Michael Bisping: ‘The challenge of coming back to grapple appeals to me’

Exclusive interview: UFC’s first ever British champion discusses retirement, commentary duties, and a potential return to competition

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Thursday 27 July 2023 07:58 BST
MMA fighter Tom Aspinall sings 'Sweet Caroline' at UFC London

Michael Bisping is, in his own words, “f***ing knackered”. As we sit in a long, vast hallway in a Canary Wharf hotel, it is 2pm local time. But Bisping, fresh in from the US, is mentally in another time zone completely.

The 44-year-old is in London to provide commentary for this weekend’s Fight Night at the O2 Arena, where – in two days’ time – Tom Aspinall will knock out Marcin Tybura in 73 seconds. In many minds, Aspinall is Britain’s next UFC champion. Bisping, though, will always be Britain’s first.

It has been seven years since the Lancashire fighter stunned Luke Rockhold on short notice to win their rematch, avenge a loss to the American, and take the middleweight title. And it has been six years since Bisping retired, following a loss to Kelvin Gastelum in Shanghai.

“It’s crazy, it doesn’t feel like that at all,” he says. “It’s flown by, to be honest, but I’m still very busy and very involved in the UFC, which I’m very grateful for. This company changed my life in so many of the best ways possible. Fighting in the UFC is a very tough career, but it opened so many doors for me. I’ll forever be grateful.”

Nowadays, Bisping’s main involvement with the UFC is at the commentary desk, where he can combine his charisma with insight from a Hall Of Fame career.

“I take it very seriously,” he says. “From the first fighter on the prelims to the main event, they all need the same amount of attention and respect. For those people making their debut, this is their main event. You have to be just as studious for them. I know I’m very jovial, sometimes silly – a little foolish – but I’m playing the part. I take it very seriously.”

During his fighting career, Bisping would often play the part of the ‘bad guy’. It was the sort of approach that saw some fans delight in his brutal knockout loss to Dan Henderson in 2009, seven years before Bisping outpointed his rival to retain the middleweight belt. Now, however, he is beloved, as is evidenced by fans’ interactions with the Briton at live events. That said, ‘fans’ isn’t a word that Bisping likes to use. “It’s never sat comfortably with me,” he explains. “I’m just a very normal guy from Clitheroe. Mixed martial arts is an incredible sport, but we’re fighters – not rockstars. I think the moment you start thinking like that, you need to give your head a bit of a wobble and have a chat with yourself.”

Bisping knocking out Luke Rockhold to win UFC middleweight gold in 2016 (Getty)

In his penultimate fight, versus welterweight icon Georges St-Pierre, Bisping again filled the role of the bad guy, against one of the nicest guys in MMA. “GSP” would submit Bisping to take the title, before retiring from the sport. Three weeks later, after losing to Gastelum, Bisping followed suit.

Now, the Briton is pondering following GSP back into action, as St-Pierre prepares to compete in the UFC Fight Pass Invitational jiu-jitsu tournament in December. “He was trying to train me and offer me to do it,” Bisping says. “I’m kind of considering it, to be honest. I have many injuries, but I can still grapple, and it’s pretty low risk on the body. If things aren’t going well, you can tap out at any time, and it’s not like there’s a world title on the line or I’m trying to build a career from it. But the challenge of coming back to a competitive realm is appealing to me, and I think the ‘fans’ would get a kick out of it...”

Bisping and GSP discussed the latter’s grappling venture on YouTube recently, in a much friendlier exchange than the ones that preceded their 2017 fight. “We’ve laughed about it many times, we’ve had many a dinner together,” Bisping says. “I’m happy and proud to call him a friend. I have so much respect for the man. I always did, we actually trained together for a long period in 2006, but that’s just the way I was; if someone was gonna fight me, I’d kinda take it personally.

Bisping and Georges St-Pierre after their UFC title clash in 2017 (Getty Images)

“Everyone deals with it in different ways, and of course I was playing the bad guy. You’re trying to sell pay-per-views, but I do build some animosity in my own mind until the fight’s done. Never has a harsh word spoken between us since then. The man really is one of the nicest, most fantastic human beings.”

Bisping, like St-Pierre, has often credited martial arts as a key factor in becoming a well-adjusted adult, and the former middleweight champion is not only in London for commentary duties but also to promote the city’s first UFC Gym, which will open later this year. Like the existing UFC Gyms in Nottingham and Woking, the space will offer martial arts classes, though it is not aimed at those purely wishing to get into fighting, he clarifies.

“Obviously I’m biased, but I think a mixed martial artist in prime condition is one of the best-trained athletes in the world. I think UFC Gym mirrors that, in terms of what we can offer with fitness. UFC Gyms are world-class fitness centres, and there’s a real vibrancy to them. They offer jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, kids’ classes, but they’re not necessarily aimed at people wanting to be fighters. I have a UFC Gym in California, it’s got every type of class you could imagine. It’s got yoga, circuit classes, weight training, cryotherapy, saunas.”

Has Bisping ever tried yoga? “I keep talking about starting, but I’m a little self-conscious!” he laughs. “I need to start, because my body is a little beat up after spending 20 years getting the crap kicked out of me. It’s on the agenda.”

Before long, a bit of grappling may be on the agenda, too.

Visit ufcgym.co.uk for more details.

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