Big things are expected of unbeaten Michael Bisping, the British striker who blasted through the field to snatch the Ultimate Fighter 3’s light heavyweight contract over the summer.
As the only Briton inked to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, ‘The Count’ not only has an entire nation of MMA fans on his back, but glowing appraisals from the likes of TUF III coach Tito Ortiz (‘Bisping has a great shot at becoming a champion‘) and even UFC President Dana White (who compares Bisping’s charisma and excitement factor to compatriot champion boxer Ricky ‘The Hitman’ Hatton) have focused the spotlight on Bisping like a laser beam.
“I’m getting a lot of attention,” Bisping laughs.“Since winning the reality show I’ve done loads of interviews with newspapers, magazines and things in England. The BBC even sent a reporter to the gym to talk to me and I’ve been invited to sporting events and things like that.
“It’s been great, to be honest. I like doing the PR things – talking about myself isn‘t exactly hard work (laughs)! But what I like doing best is fighting in a cage and I can‘t wait [to] get back to doing that.”
Although the 27-year-old smashed Kristian Rothaermel, Ross Pointon and finally Josh Haynes during his TUF 3 rampage, Bisping considers his upcoming bout against Eric Schafer (9-1-2) at UFC 66 on December 30th to be his true Octagon debut.
He explained: “The reality show was almost like a shortcut to my dream of getting into the UFC. I think I’d have got into the UFC even without the show, anyway, but the show was a great vehicle if you like. But I never felt like a UFC fighter until about a month after I got back home after winning the final; it took a while to sink in. I proved that I belong here in the UFC and now there’s the even bigger challenge of moving up the rankings to, hopefully, a world title shot.”
A challenge for the 205 pound (or 14 stone 9lbs as they’d say in the UK) UFC Championship may be a little way off, but, confident and aflame with ambition, Bisping said: “I’ve got a three-year deal with the UFC and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think one of those fights wouldn’t be a title fight.
“It is very early days yet, of course, and I’m not getting ahead of myself, but I’m a fighter and the belt is my ultimate goal. I’m not here to make up the numbers and while I don’t expect to be challenging Chuck (Liddell) or Tito next week, I aim to just keep improving and keep winning fights and, if I do that, I’ll get a title shot sooner or later.”
In the meantime, Bisping is certainly training like a champion in the making. The Briton turned up to the TUF 3 house as one of the fittest of the 16 competitors; and having traveled to his camp to observe a typical day in the office for Bisping, I can understand how…
The Wolf’s Lair MMA Academy is located in Runcorn, in the northwest of England. Runcorn is 200 miles or so north, northwest of London but, with what Americans would consider strange accents (Bisping was subtitled on TUF) and even stranger food (take blood pudding, for instance, a kind of large sausage made out of fat and congealed pig’s blood) the north of England is a galaxy away from the stereotypical images of British pomp and circumstance.
The Wolf’s Lair is to be found at the end of an industrial estate, past a row of workshops and warehouses. Inside, though, the MMA facilities are world class.
“When Spike TV sent their cameras here before TUF final they admitted they were a bit surprised that we had all the facilities we’ve got,” Bisping said of the gym. “I don’t know what they were expecting but they said they hadn’t seen too many gyms as good as this outside of the UFC training center in Vegas. We‘ve got everything from a proper full sized cage and boxing ring to padded mats for grappling, everything, really. We’ve got a weights section as well, although I do my weights at a gym closer to where I live and my running in the woods.”
On the day I visited the Wolf’s Lair in September, Bisping was already approaching fight-fitness, and the Count’s performances in sparring and rolling were as razor sharp as his namesake’s vampire fangs.
After warming up, Bisping stood in the gym’s cage and, giving his five sparring partners one minute each, completed 3 x 5minute rounds wearing boxing gloves, training stand-up and takedowns, then grappling. Bisping would do a minute standing, then a minute starting from his back, then a minute starting from his opponent’s guard and each successive minute started with a fresh opponent.
First up for the Count was Ian ‘The Machine’ Freeman, who famously stopped one-time UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir at UFC 38 in London. Freeman, now 40, was just weeks away from a fight in London and the mini-sessions between the two biggest British names in UFC history were a fanboy’s dream.
But no sooner had Bisping’s advantages in speed begun to assert themselves, it was another sparring partner’s turn, then another, then another. After a quarter of an hour of this, Bisping trained submissions alongside BJJ expert Mario Neto.
Then the Englander worked the bags for half an hour, slamming in piano heavy punches and kicks – including a series of those photogenic, Matrix style flying knees which accounted for compatriot Pointon in that memorable TUF semi-final.
Finally, boxing trainer Tony Quigley took Bisping on the target pads before driving the entire class through a brutal circuit of press-ups, pads, sit-ups, squat thrusts, sit-ups, burpees and sprawls.
There were some very athletic fighters in the gym and, of course, every one of them would be at a different stages on the road to match fitness. However, only Bisping kept pace with cheerful sadist Quigley as he called out drill after drill.
Roaring out loud as he went, ‘The Count’ hit every press-up, every sit up, every squat-thrust. It was intimidating stuff.
“Every day is a little different in the gym,” Bisping said afterwards. “I’d get bored out of my mind doing the same things all the time, and I enjoyed today.”
Quigley, a former boxer himself, added: “I have to keep an eye on Mike in the gym because, if you’d let him, he‘d train flat out all day every day. He’s train full-blast all the time, that‘s why no one (TUF) could handle him in training. He’s a complete workaholic. He trains like you’ve just seen every day in here, plus he does his weights and runs plus he also teaches his own classes closer to where he lives in the evenings. He’s a fighting machine.”
Bisping said: “Winning TUF was the biggest thing in my career, I‘m proud of that achievement, but I can either leave it at that or push harder, get better and go for bigger things in the future. And that’s what I want to do, one fight at a time.”
Which brings us to the MGM Grand, December 30th, and Milwaukee submission specialist Eric Schafer.
“Easier said that done, I know, but I want to put him to sleep nice and fast,” Bisping said of his opponent. “I’m not going to rush in but I think I will knock this guy out, maybe in the first round. He’s a decent fighter and he’s coming off a win in the UFC, but I think I’m the better fighter all round; just because he’s good at jiu-jitsu doesn’t mean he can out wrestle me, and I have massive advantages in striking.”
However, the Count admitted Schafer was impressive in his previous Octagon appearance, when ‘Ravishing Red’ (as he likes to be known) submitted Rob MacDonald in little over two minutes at UFC 62.
Unable to secure footage of any other Schafer fight, Bisping has gone over those 146 seconds of action with a fine-toothed comb and offers the following appraisal of Schafer:
“You could say he looked impressive on the ground but, to be honest, I thought MacDonald made some horrible, nasty mistakes when the fight went to the ground. I was watching the fight thinking ‘what are you doing?’ when MacDonald didn’t even close his half-guard. MacDonald was just asking to be mounted and submitted, so I’m not sure how good Schafer actually is, although in training I’ve prepared harder than ever, y’know, just in case.”
It’s no great revelation that Bisping – who has won all but one his fights via strikes – wants to stand up with an opponent whose nine wins came from submissions.
“His striking looks pretty average,” Bisping said. “He had some half-decent leg kicks, they looked hard, but I didn’t think much of his punches at all. There was no real speed, no footwork to put anything (powerful) behind the punches, and no head movement. I think I’ve got him (done) when it comes to stand up, so obviously I’ll be looking to strike.”
Bisping added: “But though I like to strike, I’m not worried about going to the ground. I’m pretty talented on the floor. There’s no doubt in my mind that I can out-grapple and submit almost anyone. But why take the fight to the ground – where Schafer’s best chance is – when I can stand up and probably waste him in one or two rounds?”
To that end, Bisping has worked very diligently on his takedown defense.
He laughs: “I’ll actually be pissed off with myself if he even gets a takedown; I’ve pushed myself that hard in training I’d actually offend myself if I get taken down.”
If Bisping, 11-0 continues to win, there’s little doubt he will be used to spearhead the UFC’s triumphant return to British shores in 2007.
“That’s one of the reasons there’s pressure on me,” Bisping said, “Some people have talked about me being like a poster boy for the UFC in England and that’d be a great honour if it happens like that. I’m fighting to win for myself and my family but, again, I’m honoured to fly the flag for England and British MMA.
“There are expectations on me but, believe me, after the hard work I do in the gym I expect a lot from myself.”
Talk about Bisping and UFC 66 here.