The Breakdown: Bisping vs Leben
Since he dropped to 185 lbs, Michael Bisping has racked up two impressive wins in as many fights, both by technical knockout in the first round. Add those wins to his 15-1 run at 205 lbs and ‘The Count’ is making some serious noise in his new division. If he wants to continue and begin whispers of a future title shot, he absolutely must beat Chris Leben at UFC 89 on Saturday night. And to do so, he must forget about his new-found 185-lb success and go back to his 205-lb fighting roots.
Even though Bisping’s 205-lb bouts rarely lasted beyond the opening round, he wasn’t a true one-strike knockout artist like some of the division’s homerun hitters, such as former champions Chuck Liddell and Rampage Jackson, or prospects James Irvin and Rameau Sokoudjou. He didn’t just walk into the cage and impose his will on opponents. He was more of a technical expert, who picked apart his foes with lightning-quick strikes on the outside until the opportunity presented itself for a high kick or flying knee that would bring the action to an abrupt end.
As a middleweight, however, Bisping is no longer the smaller man each night, so he doesn’t have to be as cautious with his opponents. He doesn’t have to worry as much about being caught in the clinch and overpowered to the ground. He doesn’t have to worry as much about getting badly hurt by a punch that is solid but fails to find the bulls-eye. He doesn’t have to worry about those things as much at middleweight because his opponents are 15, if not 20, pounds lighter than their light heavyweight counterparts.
Bisping, therefore, is more of a stalking super predator in his new found 185-lb home. He walks down his opponents like a homerun hitter, unafraid of what they have to offer in the form of resistance because he knows that his chin can take all but the cleanest shots from most middleweights and his return fire ranks up there with the most vicious and forceful in the division, aside from Anderson Silva, of course.
The problem on Saturday night, though, is that Leben is far from most middleweights on the feet. Silva is clearly in a class of his own in the standup arena, but Leben stands alone in second place as the most dangerous striker in the division. If Bisping decides to throw caution to the wind and get into a firefight with Leben, he is going to get knocked out—period.
Leben is the personification of a throwback fighter. He has more Doc Holliday than Kasparov in his DNA, preferring to plant his feet and fire furiously with both guns with little regard for his personal safety rather than slicing away at his opponent’s armor with scalpel-like precision while maintaining the strictest defense. Leben can fight that way because he is very comfortable in his own skin.
He doesn’t try to be someone he is not inside the cage. He doesn’t try to stick and move with opponents. He doesn’t try to dance around and make opponents miss while waiting for dazzling counter shots. Instead, he knows that his skull sports one of the sport’s thickest beards and his fists carry very real one-shot stopping power, so he fights with a pressure-first, all-offense style, forcing foes to take a stand and fight.
Saturday’s bout with Bisping is no different. ‘The Crippler’ knows that he cannot win a hunt-and-peck battle with the quicker, crisper Brit. If he allows Bisping to keep the fight on the outside, landing the jab or straight left hand with the occasional two-piece combination, he is going to get dominated on the judges’ cards. Leben needs to turn Saturday’s mixed martial arts contest into a repeat of the battle at the O.K. Corral if he wants to steal victory from his highly favored foe. And if he is able to do that, Leben is going to win by knockout.
That seems like a simplistic breakdown of the fight—one heavy on rhetoric and light on blueprints. But this fight isn’t about blueprints. It isn’t about Bisping leading with the right jab and circling to his left while waiting to counter off of Leben’s tell signs. It isn’t about Leben uncorking a left hand down the middle with malice aforethought the minute he sees Bisping raise his right shoulder and slightly cock his hand before throwing the jab.
Saturday’s fight isn’t that technical.
Bisping needs to remember what made him successful at light heavyweight. He didn’t go into those fights looking for knockouts. Instead, he fought, particularly in the opening round, like a hunt-and-peck stylist, firing jabs, quick one-two combinations and high kicks in isolation before moving out of harm’s way.
He should all but forget pressing for the knockout, even when Leben appears to be hurt because ‘The Crippler’ can fire fight-ending shots at any time—from the opening bell until the final seconds, regardless of whether he is fighting on sturdy legs or a pair of ice skates after getting badly rocked. That means Bisping needs to ignore jeers from his hometown crowd as they grow restless if he refuses to engage his foe in furious exchanges. He must stay on the outside, hunting and pecking his way to a decision victory.
Leben, on the other hand, must press forward at all costs, ala Mike Tyson circa 1988. He needs to bait Bisping into a firefight, feigning injury at times after being caught with a big shot and all the while focusing on cutting off the cage. He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that his odds of winning skyrocket if he can turn things into an old-fashioned gun fight.