The pain was palpable, as plain as the bloodied nose on his face.
There was a trickle of crimson descending his cheekbone from a swollen purplish abrasion next to his right eye, a smaller cut near his left. But it was between those wounds where the hurt was most evident. It manifested not as physical pain. It was emotional pain. You could see it in the eyes of Michael Bisping.
Once again, the brash Brit was so close to reaching the top of the hill, only to stumble and tumble back down as if he were on the London stage performing a one-man show based on the myth of Sisyphus.
Four years ago, as a 14-0 climbing light heavyweight, Bisping was knocked down a few pegs by future champion Rashad Evans. A couple of years later, after a move to middleweight and a quick rise through those ranks, he was knocked down and punched out by Dan Henderson in a title eliminator. A shot at the belt again was on the line last year when he faced Chael Sonnen, and while it was a close fight, the other guy walked out of the cage with what they'd both come for.
This time was supposed to be different. This time Bisping was coming off a run of robust performances against high-level competition. This time the 33-year-old was facing an opponent who, while only two years older, has had the tread worn off his tires from having put in so many miles in an octagon career dating back to 1997. This time Bisping was the only one being promised a shot at middleweight king Anderson Silva with a win.
But just as has happened in his inglorious past, again and again and again, the title shot slipped away from Bisping on Saturday night. That was assured when "The Count" was felled by a kick to the head, then swarmed upon until referee Dan Miragliotta pulled Vitor Belfort off of him at 1:27 of Round 2 to end the main event of UFC on FX 7 at Ibirapuera Arena in Sao Pãolo, Brazil.
As the result was being announced to a Brazilian crowd that moments earlier had been chanting and dancing in celebration of its countryman's victory, Bisping squinted into the lights, clapped when Belfort (22-10) was mentioned and even managed the slightest of smiles. When it was his turn at the microphone there in the cage, he was gracious. "It was a beautiful kick. He caught me," Bisping said. "Listen, he's a better man than me tonight. Congratulations, Vitor."
Bisping (23-5) then was quick to assure everyone within the sound of his ever-present voice that he will be heard from again. "You win some, you lose some," he said. "I am not going away. Trust me, I'm going to be back. I'll be back on top of this pile before you [expletive] know it."
Maybe he will. Maybe he won't. Through the years, the UFC has promoted Bisping as a kind of Great British Hope, an effervescent yet polarizing figure whose success was counted on to bolster the promotion's incursions abroad, particularly in England. But only so many letdowns can work their way into the narrative before it's time to turn the page.
Though the head kick brought a sudden, stark finish, the bout had been going Belfort's way ever since the latter moments of the opening round, which on the whole had unfolded uncharacteristically. The Brazilian known as "The Phenom" is renowned for his explosive starts. All 10 of his previous UFC victories had been first-round stoppages, eight of them knockouts, six coming in the first minute-and-a-half. On this night, perhaps in acknowledgement of the expected rigors of the scheduled five round, Vitor was patient, waiting for Bisping to throw, then countering. Finally, with 15 seconds to go in a close round, Belfort snapped Bisping's head back with a straight left, then connected with his left shin to the face, sending Michael into retreat for the final seconds before the horn.
Bisping came out of his corner for the second round looking resolute and not too worse for wear, and he quickly got busy with kicks and jabs. But nothing he was throwing had a whole lot of mustard on it, and within 15 seconds Belfort had bloodied his nose with a counterpunch. Belfort was throwing fewer punches and kicks, but everything had oomph behind it. Especially the kick he threw just as Bisping had lowered his guard. The Brit crumbled to the mat, the Brazilian jumped on him and the ref hovered. Belfort landed seven hard left hands in a matter of seconds before Miragliotta jumped in.
After his hand had been raised, Belfort began making the two-handed waist-high motion ubiquitous in all of sports, signifying the invisible presence of a championship belt ... or at least the desire to affix a real one there. Calling out Anderson Silva, Vitor? Nope. Even though the middleweight champ, who knocked out Belfort two years ago with a highlight-reel front kick to the face, was sitting at cageside, "The Phenom" had a different belt holder in mind -- and a challenger, too.
"I want to get the belt," Belfort said, pointing a menacing finger at the camera in front of him. "Take that punk Chael, um, Chael Sonnen -- I don't even know your name -- and get out. Dana, Lorenzo, take him out. Let me fight Jon Jones. I need that rematch. Get that clown away. Go home. You did the reality show. Go home and let me fight the real champion. Champion against a champion, not that clown."
OK, let's review this latest WWE moment in UFC postfight interviews: Vitor was addressing fight promotion president Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, asking them to remove Sonnen from his April 27 light heavyweight title fight against his opposing coach on the soon-to-be-aired season of
A likely scenario? Not at all, not with Sonnen's ability to pump up pay-per-view appeal. Chael might not be a legitimate light heavyweight contender, but as a carnival barker he's heavyweight champion of the world. Then again, injuries do happen and Belfort has shown himself to be one who'll step in at a moment's notice. However, the crystal ball here depicts Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen facing off in the octagon at some point.
Where does that leave Michael Bisping ... or even Anderson Silva, for that matter? Bisping has some building to do, perhaps starting with another fighter with a career renovation project in the offing, such as Mark Muñoz. And for Silva, there's always the guy who knocked Muñoz off track, Chris Weidman. He should soon be all healed from a shoulder injury, as he pointed out on Twitter: "I'll be back in summer and that's when Anderson wanted to fight. Coincidence? I think not."