Michael Bisping: ‘I despise that term. I’m not a cage fighter. I’m a martial artist’

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After a 20-year journey the controversial Bisping is the first British MMA fighter to win a UFC belt and he hopes to defend his title in Manchester, he tells Andy Bull

Sometime after he dropped out of college, Michael Bisping got a job in an upholstery shop. He did not like it any more than the other he had already quit at the slaughterhouse. But he had a wife and two young kids, so he took it anyway. Bisping has forgotten a lot of what went on. But some things have stuck, like a conversation he had with his boss, Mick. Michael, youre an intelligent man, what are you going to do with your life? Mick asked him one day. Bisping didnt have a ready answer. Well you should think about it, Mick said. Or do you want to work here in the factory for the rest of your life? So Bisping started thinking.

Hey Mick! Ive figured out what I want to be.

What?

A professional fighter.

Mick paused. Youre an idiot, he said. An absolute idiot.

Almost 20 years later, Bisping is in a suite at the Cafe Royal on Regent Street. The UFCs middleweight championship belt is by his side, leather and gold, heavy to lift, but a pleasure to hold. Bisping won the title on 4 June, when he beat Luke Rockhold at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Rockhold went in to the fight regarded as one of the finest fighters in modern martial arts, No3 in the pound-for-pound rankings. Bisping knocked him out with a left hook to the chin three minutes in. Afterwards, Rockhold admitted he had been overconfident. Because everyone wrote Bisping off like he had no chance. A little like Mick in the upholstery shop.

So after 12 years and 36 professional MMA fights, Bisping became the first Briton to win a UFC belt. And now he is planning to stage his first defence in Manchester, if the UFC agree. The organisations president, Dana White, has already indicated this is the intention with an announcement for UFC 204 expected imminently. Bisping says he hopes his victory in California will push the UFC to that next level in the UK, that it will bring a few more eyes to the sport, and hopefully inspire the next generation of fighters.

The title has come late to Bisping. He is 37, and was fighting in mixed martial arts before they had even coined the name. Back then in the early 90s people werent calling it MMA we called it Knockdown Sport Budo. He used to compete in gyms, sports halls, dingy working mens clubs, smoky places for purses of a few hundred quid. The win over Rockhold earned him $250,000. This feels, he says, like Ive finally got to the end of the rainbow.

Warm as he can be, Bisping would not necessarily be the man the UFC would pick to sell their sport to a mainstream audience. After the fight Bisping blew up in his press conference, called Rockhold a cocksucker, a pussy, and a faggot. He immediately added: I shouldnt have said that. Too late. The slur became the story, and the fallout overshadowed the fight. Bisping knows the question is coming, and offers me the same answer he has given everyone else who has asked: I massively regret what I said there, and I instantly addressed it at the time, he says. Im not homophobic in the slightest. I have lots of gay friends. So what do they think of his rank language? They know its not like Im a closet homophobe and it came out, Bisping says. Not at all.

The thing is, Bisping has previous. Its not the first time hes called an opponent a faggot. He once accused another of acting like a queer. He explains that when hes angry he falls back into the language he learned in the playground. Growing up that was a word we used to describe maybe just like a wimp, you know? he says. We were in the heat of the moment, and he was being very insulting towards me, and unfortunately that word came out. He apologises again. And again. And then finishes: I dont think there is much more I can say. Whether or not hes a homophobe, Bisping can certainly be a bully. Hes never had an opponent he has not cussed one way or another. It sometimes feels like he is playing the heel, saying anything to get under his opponents skin.

Bisping was born in Cyprus, on an army base. His father was a sergeant-major, and pretty strict. He grew up in Clitheroe, Lancashire, one of six siblings. Two went into the army and he almost joined them, thinking he could get on the boxing team, sharpen his skills while still earning a living, then turn pro. But he was always a better martial artist than he was a boxer. He started jujitsu when he was eight, and I became obsessed with it very, very quickly. I just absolutely loved it. It was only when the UFC started to take off in the early 2000s that he began to think he could make a living in martial arts. I never looked at it as a career, or a way to make money. But as the UFC was getting so much bigger there was real money on the line. So I came up with a plan.

That was when Bisping quit the upholstery shop and started to train full-time. Soon he was the best light-heavyweight in Britain. But his break came in 2006 when he was recruited for the UFCs reality TV show, Ultimate Fighter. They wanted a little international flavour, he says. To be honest I was brought in as a novelty, to make it a little different. And of course I ended up winning the thing. Stopped everybody. Knocked them all out. It was Bispings golden ticket. He spent the next decade as part of the UFCs supporting cast, a perennial top-10 contender who never got a title fight. A lot of people have said: How do you feel about the UFC not giving you a title shot sooner? he says. And I say: Well to be honest I dont blame them. He won plenty, but he lost a few big bouts too.

The remarkable thing about Bisping is that he kept going. A lot of people get up to the top of the pile, maybe get one No1 contender match-up, and if they lose they drift into obscurity, he says. I lost, and I went back a bit. But I built myself back up. Three times. has been around long enough to see the sport change. There was a time when he was embarrassed to admit he was a UFC fighter. He used to hate it when people asked: What do you do for a living? He would tell them he was an athlete, which would inevitably lead to the question: What kind of athlete? So I say: Oh well, Im, erm, UFC. And they say: Whats UFC? Anyway, It always comes down to the lowest common denominator: Oh, youre a cage fighter. I despise that term. Im not a cage fighter. I am a martial artist. And then people look at you like you are a lunatic.

Well, when you do look at Bisping, the first thing you notice is his right eye. The lids are narrow, the whites are dark, the pupil seems inert. It was permanently damaged in a 2013 defeat to the Brazilian Vitor Belfort. His retina detached after he took a roundhouse kick to the face. Listen, I can sit here and try and dress it up all I want, he says. But at the end of the day we are fighting. It is a vicious sport, Im not going to pretend it isnt.

Bisping has since had five rounds of surgery to fix it, and will have more once he has finally quit. He says he will have a couple of defences and then Ill probably call it a day. He is a happy man now. I want to be the best I can possibly be, I want to provide for my family, and I want to get the respect I deserve as a fighter. He feels he has finally achieved all three.

He looks again at the belt by his side. Its not the belt. The belt is great and it looks very impressive but it is what it symbolises: a lifetimes hard work, a lifetimes sacrifice, a lifetimes dedication. Literally blood, sweat and tears. It makes it almost worth it. I ask him whats driven him to go on so long. He stops, thinks, says: Im trying to put it as eloquently as I can. Some people are born for a certain thing. And for me, unfortunately, I wish it was something a bit more artistic or whatever, but I was a born fighter. Thats what kept me coming back. It makes me feel alive. And I just know, there is nothing I do better in this world than fight.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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