Michael Bisping is more than just a smack talker

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Michael Bisping is the best there is, maybe the best there ever was in mixed martial arts, at getting under the skin of not only his opponents, but potential opponents, fans, media and just about everyone else connected with the sport.

Luke Rockhold hated him so much he was almost apoplectic. He’s been called out more than just about anyone, so badly do UFC fighters want to put hands on him.

As a very talented broadcaster on Fox, he is not above using his position to fire zingers at any of his peers. If he thinks it will get a reaction, Bisping will say it.

If there is such a thing as the most hated man in MMA, Bisping would be it.

All of that, though, ignores one very obvious truth that we’re only now coming to late in the man’s career: Bisping is one of the best fighters in the UFC’s history.

No, he’s no Demetrious Johnson, or Jon Jones, or Anderson Silva. He doesn’t have the physical gifts of a Georges St-Pierre, or the long roster of stars defeated like B.J. Penn.

But the 38-year-old Bisping has fought more, and won more, than any fighter in the nearly 24-year history of the UFC, and he’s improbably won the promotion’s middleweight title in a stunning upset that ranks among the most significant upsets ever.

Even St-Pierre, who will end a nearly four-year retirement on Nov. 4 when he challenges Bisping for the middleweight belt at Madison Square Garden in New York in the main event of UFC 217, acknowledges that Bisping hasn’t gotten his just due from the public.

Asked if he was surprised Bisping was the champion, St-Pierre didn’t hesitate before responding.

“No, not really, and I think if he would fight Luke Rockhold again, he would beat him again,” St-Pierre said.

Now, this could be St-Pierre delivering the platitudes about an upcoming opponent that is typical in this sport. Rockhold, after all, was a massive favorite at UFC 199 in 2016 when Bisping knocked him cold in the first round to win the belt. He’d defeated Bisping a year-and-a-half earlier in a one-sided, decisive manner, and Bisping took the fight against Rockhold on two weeks’ notice as a late replacement for Chris Weidman.

Britain’s Michael Bisping (L) and Canada’s Georges St-Pierre face off during a news conference. (AP)

But St-Pierre went on, heaping praise upon Bisping in front of a small group of reporters in what seemed a sincere assessment of his rival.

“I think Michael is like a good, old wine,” St-Pierre said. “He’s gotten better with time.”

Bisping is never going to get the acclaim that he deserves. He started out as an underdog and the perception of him hasn’t changed. But he has 20 wins in the UFC, more than anyone has ever compiled, and there’s no overlooking that no matter what one thinks of his competition.

And while most of his wins have come out of what would be considered the top five in his division, any win in the UFC is significant. In addition, he’s not only beaten Rockhold, but he’s got victories over Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson and Cung Le, among many others.

But Bisping’s talents in the cage are overlooked because of his trash talk. The “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast of the Maple Leafs-Canadiens game Saturday at the Bell Centre in Montreal opened with Bisping putting his title belt at center ice and challenging St-Pierre to touch it, as boos rained down upon him.

During their recent media tour, St-Pierre could barely finish a sentence without Bisping interrupting him. At a news conference at the Hockey Hall of Fame last week in Toronto, St-Pierre was asked about the impact that legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach would have upon him.

As St-Pierre answered, Bisping cut in.

“Hey, ‘Freddie Roach, Freddie Roach, Freddie Roach,’ ” Bisping said. “That’s all we hear these days. What about Firas Zahabi, he’s been with you for years. Why don’t you give Firas a shout out? [Expletive] Freddie. He’s jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute. What about Firas? Come on, shout out your home team. Shout out Tri-Star.”

He also taunted St-Pierre about his propensity for wrestling. Before he left the sport at the peak of his powers in 2013, St-Pierre’s wrestling was virtually indefensible. If he fought a quality striker, he’d simply dump them on their back and work for a submission. But he was also quick with a hard jab and was able to use his takedown defense to stay on his feet against grappling-heavy opponents.

Instead of praising St-Pierre for the diversity in his game, Bisping taunted him about using his wrestling so frequently.

“The next three weeks for me is just overkill,” Bisping said. “Overkill, getting extra ready for working on getting back to my feet when Georges tries to hide from fighting. That’s what people do. When they take you down, they’re trying to hide from fighting because they don’t have the [courage] to stand and fight like a man. Right, Georges? Come on, Georges, say something!”

When he does that, it puts a focus on his words and not his actions. But Bisping has, as St-Pierre said, steadily improved. Nearly 10 years after he lost a squeaker in a light heavyweight bout to future champion Rashad Evans at UFC 78, Bisping will be back in the cage in the year’s biggest card with many experts choosing him over St-Pierre.

There is a school of thought by many that is hard to argue against that A) St-Pierre doesn’t deserve the title shot and B) Bisping still hasn’t defended his belt against a deserving challenger.

Bisping’s only defense since defeating Rockhold on June 4, 2016, came against then-46-year-old Dan Henderson, who entered the fight 2-3 in his previous five and 3-6 in his previous nine.

He in no way deserved a title shot based on performance, but got it because of his history with Bisping.

But Bisping, who had knee surgery in January, hasn’t fought interim champion Robert Whittaker or top contenders like Yoel Romero, Jacare Souza or even a rematch with Rockhold.

He’s got the big fight he’s sought for so long and it’s clear he’s loving the attention that comes with it.

Much of the talk about the fight has been what St-Pierre will do as champion if he defeats Bisping, but that overlooks the fact that it is an extremely difficult fight for St-Pierre and that Bisping may well win it.

But win or lose, Bisping has finally made the point he has been trying to make in the UFC for more than a decade.

There is little doubt that he is among the best fighters in the first 24 years of the UFC. He’s been harangued and downgraded so much, but numbers and longevity don’t lie. With a win over St-Pierre, Bisping will finally get the recognition he’s deserved for years.

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