Combat sport: Bisping carries British hopes

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The Independent Online

Michael Bisping carries the hopes of British mixed martial arts on his improbably-broad shoulders tomorrow, when he takes on legendary American Dan Henderson at UFC 100, the biggest event in the emerging combat sport's ten-year history.

The 29-year-old fighter from Clitheroe goes into the stiffest test of his career knowing that victory would be likely to tee-up a title bout in November on his home turf of the MEN Arena, against the UFC's reigning middleweight champion Anderson Silva.

First, though, Bisping faces Henderson, a veteran two-time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler with dangerous floor skills and a big right hand. Despite having just one loss in his 19-fight career, the Briton is considered firm underdog by Sin City's bookmakers.

"To be honest, that just motivates me," he said yesterday. "I don't mind underdog status. It suits me fine. The more people say I'm going to get destroyed, the more it makes me want to prove them wrong and smash this guy up. It'll make victory all the sweeter."

Bisping's hopes may lie in his superior speed and defense, and the prospect of Henderson, 38, tiring in later rounds. Though he has worked heavily on the floor in training, Bisping must also avoid getting dragged into a wrestling match against a master of that art.

The son of a soldier, who was a martial arts champion as a teenager, Bisping's rise represents an old-fashioned Cinderella story. Just six years ago, he was working as a casual labourer and carpet fitter, before discovering his talent for mixed martial arts on the provincial circuit.

Today, his picture is emblazoned along the Las Vegas strip, and a diamond-encrusted Rolex sits on his hotel room table at the Mandalay Bay. His fortunes have risen with the sport, which has outgrown its blood-and-sawdust roots to become a billion-dollar phenomenon.

"I'm making a fantastic living. There's huge screens everywhere with my face on. There's posters with my face on. I'm an action figure. I'm in a computer game. I do sometimes think ‘how did this happen?'" he said. "But it hasn't just fallen in my lap. I've worked very hard for it."

Despite being a former amateur boxer, Bisping is perhaps unfairly often billed as a better defensive fighter than attack-dog. But his counter-punching and floor-work has helped win 16 fights by submission or knockout.

He is currently on a three-game winning streak, after dropping a weight class after being controversially outpointed in a split decision by Rashad Evans in 2007. Henderson's 24 wins and 76 losses have come against top quality opponents, though he's recently struggled to win via knockout.

The fight caps nine months of ill-feeling between the two men, who coached opposing teams in a recent series of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality TV show that has turned the Lancastrian into a household name in the US.

During one episode, Bisping sparked heated controversy when he squirted water in the face of one of Henderson's fighters. During other episodes, and again during this week's build-up, he cracked jokes about his rival's age.

"I was trying to have a bit of fun with Dan, but I'm not sure if he understood the northern humour," said Bisping, an acquaintance of Ricky Hatton whose sense of humour is often compared to the wise-cracking boxer.

"Since then, Dan's gone on and been quite insulting. He's shown me no respect. He's said that all he has to do is get on a treadmill and work his cardio and he could beat me any day of the week. I think he's sorely mistaken - and if he's underestimating me that's going to be his downfall."

In addition to representing a coming of age for Bisping, Saturday's event will also underline the remarkable success of UFC in capturing the public imagination. Tickets sold out before they went on sale, and ringside passes are now changing hands for $45,000. The average resale price for all seats is $750.

A pay per view audience of 1 million, each spending $45, will watch in the US, and the show will be screened live in 51 other countries. In the UK, it will be carried on Sky Sports, following the collapse of Setanta. UFC, the firm that runs the show, was this year valued at $1 billion by Forbes.

After an eight-fight undercard, and Bisping's featured bout, the anniversary event will culminate in two title fights: a welterweight encounter between Canada's Georges St-Pierre and the hard-strinking Brazillian Thiago Alves, and a heavyweight match-up involving the uncompromising former WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar, and Frank Mir.