None of the cutting one-liners or the funny zingers will matter much anymore if Michael Bisping is unable to beat Cung Le on Saturday in Macau.
The UFC middleweight has been one of the sport’s key figures for the last seven years or so, at or near the top of both divisions in which he’s competed. He’s 24-6 and has yet to lose back-to-back fights. Four of the six losses on his record can, in some way, be questioned.
He’s been beaten by Rashad Evans, Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort and Tim Kennedy. Three of those opponents – Henderson, Sonnen and Belfort – were known users of testosterone replacement therapy when Bisping fought them. Sonnen recently received a two-year suspension for testing positive for five banned substances, including EPO and human growth hormone. The Nevada Athletic Commission is expected to lower the boom on Silva at a meeting Thursday for evading a surprise drug test in May.
As revelations came to light and suspicions mounted about Silva, Sonnen and, in particular, Belfort, Bisping had a built-in excuse for his losses. Few, if any, experts with credibility on the matter have suspected Henderson of cheating, despite his legal-at-the-time use of TRT.
Bisping would have you believe those four losses must be viewed skeptically. To a degree, he’s correct.
His split-decision loss to Evans in the main event of UFC 78 in 2007 was close, and disputed by Bisping, who believes he deserved the win. So that could at least be explained away.
But that brings us to Bisping’s one-sided loss to Tim Kennedy in April. Kennedy is probably the most vocal opponent of performance-enhancing drugs in the UFC. He’s never been under suspicion of cheating and would be regarded as one of the great hypocrites in UFC history were he ever to be caught, given his stance.
Kennedy dominated Bisping, using his wrestling to control him. Bisping was never in the fight.
Bisping can’t explain away that loss. And the truth is, a hard look at his record, despite all the wins, shows zero wins against anyone who ever fought for the title or was a top-five-ranked challenger.
His best wins are victories over Brian Stann and Alan Belcher.
He’s beaten a lot of quality fighters – every fighter who makes it to the UFC, even the poorest ones, are quality and among the best in the world at their jobs – but he hasn’t succeeded against the top tier. And to get a title shot, one needs to succeed against the top-tier opposition.
Bisping, at least publicly, seems to get it.
“This is a must-win fight for me,” Bisping, 35, said. “I have to prove to the UFC, I have to prove to the fans, and I have to prove to myself that I’m still an elite fighter who can go on, get some wins over contenders, and fight for the UFC title. My last fight against Tim Kennedy sucked. It was the worst performance of my life. Kennedy had a game plan to hold me down and he executed that game plan well. In hindsight, I should never have accepted a fight just seven weeks after getting cleared to return to the gym after my eye injury. Yes, I was anxious to get back in there and earn my first paycheck in over a year but, with hindsight, I needed several months in the gym getting rid of ring rust. Instead, I made a huge mistake in taking on a wrestler like Kennedy without putting the work in, and I paid for it.
“But I’ve never lost two in a row in my life, and I don’t plan to. I’ve been fighting high-level competition for the last six, seven years. But I don’t want to be one of the guys in the Top 10 who wins a few and loses a few. I want to be No. 1 and I want to fight for the UFC title. My back is against the wall in terms of making that happen. I need to win to prove that I’m not just some fighter with a name who is fighting here and there for paydays. My record over my last six fights is win one, lose one, win one, lose one, and that’s just not good enough for what I want to do in my career.”
He’s totally correct. It’s not good enough. He was brutally frank, as he usually is, though his comments about Kennedy holding him down are a bit of sour grapes. Wrestling is a part of MMA, just like kicking, punching and kneeing are, and to win a title, one has to be able to deal with wrestlers who want to control him on the ground. Surely, Bisping understands that if he’s to get a crack at the belt currently held by one-time college wrestling star Chris Weidman, his wrestling will have to be massively better than it was in the Kennedy fight.
Bisping has made a lot of money in the UFC and has become a favorite of UFC president Dana White for his willingness to fight anyone and his ability to sell a fight.
Trash talk, though, only works when one wins. Bisping hasn’t won two in a row since a 2011 win over Jason Miller gave him a four-fight winning streak.
If Bisping loses to Le, it will be two losses in a row and three defeats in his last four fights. In a division suddenly filled with legitimate contenders, a fighter with losses in three of his last four, an obvious weakness against wrestlers and no career wins over a top-five opponent will have a difficult time, at best, landing a title shot.
It’s hardly overstating matters to suggest that Bisping’s career is at stake in his match against Le on Saturday.
A loss would render him irrelevant and he’d have a lot of thinking to do about his future.
Bisping still sees himself as championship timber. For others to share that belief, he has no choice but to defeat Le.