Michael Bisping took a generous swig of beer, then put the bottle back on the table in front of him. It sat right next to the shiny UFC middleweight championship belt that, just a couple of minutes earlier, had been slung over one of his broad shoulders as he’d strutted into the room. The smile spread across the new champ’s face was as wide as the leap of faith his longtime supporters had just taken with him. The beer bottle was half-empty—no, make that half-full.
“This has been a lifetime’s work,” said the 37-year-old Brit, the sing-songy resonance of his voice suggesting that this was not the first amber bottle he’d endeavored to drain in the half hour or so since he walked out of the octagon at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Saturday night. It’s not that Bisping was slurring or unsteady, just that his demeanor was toggling back and forth between being humbled by hard-won accomplishment and gloating because he couldn’t help himself.
Bisping has always embodied the chest-puffed swagger of a guy who’s looking for a fight. He’s won his share of them, enough to build his star and germinate the European following that some Irishman has since taken over. Before Saturday night, Bisping’s decade of promise in the UFC had mostly familiarized him with the hollow feeling of gut punches. Twice he had been one victory from the top of the mountain but, thanks to Dan Henderson in 2009 and then Chael Sonnen in 2012, had been knocked down a few pegs. Finally, his title shot came at UFC 199, on two weeks’ notice, as an injury replacement and overlooked underdog. Improbably, he’d made the most of it.
“I always felt I was capable of doing this,” said Bisping. “But I’ve had my ups and downs along the way. And I understand why people didn’t believe in me, because I lost some key fights. I accept that. But I knew deep down inside myself that I could still always do it.”
That enduring confidence should be an inspiration for a significant portion of the UFC’s roster of 400-plus fighters. Bisping is not exactly everyman, but it did appear not long ago that his run as a contender had come and gone. Even after his February victory over Anderson Silva, the sport’s longtime pound-for-pound king, Bisping was bogged down in a queue with several 185-pounders higher on the food chain, all with title aspirations. Then one of them, ex-champ Chris Weidman, was injured while training for a rematch with Rockhold, and Bisping, No. 7 in last month’s SI.com middleweight rankings, was granted his shot.
This is a time of hope for the upwardly mobile. Champions have been falling, belts transforming before our eyes into hot potatoes. Fabricio Werdum lost his first heavyweight title defense last month, Holly Holm dropped hers at bantamweight in March, and T.J. Dillashaw’s short reign among bantamweight men was halted in January. But no one has taken a more meandering journey to the top of the game than Bisping.
Now everyone wants a piece of him, especially the man he vanquished with a crisp left hook. “I respect Luke. I respect Luke greatly,” Bisping said during one of his less haughty moments late Saturday night. “He has a victory over me, and I have one over him now. There’s no reason why we can’t do a third one down the line. I’d like to do a little victory tour and maybe knock a couple of other people out in the meantime.”
Among those raising his hand to become part of that tour will be Weidman, certainly, and putting him in the cage with Bisping at Madison Square Garden in November would make for a New York MMA debut with enough electricity to light up Times Square. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza also is a possibility, on the strength of last month’s destruction of Vitor Belfort. And then there’s Yoel Romero, who owns a tight decision victory over Souza, but is coming off a suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.
The possibilities are many, and Bisping is capable of throwing around insults with any of them. At that, he’s one of the pound-for-pound best. Or worst.
“I look back and I cringe at some of the things I’ve said in the past,” Bisping said while working on his second beer of Saturday’s press conference. “I might cringe at some of the things I say tonight.”
The man knows himself. Before the media availability was finished, he would wave his new belt tauntingly in Rockhold’s face and meet the ex-champ’s sour disposition head on, the two flinging insults at each other like heat-seeking haymakers. In the end, as the fighters were leaving the stage, Bisping went too far, pointing at the ex-champ and using an antigay slur.
It was one of Saturday night’s sour notes, along with the UFC vindictively escorting three MMAfighting.com journalists out of The Forum for the high crime of reporting fight news before the promotion was ready to announce it. While UFC brass has remained steadfast in its misplaced righteousness, Bisping at least expressed contrition, acknowledging, “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
The new champ is still coming to grips with his storybook chapter ending, a narrative arc with which he’s been all too unfamiliar. As he sat with the elusive belt and celebratory beer in front of him, he kept veering toward gratitude, for his wife and two of his children, who were cageside for his life-affirming moment, and for his friends and fans back home in Great Britain, who had stayed up all night in hope that this time the dream would not turn dark and cloudy. For fighter and family and fans, perseverance was rewarded.
“Life is good,” said Bisping. “I try to have a smile on my face everywhere I go.”
That should not be much of a challenge.