Michael “The Count” Bisping hadn’t received the respect he deserved during his successful 12-year career.
Perhaps now he will.
The 37-year-old Englishman stunned middleweight champion Luke Rockhold in the opening round at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on Saturday evening to become the first British fighter to hold such a title.
The outcome ranks as a shock considering Bisping (28-7) took the fight on 17 days’ notice and was well beaten by Rockhold (15-3) when they met for the first time two years ago. These circumstances may have led Rockhold to step into the cage too confident, something he admitted after the belt was taken from him courtesy of the upstart challenger’s punches.
“Congrats to Michael,” Rockhold said. “He caught me. I took him for granted.”
Bisping could hardly contain his delight. “Listen, I’ve got to be humble, even though I want to be an arsehole,” Bisping said after the fight. “I am so happy right now. I started fighting when I came out of my mother’s womb. I really have always been a fighter. It’s gotten me in trouble, but there’s nothing I did better in life than fighting.
“I am an average guy. This is my dream. Nobody was taking this away from me. Two weeks’ notice. Two days’ notice. Two hours’ notice. Two minutes’ notice. I’ll fight anyone.”
This has been the narrative around Bisping since he entered the UFC as an unbeaten 11-0 light heavyweight prospect in 2006. After winning the UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter, Bisping pushed his record to 14-0 until his first setback in the cage came against Rashad Evans in 2007. The result prompted Bisping to drop 20lbs and campaign in the middleweight division, which is where he has resided ever since.
The match with Rockhold was his 26th fight as a professional in the UFC, and marked Bisping’s first chance at a title. Twice before he neared such heights only to fall short, so when the opportunity to step in for Chris Weidman presented itself he had no choice but to accept.
Most observers believed Rockhold merely needed to not mess up to beat Bisping, who noted at Thursday’s pre-fight press conference that he was “supposed to lose” before talking of belief and the support of his friends, fans and family in the UK. “I really really have felt the support from the UK ... It’s part of the reason why I’m here right now,” said Bisping.
When it comes to and guarantees there are none. Rockhold’s first mistake was falling prey to the notion that he’s somehow better than everyone. Not just better, but miles better. It wasn’t his intention to beat Bisping and retain the title for the first time. It was his intention to prove a point. In the end he did, though it wasn’t the one he intended.
The tide turned in Bisping’s favor when he clipped Rockhold with an out-of-nowhere overhand left that the champion didn’t see coming. Rockhold stumbled to the floor before popping up on wobbly legs. The challenger charged forward, connected with another left that put Rockhold on the mat for good and finished with two accurate punches that prompted referee John McCarthy to intervene.
Before getting a crack at the belt, Bisping fought middleweight great Anderson Silva in London. The decision victory was lauded, but like any Bisping accomplishment, maligned at the same time. Silva was old, people said. So what’s the big deal that Bisping got the nod?
The deal now is “The Count” stands as UFC champion, a title Silva reveled in for so many years, that Weidman took from him before Rockhold returned the favour. No one will expect Bisping to hold onto the title for very long, which means he’s exactly where he wants to be.
Several years ago Bisping moved from the UK to take up residence in southern California, which fittingly hosted UFC 199 and the greatest moment of the Briton’s professional life.
In the co-main event, bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz solidified his superiority over the only man to best him in a cage, taking a lopsided unanimous decision over former WEC featherweight titleholder Urijah Faber.
Judges saw the contest 50-45 twice and 49-46 for Cruz, the fleet-footed sharpshooter whose trademark blend of striking and grappling has propelled him to a 22-1 record in MMA despite more than one knee reconstruction surgery.
“Nothing surprised me,” noted Cruz, who returned after more than a year layoff to defeat titleholder TJ Dillashaw in January. “I’m just glad I’m here. I feel so good to be able to compete again. I thought I lost this at one point. I had to stay and keep focused.”
During the build up to their third fight in nine years, the oil-and-water pair made clear their distaste or one another. Whatever the rivalry became, it was always rooted in competitive bloodlust. Cruz saw Faber as the top dog. He wanted what the “California Kid” had. And he tried to take it. The first attempt at 145lbs didn’t go his way. The second attempt at 135lbs did. And as they stepped into the cage for the trilogy both men hoped to definitely end this chapter between them.
Cruz outscrambled Faber in the first, an impressive feat considering Faber is one of the best fighters ever at making the most of wild grappling exchanges. He found his rhythm in round two, popping Faber with a left hand that dropped the respected veteran. As the fight progressed Faber’s desperation grew, yet he had no answer for Cruz who dodged and countered at will.
If the war between them is done – and it should be, as Faber, 37, hinted the defeat might be the last time he fights – Cruz comes out as the clear winner.
“He had a perfect fight,” Faber said of his nemesis. “I can’t say anything. He beat me tonight.”
The 135lbs champion’s dynamic style is hell for opponents, in that he’s incredibly difficult to hurt, he wrestles and scrambles with the best of them, and in his injury-imposed downtime he’s managed to find more power in his punches.
Also featured on the pay-per-view portion of the card, 24-year-old Max Holloway showed continued improvement throughout a three round contest with former featherweight title challenger Ricardo Lamas, taking a well earned unanimous decision. Legendary American fighter Dan Henderson made the most of what could be his final MMA contest, scoring an incredible second-round knockout over Cuba’s Hector Lombard.
And lightweight Dustin Poirier easily handled Bobby Green to score a first-round stoppage.
As the UFC looks ahead to UFC 200 on 9 July in Las Vegas, the promotion made several announcements.
Former heavyweight champion and current WWE star Brock Lesnar is slated to return against a to-be-determined opponent.
And Ireland’s Conor McGregor, the fighter who pushed MMA in Europe more than anyone save Bisping, .