Mike Bisping: From the abattoir to America

The family man swapped the slaughterhouse for cage fighting, finding fame across the Atlantic in the violent phenomenon of MMA, writes Glenn Moore

Mike Bisping is sitting in a Bloomsbury hotel chatting over breakfast. As he talks about his family, his dedication to his job, and his appreciation of his good fortune, I try to reconcile the bright, personable man opposite with some of the images I watched the previous night of him in action. Such as the shot of him kneeing an opponent in the head as he tries to get up off the canvas, and another of him unloading a flurry of punches on to a man who is down.

Bisping is a cage fighter, a graphically violent combat sport which, though still performed in a cage, now prefers the term mixed martial arts (MMA). He is Britain's finest, a five-year veteran of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the sports leading promoters. Few people over 40 will have heard of him but among the 18-34 generation so beloved of advertisers he has greater name recognition. MMA is growing fast, especially in America and Australia. It is even the subject of a major film, Warrior, starring Nick Nolte and Tom Hardy, which is released this week. Bisping may not be as famous as Lancastrian boxing neighbour Ricky Hatton, or even Alex Reid, the cage fighter better known for marrying Katie Price/Jordan, but among the cognoscenti he is one of the United Kingdom's most successful sporting exports.

He is back in England to promote the latest edition of the reality show that provided his big break, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), a programme that starts with 32 hopefuls and ends, after 16 weeks of elimination bouts, with the survivor winning a UFC contract. Bisping, who is one of the two lead coaches, hit the big-time this way five years ago (Reid lost his qualifying fight when he tried out in 2009). It was, Bisping said, a vast improvement on studying electronic engineering, or working in a slaughterhouse.

"I started doing martial arts at about eight years old," says Bisping. "I was always very successful as a kid and started doing kick-boxing professionally from about 18, but though I was paid a bit I never thought it was something I could make a living from.

"Although I was obsessed with martial arts, and schoolwork came second, I did well enough at my GCSEs to go to college with a view to going to university. The problem was I never knew what I wanted to do. I did a course in advanced electronic engineering, but was so bored I dropped out. I then did a lot of jobs from upholstering to the slaughterhouse, which had to be one of the worst, but mainly on building sites. I enjoyed it when I was 16, 17, 18. I had a few quid in my pocket and it was fine, but I started having children and I realised long-term this wasn't going to take me far."

After flirting with boxing, Bisping took up MMA having heard there was money in to be made in a sport he knew better. He soon became successful on the British circuit and, when TUF included non-US nationals, he seized his opportunity.

MMA is very different from WWE wrestling, but it shares a similar desire to puts bums on seats and sofas by being entertainment as well as a sport. Bisping has a niche role, the British baddie, a familiar figure in both Hollywood movies (such as Sir Ian McKellen's Magneto in X-Men or Christopher Lee as Saruman in Lord of the Rings) and American light entertainment (Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan). While Bisping willingly hams this up, and does so with rival coach Jason Miller in the TUF series, incidents such as appearing to illegally knee rival Jorge Rivera in one bout, then rebuffing Rivera's traditional post-fight cuddle instead spitting at his corner, have had genuine edge.

"They don't like an Englishmen coming over and beating them in their own backyard," Bisping says. "If they want to boo, fine, I've always got something to say. There's a lot of talented fighters, but some are a bit boring so a bit of personality can take you a long way and I've been pretty good at getting people to watch.

"With Miller, if there was an opportunity to wind him up I'd take it and so would he. We're going to fight each other at the end of the series so we're not supposed to be friends, but hopefully after it we'll shake hands. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek.

"Rivera was different. He made a series of online videos insulting my family, saying my girlfriend had sexually transmitted diseases. It wasn't the usual trash talk, this was beyond that. Then afterwards he wanted to hug me. I was, 'No, forget that, not after the way you've talked about my family'."

Bisping has three children, aged 10, eight and one, all with long-term partner Rebecca. He has recently moved the family from Clitheroe to California, which sounds great but is actually temporary because he was going to be in America for several months filming and then training.

"I'm doing this for the family, but its not much fun if I'm spending six to eight months out of the country without them," he said. "But as I tell them when I'm away, I could be in the army, and I wouldn't be paid as much."

It is not an idle suggestion. Bisping comes from a military family. Even his surname is derived from the Germanic name for an ancestor who led a Polish cavalry regiment in the Middle Ages. His father was in the army, which is why Bisping was born in Cyprus, and both brothers joined.

"Adam just came back from Afghanistan last week," said Bisping, "Conrad used to be in the army but while on an exercise on Salisbury Plain a guy he was commanding put a pickaxe in his head."

It puts the violence of his chosen career into perspective, especially given the rewards. "I'm doing pretty well," he said. "I'm earning more money than I could ever have done in any line of work. UFC have always been very generous. My first fight they gave me a $50,000 cheque on top of my purse. I was skint then, I couldn't believe it. Belt holders fight for several million a fight, they are millionaires."

The money is generated by pay-per-view. In the US last year only marquee boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao outgrossed pay-per-view earnings by UFC fights. Bisping, who ranked in the top 10 of the middleweight division, hopes to get a title shot soon. At 32 he aims to fight until he is 40, then stay in the industry as either a coach or pundit.

"I love the sport," he said, "and it's been good to me. We have a good lifestyle now, several houses and so on, but I don't take it for granted. I train very hard because I never want to go back on that building site."

Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter begins on FX at 11pm tonight.

Inside the cage: What is mixed martial arts?

Mixed martial arts has an ancient history, but the current sport is primarily descended from Japanese and Brazilian origins. In its early years only biting and eye-gouging were banned as bare-knuckled boxers, sumo wrestlers, grapplers, ju-jitsu experts and other specialists went toe-to-toe. It could be brutal and the MTV "claymation" series, Celebrity Deathmatch, appears to have been modelled on these early contests. But regulation grew after Senator John McCain, the 2008 US presidential candidate, described MMA as "barbaric" and sought to get it banned in 1996. There are now weight divisions, lightweight gloves, and a long list of rules.

"You can punch, kick, knee, elbow, use ju-jitsu, and take opponents to the ground with wrestling moves," says Bisping, who is classified primarily as a striker rather than a grappler, mainly using kick-boxing techniques. He added: "On the ground you can choke them out or apply submission holds. You can strike them while on the ground, punch and elbow."

Bouts last three rounds of five minutes (five rounds for championship bouts) and are held in a chain-link fenced Octagon. It still looks savage to viewers brought up on boxing's Queensbury Rules but Bisping is keen to stress it looks worse than it is because of the lighter gloves, and the fact fighters spend much of the time on the ground, means punches tend to produce less concussive power.

Whether it is safer than boxing, as Bisping and UFC argue, is unclear. More boxers die as a result of fighting and training, estimates put the average at 10 fatalities per year, but boxing is far more widespread. UFC point out that none of their fighters have been killed, but there have been two deaths suffered as a consequence of regulated MMA fights in America, in 2007 and 2010.

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