Farewell to ‘The Count’

By Jacob Debets Jun 5, 2018

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One of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s longest-serving combatants called it a career on May 28, with former middleweight champion and “The Ultimate Fighter 3” winner Michael Bisping hanging up the gloves at 39 years old. Citing problems with his “good eye” -- Bisping’s “bad eye” was the victim of a detached retina back in 2013 -- and motivated by the 2017 film “Journeyman,” which centres around a boxing champion who suffers a traumatic brain injury, Bisping announced on his radio podcast that “the time is now” to make the transition out of professional face punching.

A veteran of 39 MMA fights and one of only three men to have had 20 wins inside the octagon, his storied career is worth reflecting upon.

Born with a “chip on his shoulder” and taking an interest in martial arts from a young age, Bisping was one of the rare men who craved violence but had the foresight and sobriety to see it as a path to his family’s financial security, rather than its destruction. In the opening episode of “The Ultimate Fighter 3” back in 2006, Bisping spoke candidly about wanting to make a career out of MMA for his girlfriend and children, and after winning the show and a UFC contract with a lopsided victory over Josh Haynes at the finale, he wasted little time in realising that ambition.

Appearing on the main card of 13 flagship events to begin his UFC tenure, Bisping played a vital role in the promotion’s expansion into Europe and is widely regarded as British MMA’s most important pioneer. His confrontational nature and unwavering confidence in his own abilities meant the pre-fight buildup was often as entertaining as the actual scrap. Matt Hamill was the “most one-dimensional fighter in the UFC”; a prime Dan Henderson was going to be a “walk in the park”; Jorge Rivera was a “pathetic child”; and Jason Miller was a “dickhead” and a “madman.” This enthusiasm to play the antagonist made Bisping an ideal subject for reality TV, and he returned to “The Ultimate Fighter” as a coach against Henderson (Season 9) and later “Mayhem” Miller (Season 14).

The early portion of Bisping’s career was characterized by his brash persona; the second act was of perennial underdog status. Bisping earned and lost two title eliminator bouts with the likes of Henderson (at UFC 100) and Chael Sonnen (at UFC on Fox 2), and after subsequent losses to Vitor Belfort, Tim Kennedy and Luke Rockhold across 2013 and 2014, many believed he’d reached his ceiling. Eye surgery was icing on the cake; the curtain was closing on “The Count.”

That is until 2016, when Bisping -- against all the odds -- defeated Anderson Silva and then Rockhold on two weeks’ notice. Bisping, a self-proclaimed “average guy,” was the middleweight champion of the world.

Three fights later -- a successful title defense against the ageing Henderson and losses to the returning Georges St. Pierre and the surging Kelvin Gastulem -- and the show was over. Unlike so many of the men he fought over the years, Bisping’s will survive him. A litany of UFC records that will not soon be overtaken bear his name: most UFC appearances, most UFC wins, most middleweight fights.

Inspirational in its own right, a closer examination of the Brit’s tenure can also tell us a lot about the peaks and valleys of the UFC over the last 12 years and just how involved “The Count” was every step of the way.

Bisping launched his career on “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2006, back when the UFC company had just begun turning a profit. As UFC President Dana White is fond of saying, the inaugural season of the “toughest tournament in sports” was a turning point for the promotion and the sport, generating massive viewership and locking in a deal with cable channel Spike TV that secured the UFC’s future. By April 2006 when the third season was broadcast, “The Ultimate Fighter” was a vehicle to mainstream recognition. Bisping made the most of the platform and in doing so shaped many new fans’ perspectives on MMA. After the show ended, Bisping became must-see viewing, a staple of the UFC’s pay-per-view schedule and a force for MMA in the United Kingdom. In educating the UK media about our sport and continuing to prevail as a kickboxer in a grappling-dominated world, Bisping’s persistence paved the way for men like Darren Till, and the event he headlined on May 27.

In addition to his pioneer status, Bisping was also intimately involved in the succeeding phases of the UFC’s plans for “world [expletive] domination.” When the promotion finally absorbed World Extreme Cagefighting and brought the featherweight and bantamweight classes under the UFC banner, it was Bisping who coached a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” dedicated to showcasing the lighter combatants. When the UFC set its sights on new international markets, it was Bisping who was often tapped to lead the charge, headlining cards in Australia, Scotland and China while attending countless fan expos and Q&A sessions in other destinations. When the UFC signed its deal with Fox, Bisping was one of the few active fighters tapped as an on-air analyst.

The tireless company man, Bisping’s story was also one of a clean fighter competing in a not-so-clean sport. “The Count” squared up against no fewer than five opponents who had either been caught using performance-enhancing drugs or been prescribed Testosterone Replacement Therapy, including two that derailed his chance at a title shot and one that rendered him partially blind. The fact that his championship came after the USADA regime was implemented in 2015 was, in Bisping’s own words, not “such a crazy coincidence.”

Finally and somewhat regrettably, as he made his exit Bisping was one of the faces of the much-loathed “money fight” era. In the wake of emphatically capturing the middleweight title in June 2016, a month before the UFC was sold to William Morris Endeavor, the first and only British titleholder rather transparently avoided defending it against legitimate contenders. First came a title defense at UFC 204 against the 13th-ranked Henderson, who had won just three of his previous nine fights and been finished in four of the six losses. That was followed by an extended hiatus in which Bisping alternated between claims he was injured (if he was to fight Yoel Romero) and healthy (if he was to fight semi-retired welterweight St Pierre). Eventually, “The Count” fought and lost to the latter at Madison Square Garden at UFC 217, but only after more than a year on the shelf, which created a logjam for the 185-pound division and sent at least one top contender in Gegard Mousasi to another organization.

Bisping’s last fight, a vicious knockout defeat to current top contender Kelvin Gastelum a mere three weeks after UFC 217, was not an ideal farewell party. However, Bisping never did things the easy way, and if there’s one certainty in this notoriously volatile sport it’s that he doesn’t have anything left to prove.

In his retirement -- and assuming he doesn’t make the mistake of so many of his predecessors by attempting a comeback in his 40s -- Bisping can sleep easy knowing he achieved exactly what he set out to do in the early 2000s. A pioneer; the underdog personified; a scrappy kid from Manchester, England, who beat the odds to make a career as a fighter, coach, analyst and brand ambassador in a scandalously cruel business. Farewell to “The Count.”

Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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