my career … He’s helped me through all my ups and downs, so I’m indebted to that guy, career-wise.”

Bisping’s own career nearly came to a halt following his win over Belcher in April 2013, when he was forced to undergo surgery for a detached retina following the bout. After the initial procedure, Bisping had to pull out of a proposed matchup against Mark Munoz later that year when doctors discovered the retina had re-detached. Bisping had another surgery in which scar tissue and part of his retina was removed. He would not return to the Octagon until a full year after he had defeated Belcher. If anything, the absence gave Bisping a little added appreciation for what he had.

“I think in some ways it’s gonna be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bisping told Sherdog.com in 2013. “My career was taken away from me for a while there, and I went through a lot of stuff mentally. Not depression, I hate saying that, but I was certainly down in the dumps. It was taken away, and if time was called on my career, I’m not happy with the way it ended. There’s a lot I still wanted to achieve, and I want to leave my mark on this sport a little more. I’ve got another crack at this; I’ve been given another lease on life.”

Given that added perspective, it is a little bit easier to understand why Bisping reacted the way he did in the Fox Sports 1 studios recently when 26-year-old Frankie Perez announced his retirement following his first UFC win -- a 54-second stoppage of Sam Stout in August. Perez had his reasons, but for Bisping, who has defiantly maintained a vice-like grip on his own fighting aspirations, it was a difficult concept to grasp.

“If he retired after knocking somebody out in his second UFC win, I would say he hasn’t got the cojones to really be in this sport, because it’s a tough sport,” Bisping said. “He said he’s sick of what it does to his body. He’s sick of feeling like this. Well, guess what? This sport isn’t designed for everybody ... Let the real men do it.”

His knee-jerk reaction, of course, struck a nerve with many who praised Perez, but not everyone possesses the same internal fire Bisping does. Then again, fighting has not provided for everyone the way it has for Bisping. Even if he was not a star, it is not difficult to imagine him testing his mettle somewhere, somehow, much like he did as a young man in England so many years ago. It is that competitive spirit, not material wealth, fame or accolades, that keeps him on the path he unwittingly began as a martial arts fanatic.

“It’s something that’s got me in a lot of trouble over the years, but it’s something that I’ve always excelled in. When I was a kid and somebody from another school thought he could beat me up, I was like, alright, let’s set it up. Let’s go on that field somewhere and fight,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed and something that I’ve always prided myself on. There’s nothing that gets me more excited than knowing that the UFC is flying me to Australia or Macau or some exotic location, and I’m going to be the main event and I’m going to fight this other [expletive] stud from the other side of the world. That gets me going and makes me want to train.”


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