Eight years ago, at UFC 83, Michael “The Count” Bisping scored a first round victory over Charles McCarthy in his middleweight debut for the promotion. And his journey toward Anderson Silva was underway.
This Saturday, in what is undoubtedly the biggest fight in UFC FIGHT PASS history, Michael Bisping will put his 17-0 unbeaten record on UK soil to the test against “The Spider,” a battle of continents and legends that has been the Brit’s destiny since he first stepped into the Octagon.
After a technical knockout of Josh Haynes crowned him the light heavyweight champion of The Ultimate Fighter 3, Bisping scored three wins over Eric Schafer, Elvis Sinosic and Matt Hamill to establish himself in the 205-pound bracket. A split decision loss to Rashad Evans -- a man who would go on to be crowned champion of the division -- prompted the Brit to move down to middleweight.
At that stage, a certain spectacular Brazilian was already tightening his grip on the stranglehold he held on the 185-pound bracket.
A month before Bisping took on McCarthy in his middleweight debut, Anderson Silva defended his UFC middleweight title for the third time and unified the Pride welterweight strap against the biggest test of his career, Dan Henderson. The victory only added to an abundance of respected voices that heralded “The Spider” as the greatest of all time.
While Bisping respected the champion of his new division, even back then he considered Silva a “beatable” counterpart.
“My opinion of him then was that he was a great fighter, of course,” Bisping remembers. “He was the unified champion and what not, but I always saw him as a beatable opponent. Even back then I felt like my skills matched up very well with his.”
After his win over McCarthy, Bisping finished Jason Day in one round to the delight of a frenzied London crowd. In Birmingham four months later, The Count added to his unbeaten record at home with a unanimous decision victory over famed brawler Chris Leben. Bisping was steadily marking himself out as contender, but when asked by Joe Rogan if he believed the win was enough to secure him a date with Silva after his dispatch of “The Crippler”, the Englishman told the commentator that he didn’t feel he was ready.
Unsurprisingly, the uncharacteristic answer from Bisping was weighted with some privileged information.
“To be honest, I knew that after that fight, if I won it, I would be coaching The Ultimate Fighter’ against Dan Henderson. So I knew the title fight wasn’t on the cards after Leben. When I think about it now, I’ve grown so much as a fighter over the years, I was probably right when I said that,” Bisping admits.
While it was Rogan asking Bisping about a title shot at UFC 83, it was the Englishman who had the task of separating himself from the talented field that chased Silva.
On three occasions during the iconic Brazilian’s seven-year reign, Bisping fought for the honor of facing him. Beaten each time by men who were under the influence of the now-banned testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) -- Henderson, Chael Sonnen, and Vitor Belfort -- you can’t help but wonder if a date with Silva might have come earlier under the UFC’s new and rigorous testing regime.
The ever-game and determined Bisping never gave up on his pursuit of the man who is considered one of the sport’s all-time greats, though.
It seems Silva testing positive for two banned substances at UFC 183 hit a nerve with Bisping. During the event’s conference call, Bisping claimed that all athletes who use PEDs are “cowards,” but according to the UFC London main eventer, his words weren’t prompted by his previous losses to fighters who were legally competing with TRT exemptions.
“What fueled my words on the conference call was the fact that he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in his last fight,” Bisping explains. “It was a relevant point. I couldn’t get over his arrogance when I heard that he took offense to me bringing that up. We had a fight lined up at the time of the call, he was thoroughly suspended at the time of the call. Call me a cynic, but that’s very relevant.”
Chris Weidman shocked the world with his second round KO of Silva to end the Brazilian’s tenure as champion in July 2013. For Bisping, whose unrelenting pursuit of Silva had started five years before, it was hard to see another man topple the former middleweight king.
“I can’t lie, there certainly was a feeling of ‘That should’ve been me’, when Chris beat Anderson. As far as I was concerned, Weidman had a very easy route to the title shot,” he says, bluntly. “Don’t get me wrong, he beat a couple of decent fighters along the way. He beat Tom Lawler and he beat some guy called Jesse Bongfeldt – whoever the hell he is.
“Then he beat Mark Munoz when Munoz was coming back after a long layoff. Mark looked terrible in the fight. Then he fought Damien Maia in what is the worst fight you could ever see. After that he sat out with an injury and when he came back he got a title shot. I didn’t understand that then and I don’t understand it now.”
Although the title is gone, Bisping admits the legend of Silva remains. Finally, The Count will get a chance to prove that he can get the better of the man who holds the record for the most UFC title defenses of all time.
“Is the legend still there? Yes and no. I respect what he’s done in the Octagon,” Bisping says of Silva. “The guy is a legend for what he has achieved, but I can’t look at him as a legend. I can’t walk into the Octagon thinking, ‘I’m fighting this amazing legend.’
“I’ll be looking at him thinking: ‘I’m fighting yesterday’s news, I’m fighting a guy who can’t compete anymore, I’m fighting a guy (that) has cheated his whole career and I’m fighting a guy who is just coming off a suspension. I’m fighting a guy who has fought once in the last two years and he’s fighting a guy who has been busy fighting the best in the world. I’ve been doing that consistently, time after time, and I’m going to f***ing destroy this guy.’”
Bisping’s pursuit of the title will not stop with a win over the former champion. As far as he is concerned, a rematch with Luke Rockhold is very much on the cards and he believes he can be the UFC’s middleweight champion by this time next year.
“Obviously Weidman and Rockhold are having a rematch, which it thought was curious matchmaking at best, but hopefully I beat Anderson and then I get to fight Rockhold,” he says. “Rockhold will beat Weidman again, and hopefully I will get to fight him again down the line.
“I’ll get that rematch, he won’t head butt me this time and split my eye wide open. The blood won’t be going straight into my eye and blurring my vision. This time next year I will be the world middleweight champion. It’s that easy.”
Peter Carroll is a longtime MMA journalist who writes for the Irish Mirror, FIGHTLAND and SevereMMA.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PetesyCarroll