December 06, 2011

He talked the talk. He walked the walk.

But Michael Bisping always walks the walk. You know what the walk looks like. If you're among the leather-lunged chorus of mixed-martial-arts fans who reflexively boo the Brit, you watched him emerge from backstage before the main event of last Saturday night's Season 14 finale of The Ultimate Fighter and strut toward the octagon, and what you saw was the cock of the walk. If you're a Bisping fan -- and there are some, for sure -- you simply saw a relaxed, confident fighter.

The latter perception is the one that endures from that evening. It already has propelled him upward another rung on the middleweight ladder, as on Wednesday morning the UFC announced that "The Count" will face onetime Anderson Silva challenger Demian Maia on the second UFC on Fox fight card Jan. 25 in Chicago.

No longer can anyone legitimately dismiss Bisping as merely a pitter-patter points guy who's been built up by the UFC to bolster the fight promotion's business in the United Kingdom. I don't know if anyone could have legitimately made that claim even before last Saturday, but it was out there. It's always been hard to take a clear-eyed look at a guy with so much negativity built up around him.

Bisping is responsible for much of that negativity, but not all of it. Some of it is the residual disrespect arising from a perception that the UFC has handled Michael with kid gloves, carefully creating a path for its UK meal ticket to rise in the middleweight ranks, in the way that some young boxers are handled ... but not usually MMA fighters. There might be some validity to this viewpoint -- it wouldn't be the first time the UFC has done something in the name of commerce -- but it's probably a bit exaggerated. If Bisping were a more likeable guy, in fact, his career trajectory likely would be seen a whole different way.

But Bisping has not projected himself in the most likeable light. The most blatant example of this was when he spat at the cornermen of Jorge Rivera after a contentious fight back in February. However, "The Count" was disliked long before stepping over the line that night. It may be that fans can't take his straight-up smugness. Michael is no more cocky than dozens of other UFC fighters, really, but where his teammate Quinton Jackson can be off-the-charts cocky, his vintage "Rampage" clownishness is also off the charts. Bisping has not shown us much of that softer side.

At least not until Saturday night, when after beating Jason Miller to a pulp he went out of his way to show graciousness toward his bruised and bloodied nemesis, then told the crowd that he's here to entertain, that he's proud to be in the UFC and proud to be a dad. "I'm a humble guy from a working-class background in England," he said, looking a bit emotional, not a hint of bluster in his affect. "This means the world to me. Thank you."

That earned Bisping some polite applause from the fans. And his performance over the previous 15 minutes earned him the Twitter equivalent of a standing ovation from his boss. As soon as Bisping was pulled off a fallen Miller with 3:34 left in the third round, here's what came gushing forth from @danawhite: "The most one sided fight I might have ever seen in the UFC!" Say what? Miller actually won the first round on all three judges' scorecards, taking down the bigger Brit and gaining full mount. He didn't do much damage while in dominant position, though, and gassed out to the point that he became a punching bag the rest of the way. So, yes, the fight turned into a beatdown, but it wasn't even close to being the most one-sided UFC fight ever.

This was a case of Dana being a promoter/barker, not the purist fight fan he likes to talk about being. Sometimes those roles become conflicted, and you know which one is the alpha. It appeared as though the UFC poobah might be angling to put Bisping right into a title fight.

However, Bisping vs. Anderson Silva would have been a tough sell at this point. The Brit is 22-3 and winner of four straight, but he needs to show something against an opponent better than "Mayhem" Miller before anyone will view a potential title matchup as remotely competitive. The problem for the UFC: Most every middleweight ahead of Bisping in line already had a dance partner. On Saturday night, White announced that the top middleweight contender, Chael Sonnen, will fight Mark Muñoz at the second UFC on Fox event. (The card also features a light heavyweight showdown between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis.) The next man in the 185-pound pecking order, presumably, is Vitor Belfort, who faces Anthony Johnson Jan. 14 at UFC 142. Also ahead of Bisping, one would assume, is Yushin Okami, who faces Tim Boetsch Feb. 25 at UFC 144.

That narrowed the field of appealing opponents considerably. Brian Stann was a possibility, although some of his luster was tarnished by a lopsided loss to Sonnen in October. Josh Koscheck has talked about moving up from welterweight, and that could have been an interesting matchup if the UFC didn't mind having both guys walk to the octagon in black hats. As it turned out, Maia (15-3) made the most sense. He has won three of four since his April 2010 loss to Silva ? talk about one-sided, Dana ? and is at least back in the conversation among middleweight contenders.

So now Bisping has less than eight weeks to prepare for the virtuosic ground game of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. (Some of that training will have to be without contact, which is prohibited until Dec. 25 under terms of a medical suspension handed Bisping because of a hematoma he sustained near his right eye Saturday night.) And Maia isn't just any black belt. He's a multi-time world champion whose nine-win UFC career includes four Submission of the Night performances, including one against Sonnen. "The Count" can take solace, however, in Maia's recent resume: His last six fights have gone to decision. And Bisping also has his own resume on his side: In 25 career fights, he's never been submitted.

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