Manchester Evening News
MICHAEL Bisping is mobbed if he walks down the Strip in Las Vegas. His face will be on the cover of a new computer game and an action figure will be on sale in Woolworths next year. Yet, until recently, he could stroll down Manchester’s Market Street with his family largely unrecognised.
That is all beginning to change, as mixed martial artist Bisping is set to ride the crest of a wave which has already swept away boxing as the number one combat sport in the US.
Son Callum - as is the way with kids - is distinctly unimpressed with daddy’s trans-Atlantic stardom but the idea of being able to buy an action figure of him aroused some interest. “He had better be impressed!” laughs Bisping.
The down-to-earth lad from Clitheroe is already on his way to superstardom in the tough world of the Ultimate Fighting Championships muscling in on the Americans and Brazilians who dominate the sport.
UFC has come a long way from the days when it was almost hounded out of existence - castigated as brutal and inhumane by politicians, doctors and assorted do-gooders.
Since then, it has re-invented itself as a sport rather than a bloodlust spectacle with the emphasis on skill and strength.
Cleaned up by a list of 36 no-nos, which prohibit dangerous and unsightly tactics like gouging, groin shots, head-butting and stamping, it now attracts bluechip sponsors such as Budweiser and Harley Davidson.
The result is a heady mix of punches, flying kicks, knee attacks and wrestling with fighters able to earn big bonuses for exciting fights.
“We have never had a death or even a serious injury,” says UK spokesman Ant Evans, who claims that the aim is to force an opponent to submit or for a swift KO which lessens the chances of the kind of brain damage suffered by boxers.
Bisping is the front man for the UFC’s renewed assault on the UK and headlines the next event in Birmingham on October 18 which is heading towards a 10,000-capacity sellout.
Bisping is big in the States. A 60ft billboard of him gazes over New York’s Times Square, and his last fight - a first round stoppage of Canadian Jason Day in June - attracted a US TV audience of eight million.
But he remains unmoved by the adulation. He splits his time between his Lancashire home, the Wolfslair mixed martial arts gym in an industrial unit in an unseemly corner of Widnes and the sunshine of California.
“These days I do get stopped when I go shopping with my wife Becky in Manchester, or anywhere in this country, but it’s just people wanting a picture or autograph, or just to shake my hand,” he says.
“But it’s not about me being famous, but about the growth of the sport - it has taken off in a big way in the last couple of years.
“When it first started out, it was marketed in the wrong way. These days it is a legitimate sport with rules and regulations. The stigma that used to be attached to it has pretty much gone in America, and it is getting a lot better over here.”
Training alongside him in Widnes is another big UFC star, Quinton `Rampage’ Jackson from Memphis, who is waiting to hear if he has landed the part as the new BA Baracus in the planned Hollywood re-make of The A Team, alongside George Clooney and Jim Carrey.
US fans have a scant regard for British boxers, but Bisping has demanded respect from day one and boasts a record of 16 wins from 17 bouts - his sole defeat a contentious split decision.
It has been a long road since his school days at St Augustine’s School in Billington to his place as a household name - at least among the under-35s.
“I started martial arts as an eight-year-old, but I loved anything competitive and physical, like boxing and rugby,” he says.
“I did well at ju-jitsu and kick-boxing as a teenager, and won British and world titles, but as I got older I never dreamed I could make a living out of it.
“I drifted into all kinds of jobs - in factories, a slaughterhouse, as a tiler, postman, plasterer and even as a DJ on the north west club circuit.
“I ended up working as an upholsterer and hating it, had two kids and a mortgage and was not making much money so I decided to turn to boxing.
“I started training in Nottingham, and slept in my car during the week and travelled home to see my family at weekends.”
With his career going nowhere fast, Bisping got in touch with one of his old ju-jitsu coaches, Paul Lloyd-Davies, in Manchester.
Lloyd-Davies told him about the emergence of UFC and that there was big money to be made at the top of the tree, and Bisping’s interest was aroused.
He took the leap, and was an instant hit. A series of domestic victories earned a place in The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series - although US broadcasters subtitled his interviews as they found his broad Lancashire accent unfathomable!
His exciting, attacking style has made him a firm favourite and a couple more wins - beginning in Birmingham - will put him in line for a shot at the unified middleweight champion Anderson Silva, of Brazil.
With that is likely to come millionaire status and sporting superstardom… on both sides of the Atlantic.
Remember this is an English paper and it's rare for them to print stuff. Happy he's getting exposed to the fickle fans in the UK.