Every fight is a crossroads. Someone wins, someone loses, and navigation coordinates are accordingly adjusted.
But Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort are on an especially impactful collision course. When they meet in the main event of the UFC on FX fight card on Saturday night in São Paolo, one man will ascend to the top of the ladder and the other will fall into oblivion. Maybe. Another possible outcome is that the climber will slip several rungs, just as he's done during similar ascents in the past, while the guy who's just hanging on will secure a firmer grip.
Bisping is the fighter on an upward trajectory, having been promised a shot at middleweight champion Anderson Silva if he's victorious in Brazil. Now, the 23-4 Brit is not exactly on a Silva-like winning streak, having just a September victory over Brian Stann to show for himself since dropping a decision to Chael Sonnen a year ago. But while that loss was a unanimous decision, Bisping somehow was able to spin it into a career building block, a graceful manipulation of facts that was aided by Sonnen's insistence that even he thought Michael was going to get the judges' nod. If that had happened, Bisping's resume would be a good bit more sparkly, since he went into that bout having won four straight. Apparently the UFC has looked at the Brit's full body of recent work and decided that his time has come.
Of course, Bisping's time has come before. The Sonnen bout was billed as a middleweight title eliminator, and close or not, it was Chael who walked out of the cage with a date with Silva newly penciled into his appointment book. And back in the summer of 2009 there was another missed opportunity, when Bisping stepped into the octagon with Dan Henderson for a fight that also could have earned him a championship challenge. That UFC 100 clash still resounds in the minds of many fans, who watched "The Count" get the brashness beaten out of him by a thunderous Henderson right hand that floored him, then another for good measure once he was on his back.
That's the nagging issue with Bisping, one he seeks to expunge from his soul this weekend. The 33-year-old has made a career out of beating up people he should beat up, but when squaring off with someone perceived to be at his level or above ? when he's at that consequential crossroads ? he's repeatedly been knocked off track.
It happened against Sonnen and Henderson, and it happened earlier in his career when, in his last fight before moving to middleweight, he was handed his first career loss by Rashad Evans. No disgrace there ? "Suga Rashad" would go on to knock out Chuck Liddell in his next fight and take the light heavyweight belt from Forrest Griffin in the one after that. There's no disgrace, really, in any of Bisping's losses. But how long can a guy live the life of Sisyphus?
Vitor Belfort (21-10), for his part, would relish one more climb up the mountain. He's just two years older than Bisping but has been road tested for many more miles, having started his UFC career way back in 1997. It was in the legendary fight town of Dothan, Ala., where he made his debut a memorable one by winning a heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 with a pair of quick knockouts. That's continued to be his MO, with 15 of his victories coming in the first round. He almost had one in his most recent fight, four months ago, latching onto the long arm of Jon Jones and nearly finishing the indomitable light heavyweight champion with an armbar a minute into their UFC 152 fight. Vitor couldn't get the finish, though, and ended up getting finished himself in the fourth. But he'd put "Bones" in trouble like no one ever had before, after taking the short-notice fight because no one in Jones' weight class would take it.
A title shot in Belfort's own division is more elusive. Bisping has been promised a go at Silva with a win on Saturday, but Vitor has not. Why is that? Well, he already had a shot, and Anderson Silva's highlight-reel front kick to the face that ended that February 2011 bout in just 3:25 was so quick, so vicious, so decisive that it apparently knocked Belfort quite a few rungs down the ladder. A loss this weekend would dislodge his tenuous grip and send him into career freefall.
So the stakes are high for two men, but the stakes are not the same for each. The career paths of Michael Bisping and Vitor Belfort will meet at a crossroads under the bright lights of São Paolo. But the road is not level.