If Michael Bisping fails to beat Luke Rockhold, just how might we remember him?

bisping

At its core, and above all else, Mixed Martial Arts is a sport of extremes. For many, it represents the truest and most noble form of competition, while others consider it nothing more than organised blood-letting, with a nifty business model.

Some believe Dana White and the Fertittas to be the saviours of MMA, who rescued the game from extinction, before nurturing it to behemoth proportions. Conversely, there are those of the opinion that they are nothing more than blood-sucking leaches, lining their pockets with an increasingly subpar product, as many of their employees struggle to make a living.

More often than not, for the fans, fighters, media and bureaucrats, a middle ground or grey area is rarely stumbled upon. Few personify this world of extremes like Michael Bisping. And, after almost a decade in the UFC, he remains one it’s most polarising figures. Sure he’s had rivals; Chael Sonnen, Tito Ortiz, Jon Jones and, now, Conor McGregor. Yet, none of them have managed the feat over such a concentrated period of time.

‘The Count’ has consistently enjoyed almost universal love in the UK; lauded as a trailblazer, who, after winning TUF 3 in 2005, paved the path for the slew of British fighters that followed him. However, across the Atlantic and further afield, he has been the source of much ire, and seen as a lucky beneficiary of the UFC’s bid to break ground in the English market.

That he has been granted the type of extensive and lucrative contracts usually reserved for marquee fighters, at the championship level, has only served to intensify the derision. Of course, having a brash, frequently obnoxious demeanour, has done little to help his case. From the moment Bisping entered the Ultimate Fighter house, he has played the antagonist role with a boorish aplomb, and never looked back.

But, as he approaches the most important fight of his career, against Luke Rockhold, at UFC Fight Night 55, in Sydney, Australia, ­­­­­there is a distinct possibility that, without a favourable outcome, his antics outside the cage will form the greatest part of his legacy.

Bisping will enter the Octagon for the 22nd time-17 as a middleweight, and five at light-heavyweight-in the wee hours of Saturday morning with a respectable 15-6 record. His first career loss; a split-decision against Rashad Evans, at UFC 78, not only prompted his move to 185lbs, but also a perpetual tendency to falter when confronted with elite competition.

The remaining five losses have all come at middleweight, with Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort and Tim Kennedy all besting him to varying extents. When Henderson clubbed him unconscious at UFC 100, with one of his patented over-hand rights, it was greeted with scarcely believable jubilation-a vicious dose of karma for Bisping’s belligerence when the two were opposing coaches in the Ultimate Fighter house.

The final bell in the third round when facing Silva saved him from a similar fate, but there was no such luck as Belfort’s shin rattled his skull at UFC on Fox 7. His bout with Sonnen-taken on very short notice-was a far tighter affair than the judge’s unanimous decision suggested, and when facing Kennedy on his return from a year-long layoff due to prolonged eye injury, Bisping understandably lacked his usual vim.

Had he prevailed against Belfort and Sonnen, chances are he would have earned the title shot which has evaded him for so long. But he didn’t, and not an ounce of humility to show for it, or so it seems. Hence, the continued animosity.

Even Bisping’s most strident naysayers couldn’t deny that he is a technically gifted fighter, utterly dedicated to his craft and willing to battle anyone at a moment’s notice. Yet his two biggest deficiencies, which, unfortunately, no amount of training can address, have almost certainly hindered his progression from a very good fighter to a great one.

These flaws are inextricably linked; he can neither deliver nor absorb a knockout blow, and it has cost him dearly. The boxes next to movement, well-roundedness, cardio and technique are all ticked. He’s not a choker either. In fact, his unflappable self-belief can border on the delusional at times.

He has some notable scalps on his belt. Brian Stann, Alan Belcher and Chris Leben are all capable fighters, but the fact remains, his most comprehensive victories have come over the mid-tier. Some of whom, namely Jason Miller and Jorge Rivera, were only matched with Bisping because there were sideshows to be sold. A more cynical man might say that the UFC were protecting their investment. Most recently, he destroyed Cung Le in China, with a magnificent display of striking, but battering a 42-year-old B-list movie star, who hadn’t fought in two years, is hardly earth-shattering stuff.

Which brings us to Luke Rockhold. It’s ironic, the onetime Bisping did not make a contrived effort to rile an upcoming opponent, he’s managed to send Rockhold into a mouth-frothing stupor, because of some seemingly innocuous comments made about besting the American when they trained together.

Rockhold has reacted as if Bisping made light of his sister’s sexual habits, and has duly vowed to put him away inside the first round-which he has done in 10 of his 12 career victories. The pre-fight verbal jousting has been about as compelling as day-old porridge, but it’s a tacit requisite when Bisping fights.

To be fair, Bisping has handled to whole affair in jest but, if he loses, it will be no laughing matter. At 35, and ranked No.9 in the division, he simply must beat Rockhold to retain any hope of fighting for the title, and even then the odds are stacked against him.

Rockhold, the last Strikeforce middleweight champion, is a certified finisher on the feet or mat and, despite what we might be told, simply does not have as much at stake as Bisping. On paper, the scales appear tilted in the Californian’s favour, but he has been emotionally compromised and appears more concerned with settling a score than furthering his career. It is safe to assume that Bisping is approaching the task at hand with utter clarity, which should level the playing field.

The last time Bisping headlined an event in Australia, he let both himself and the sport down. His second round TKO of Jorge Rivera was marred when he not only illegally kneed his foe, but then spat at his corner men when celebrating the win-hopefully nothing similar arises on Saturday.

Bisping has said that he would consider his career incomplete if he never fought for a world title and after eight long years, who could blame him? For now, all roads point to Allphones Arena and Luke Rockhold. Win, and the dream stays alive. Lose, and there are those who will be only too happy to write the epitaph of a surly court-jester, that just wasn’t good enough.

@oldmanrooney