mma / Columns

Bisping’s Unlikely Title Reign Swerves Into St-Pierre Title Match

March 6, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

At the beginning of 2016, the idea of Michael Bisping fighting for a title was unlikely. The thought of him winning the championship in a suddenly talent-rich UFC middleweight division was borderline laughable. A year-plus long title reign with multiple defense? Impossible.

In February 2016, Bisping was an underdog to Anderson Silva, the best middleweight of all-time. The fight was a long time coming. During Silva’s record-breaking title reign, Bisping had been one victory away from the fight of his life on three occasions. All three times, he fell short. Bisping occupied an interesting space. He was a bigger and more marketable fighter than most of Silva’s title challengers, but didn’t have quite the name value to justify skipping more deserving contenders, and always fell just short on merit.

When he finally got his fight with Silva, it wasn’t the championship Silva. It was a 40-year-old Anderson Silva, post-title, post-leg break, and returning from a yearlong absence due to a drug suspension. Nevertheless, few expected Bisping, on the night before his 37th birthday, to best Silva.

Bisping had already begun the downside of his career. His pair of losses in 2014, a wide decision to Tim Kennedy and a submission to Luke Rockhold, seemed to spell the end of Bisping’s hopes at a title shot. He won his next two fights by decision, but neither did much to reverse that notion.

Then came the first of many surprises in the past year or so of Michael Bisping’s life. Bisping won the opening rounds, and dropped Silva toward the end of the second frame. The former champion taunted him, which he typically used to bait his opponents into an attack he could counter, but Silva’s offense was mostly limited to short bursts between long taunting periods.

The look of the fight, and of Bisping’s face, changed at the end of round three when a Silva knee nearly ended the fight. It should have been a turnaround point, but it appeared as though Silva was content to sit back and play with his wounded pray, but he couldn’t play like he used to, and this time the pray bit back.

Bisping won a close decision that most observers, including the three most important ones, scored in his favor. Perhaps Bisping was fortunate that Silva fought without concern for the score of the fight (or, perhaps that’s the only way Silva was able to fight at that stage). Certainly, there was a bit of luck in winning a close decision in a sport in which sometimes seemingly straightforward decisions turn awry. Whatever luck Bisping had, it carried over.

An almost absurd string of events followed, all going in Bisping’s favor. Scheduled title challenger Chris Weidman got injured in May, and top contenders Yoel Romero (suspended) and Jacare Souza (injured) were unable to fill in. Bisping got the spot to fight champion and one-time rival Luke Rockhold on late notice. Never known for his power, Bisping knocked Rockhold out in the first round to take the belt.

Bisping finally managed to compete for the title, and had won it against the odds. It was a nice story, but not one built to last. Whether in a rematch with Rockhold, or a challenge from Weidman, Romero, or Souza, he appeared to be a one-and-done champion.

However, the same night Bisping won the title, 45-year-old Dan Henderson knocked out Hector Lombard. Henderson delivered one of the most famous knockouts in MMA history when his right hand smashed Bisping into unconsciousness and highlight reel infamy at UFC 100. That fight forever entwined the two in history, the most famous play on one of MMA’s biggest nights. After he beat Lombard, Henderson indicated retirement, but was open to one more match with a title on the line. Henderson had lost six of his last nine fights and was not close to deserving a title shot in the moment, but the unique circumstances nudged UFC’s hand.

UFC passed over Rockhold, Weidman, Romero, and Souza for Bisping vs. Henderson 2 in October. Bisping recovered from two knockdowns to win a close decision and extend his title reign.

Just as it appeared Yoel Romero had locked up the next title shot and was only waiting for Bisping to heal his injuries to get a fight title, UFC came to an agreement with former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.

Last week, the UFC made Bisping vs. St-Pierre official, the ultimate jackpot in Bisping’s stroke of luck. St-Pierre, who had always resisted moving up to middleweight during his prime due to the size issue, sees Bisping as a beatable champion. Still, he is the best opponent Bisping could have hoped for by any measure.

St-Pierre at his best was a much better fighter than Bisping, but that was years ago and a weight class down. There is no indication of where St-Pierre is at in his career, he’s the smaller man, and by fight time will have almost four years of ring rust to shake off. At the box office, St-Pierre’s return is worth at least 600,000 pay-per-view buys, and perhaps significantly more. It’s not only the fight that gives Bisping the best chance at extending his title reign, it’s far and away the most lucrative fight of his career. It’s another lucky break in the longest string of lucky breaks a fighter could possibly have.

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