The first-ever Pride champion vs. UFC champion showdown with Dan Henderson vs. Quinton Jackson may end up as the biggest MMA fight on free television this year. But in London, where the event takes place on Saturday, it is not Henderson or Jackson most fans are coming to see.
Michael "The Count" Bisping of Liverpool, England, is the biggest draw on the show, and considered the prime reason for an expected sellout of around 15,000 fans at the 02 Arena. He's the company's top commodity in its attempts to expand the brand throughout Europe, with fame coming off winning the light heavyweight championship during the third season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show.
With a 14-0 record (and no matches going the distance) in a sport where that kind of an unbeaten streak is a rarity, the question is being asked, "Just how good is Michael Bisping?"
It's a tough question to answer, because he's never had to face a top-ranked opponent. His paper stats are great. Ten first-round finishes, ten KOs or TKOs, and four submissions. He's only once been taken to the third round.
Saturday's match, billed as "The Ultimate Fighter final you didn't see," pits him against a strong wrestler in Matt Hamill, which has a story behind it as both were teammates under coach Tito Ortiz during Ultimate Fighter's most highly rated season. They appeared to be looming toward a showdown. Bisping was the superior striker, and Hamill, a three-time NCAA Division III national champion best known for overcoming being deaf, was shown in clips throwing people around in practice, while Ortiz fawned all over him because he felt he had superstar potential.
During the show, Bisping felt miffed at what he thought was preferential treatment. More than a year later, it's Bisping that has become the breakout star out of that show, becoming one of the most popular fighters, even in the U.S. Hamill has remained unbeaten, but his style isn't crowd-pleasing and because of it, his inspiring story of a man who overcame a handicap hasn't taken hold as much as Ortiz probably figured it would.
But the showdown on the show never happened. Hamill was throwing his teammates around in practice, with grumbling that he was being reckless in doing so, and always going 100 percent when coaches were saying to go 75 percent. As a receipt, Bisping, in practice, caught him in an armbar and held it tight, injuring Hamill's left elbow right before he had a fight scheduled. At another point in practice, Hamill was knocked out by a kick from Kendall Grove. Hamill went into his first fight on the television show as a one-armed fighter, and didn't even try to use his wrestling, and scored a sloppy decision win in a stand-up fight that saw him get tagged several times, and wound up with him in the hospital and unable to continue in the tournament. Bisping walked through the competition like a hot knife through butter, although Hamill would have likely posed his toughest threat had he not been injured.
Since winning the show, Bisping has become one of the most popular fighters in the organization, but it was never more evident than in his win over Elvis Sinosic on April 21 in the UFC's first foray into Europe with a show in Manchester, England. While he stopped the Australian fighter in the second round, he was knocked down by a knee to the chin and Sinosic nearly had him with a Kimura submission. That brief sequence seems to have grown in importance as time has marched on, when coupled with him also being rocked on a TUF match against smaller countryman Ross Pointon.
But that ignores that Bisping came back from being stunned and quickly won both fights. Bisping destroyed Sinosic virtually the entire first round, and was very close to stopping him. After the momentary setback, Bisping reversed things in round two and finished Sinosic immediately. But that one knee strike has made people question if he's as good as his record — and his hype — as the face of the sport in his native country.
Hamill, 5-0, has campaigned for the match for some time, including Bisping saying it would be a step backward in his career to take the match. Bisping made fun of the fact Hamill's last match wasn't even televised because even though he has name recognition from the show, his style isn't crowd-pleasing, and he felt Hamill hadn't earned a ticket to a match near the top of the card. But the UFC saw it as a perfect showcase match for Bisping's London debut. It's a grudge match, but it does pose risks for Bisping, because if Hamill can take control with his wrestling, he can neutralize Bisping's strengths and make him look bad in the process, in what would have to be considered the most important fight of his career.
It's a simple match to handicap. If it stays standing, Hamill has little chance, and Bisping would likely give the audience an entertaining and explosive-style win. But Hamill is coming off a win over former Ohio State University wrestling legend Rex Holman, and he used his style of takedown and ugly ground-and-pound to finish a guy who is going to be better than Bisping, at least on paper, in avoiding getting taken down. In Hamill's recent fights, the wins haven't been pretty, but they've been one-sided nonetheless. He claims to be a different fighter today, having cleaned up his punching techniques on the ground. Still, his strategy is to get the takedown, and simply control and maul on the ground. Bisping's is to make Hamill work for the takedown so he tires as the fight goes on, or better yet, avoid going to the ground as much as possible. But he doesn't fear the ground.
"If Matt gets me to the ground, I'm going to submit him, or get back to my feet," said Bisping, who did much of his training in Big Bear, Calif. in the same camp with Jackson and Brandon Vera.
Bisping said it's not hard to figure out Hamill's strategy and every time he comes in for a takedown, he's going to be met with a kick, a knee or a punch to the face.
But even with a win, the questions about where Bisping truly stands when it comes to the top dogs in the light heavyweight division are still not likely to be fully answered.