Michael Bisping sits across from me. He is the most famous European UFC fighter. Whilst he is unable to walk down the street in the USA without attracting attention, in this London cafe he goes relatively unnoticed. He has been out of action, having torn his retina for around a year, and is just hours removed from having been given the all clear to fight Tim Kennedy. He is relieved.
“I’ve always remained positive through this recovery, but it’s been knock back after knock back. First it was the detached retina, then glaucoma then cataracts. It seems like every problem you can have with an eye, I had. When I went in to the appointment, I wasn’t letting myself get too excited and in the back of my mind was almost expecting not to be cleared. Fortunately I passed the eye exam and vision test, even though the vision in my right eye is still slightly impaired.”
It was midnight in America when Bisping came out of the appointment and so he had to sit on the news a while longer.
“I called my mum and family, but I wanted to call my manager and Dana White. As the day went on, I started getting phone calls anyway so I didn’t have to wait that long. Before I knew it, Twitter had exploded and it was all over the web without me really telling too many people. I’m a happy man.”
Bisping, as a top five fighter in the middleweight division and an outspoken figure, has always elicited a rise from competitors. Whilst he was out of action and hence an easy target, multiple fighters called him out, none more so than his next opponent; ex US Army member, Tim Kennedy.
“This guy has been calling me out for four years now, and to be honest I’ve never even laid eyes on him. I’m only accepting this fight because it’s obviously got a level of fan interest now and also I’ve been out of the Octagon for a year. It’s a tune up for me. He’s a top 10 opponent, but this is a step up for him and after this I’ll be on to bigger and better things.”
Bisping was due to fight in Manchester in October, and will just miss out on the March event at the O2 with his fight due to take place April 16th.
“Fighting in England for me is the height of my career. It really is. I was so excited to fight in Manchester as it’s my home city and it was devastating to have to pull out. I knew after that, I wasn’t going to be back until April though so London was never going to be an option for me. Fighting at the O2 Arena would have been a dream, but it wasn’t to be. I’ll be there doing some broadcasting, but I’ll be focussed on my training at that point.”
When Bisping first started training MMA, it was very new and not widely known. I wanted to find out how he got into the sport at such an early stage.
“I started learning jiujitsu when I was eight-years-old. I had a lot of success and won ever competition I even entered. It was never going to be a job as MMA and the UFC didn’t exist. My dad would drive me all over the country to train with certain people. I’d get home at 2am and have to go to school hours later. It took a lot of dedication, but I probably should have focused more on school work. I went to college and did advanced electronically engineering, not really knowing what I wanted to do. It bored me to death so I dropped out. Another mistake. I became miserable taking any job I could. It was at this point that I considered MMA with the rise of Pride and UFC. An old coach told me I had potential, and I started training. Everybody thought I was crazy. Now here I am.”
Bisping has been at the helm of European MMA for nigh on a decade.
“I’m very proud of it. I’m sat here with a PR lady and being interviewed and being entertained by executives from learned and experienced sporting backgrounds. When I train for a fight, I train in a morning and in an evening and in between I’m doing interviews and I love it. Seeing where the sport is now, not saying it’s down to me at all, but I’ve played a part.
"I get recognised here now, but I can’t go five steps in America without it. It’s up there with all of the main sports there. It’s a sign of the growth of the sport.”
Bisping was the first non American to win UFC’s Ultimate Fighter reality TV show. Not all past winners have gone on to be successful in the UFC. With Bisping being one of those that has gone on to succeed, I asked why.
“We have just had an English runner up in the last show called Davey Grant. He’s a lovely guy and he’s very dedicated. It’s hard to see him as a fighter because he is so nice but I was blown away when I first saw him in the gym. When I saw him in the Ultimate Fighter, I knew he’d do well. He’s got a very bright future.
"There’s been a lot of seasons of the show now and not everyone who wins it can go on to be successful. It’s hard.”
For anyone who doubts the professionalism needed to be a successful UFC fighter, they need look no further than Bisping for proof to the contrary.
“I have a boxing coach, a kickboxing coach, a wrestling coach, a jiujitsu coach, a strength and conditioning coach, a sports psychologist a nutritionist. For anybody to think that this sport is 2 idiots getting into a cage and swinging at each other wildly is ludicrous. This is big business. You have to be highly highly dedicated to compete at this level.”
Not long ago, Bisping was knocked out brutally with a spinning head kick by top middleweight title contender Vitor Belfort. Belfort has come under scrutiny by many because of his use of Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT). The use of TRT is currently legal with the necessary exemption, however highly controversial. It has helped Belfort rediscover his prime at the ripe age of 36. Bisping has been very outspoken against the use of TRT.
“It massively affected our fight. It doesn’t affect him on the night, but all the way through training. It still affects me to this day because all of my eye problems resulted from the head kick I took from Vitor Belfort. It was after that fight I began to get the symptoms of my detached retina. If he wasn’t on TRT could he have thrown that kick with quite so much velocity? Who knows.
"At the end of the day we’re not trying to put a ball through a hoop, it’s a fight and we’re trying to finish our opponent. Fortunately it’s looking like it’s coming to an end and a ban will be implemented. These guys using TRT are currently acting within the rules. I don’t agree with it but it isn’t illegal.”
In the fight for mainstream sport acceptance in the UK, Bisping has been invited to attend BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in the past. Though he was told he came 11th at one point, he’s never been on the main voting shortlist.
“The BBC doesn’t cover the sport, so it’s not going to happen yet. Darts players get recognition and we don’t. Hopefully one day we see one of my peers in there."
Bisping is a family man and has three children with his fiancé. He gets married in May.
“99 per cent of the women out there, if their partner came home and said they were quitting work and moving city because they wanted to be a professional fighter…. They would have stopped them or left. My fiancé always supported me and if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here now.”
When asked about the camaraderie between UFC fighters, Bisping recounts a story from the weigh-in before his fight with Chael Sonnen.
“I was expecting the worst, because he is a known trash talker. He was the ultimate gentleman. We’d be on conference calls with each of us in our hotel rooms and in between speaking with the reporters he’d just be chatting away with me. We were squaring off after the weigh in trying to look mean and he just asking me what cologne I was wearing because of how awesome I smelt. I nearly burst out laughing. We had a great fight and now we’re great friends. This is martial arts… It all goes back to discipline, respect and character.”
UK fight fans can be thankful to have Michel Bisping spearheading the sport of MMA. He is entertaining in fight build up but backs it up with his performances in the ring. After meeting him for the first time I was struck by how genuine he was as a person, how intelligent, how happy he was to answer any question I threw his way. Bisping is back. I recommend you tune in!