Fast fists and smart lips

Mixed martial arts pro Michael Bisping left behind a life of menial work and boozed-up scrapping for a new one in the Sunshine State

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On his most recent visit to see family and friends in Clitheroe, Michael Bisping drove past his old watering hole the King’s Arms and cried out: “Yes!” The Ultimate Fighting Championship had given him everything he never knew he wanted – and more – and he realised he’d left his life in the Lancashire town behind.

Now a retired fighter at 42, Bisping lives in California with his wife and three children. He doesn’t dislike his hometown but moving made his life vastly better.

‘I thought the angriest version of myself made me better but I needed to be cool, calm and collected’

“I was going out to the States to go to the training camps because a lot of the best fighters in the world were based there. The training environment back home was deteriorating, my management were stealing money from me and my wife was miserable where we were,” he explains on a Zoom call from his home office.

It’s here that he now hosts a regular mixed martial arts (MMA) podcast, between shifts providing colour commentary for Stateside UFC fights, in his familiar but still jarring Lancashire burr. Against a backdrop of artwork depicting the fighter proudly wielding a Union Jack in a moment of post-win glory, the former UFC middleweight world champion is a generous and down-to-earth interviewee. His California lifestyle hasn’t stripped him of any of his northern warmth.

“I remember, I was out in Newport Beach, California. I had just done jujitsu and I was by the side of the ocean, having breakfast at a café. I was like, wow, look at this – this is beautiful. And this guy goes: ‘Welcome to my life.’ I thought, yeah, I’ll have a bit of that. We booked a flight for the next week and we said, if we don’t like it, planes go both ways.”

He hasn’t looked back since he moved in 2011. “I love Clitheroe, where I’m from. It’s a beautiful town but there’s a big world out there, so you might as well see some of it before you die.”

Bisping was born on a Cypriot army base to a military father, but the family soon moved to Lancashire.

“I was a scrapper,” he says, recalling a childhood in what he describes as an explosive household. “If it wasn’t my mum and dad, it was my older brothers giving me a good hiding. There shouldn’t be any violence but it was what it was. Growing up the way I did, it was only natural that I ended up getting into a few fights here and there. That’s kind of all I saw.”

Bisping channelled his frequent roughhousing into martial arts from a young age. “I did a lot martial arts and I loved it. My dad, he was always proud. He was always going to the local newspapers saying ‘He’s won this competition, he’s won that tournament’ so I’d be in the newspaper a lot. When I started going uptown to drink there’d be some idiots saying: ‘Oh, here he comes, the Kung Fu Kid.’ Then I got into a few
more scraps.”

After leaving school at 16 he flitted from one job to another. Nights out soon became his priority and Bisping’s enthusiasm for martial arts diminished.

“I never liked the work but at 16 you think earning £120 a week is great. Then you get older, you meet your partner, you have children – suddenly you realise money doesn’t go very far.”

Bisping and his now wife, Rebecca, had their first and second children in their early twenties and he needed to hold down his job as an upholsterer. But his boss – “a lovely fella” – could tell he wasn’t happy.

“‘Michael,’ he said. ‘You seem like a pretty smart lad. Is this what you really want to do for the rest of your life?’ I said: ‘No. With the greatest respect, I don’t want to do it for another month if I can help it!’ He said to me: ‘Well, give it some thought, because you’re not getting any younger and, before you know it, opportunities will have passed you by.’”

He’d wanted to join the army where his dad told him he’d able to focus on sport, like boxer Nigel Benn had done. “Unfortunately, I had got nicked a couple of times when I was a kid, so even the army wouldn’t have me! That was just rock bottom for me. I couldn’t even get accepted by the army. What had I done with my life?”

Bisping celebrates after his first round knockout win against Luke Rockhold in 2016 (Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty)

Bisping tracked down his old sensei, who told him about the fast-growing sport of MMA and its main promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Its high-profile athletes have now become household names. Luminaries such as notorious Irish featherweight Conor McGregor and current middleweight champion Israel Adesanya combine prowess inside the ring with a keen ability to hype up fights with their infamous trash talking – something Bisping had already been doing for most of his life.

“I think it’s the way I’ve always been – just a bit of a smart arse. I don’t take myself too seriously. I always have too much to say and try to crack a silly joke, and that crossed over into my fighting.”

After committing to fighting full time, Bisping quickly worked his way through the British circuit, amassing numerous belts in the light heavyweight division. After two years as pro, he auditioned for The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality show, designed to find the next big thing in MMA – and Bisping’s big break.

The first British fighter in the series, he made his mark with his smart mouth and sarcasm. He won the finale, at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas in 2006, and prize money of $24,000. After the fight he was told that UFC president Dana White wanted to speak to him.

“I was like, holy shit, what have I done now? I always think I’m in trouble,” he laughs. White handed him a cheque for $80,000. “I sprinted up the MGM Grand’s stairs right up to the nosebleeds where my wife was sitting. It makes me emotional just talking about it because she had suffered so much. I remember one night before I had even had a fight, she was crying her eyes out to me about money. She said: ‘We can’t cope like this, Michael’ and I replied: ‘I’m going to book a fight and make some money – I promise.’ I finally got to the top of the stairs and showed her the cheque. ‘I told you, babe. I told you’. That was a special moment for me.”

Bisping went on to fight frequently for UFC and coached a team of up-and-coming British hopefuls on The Ultimate Fighter in 2009.

“MMA had started off predominantly in the USA and Brazil so they wanted to raise awareness and encourage it in the UK. I think they liked my sense of humour, but they edited a lot of footage in the show. They wanted to portray me as the British bad guy, so after a while I started playing up to it. You want a British bad guy? I’ll give you a British bad guy.”

His team won the competition and Bisping’s stock went up but he’d been in the promotion for 10 years before he got his chance to fight Luke Rockhold for the world middleweight title when the two contenders ahead of him in the queue had to pull out through injury. With just two weeks to prepare, he had to lose 30lbs to make the 185lb limit. But the fight was over, amid a barrage of Bisping’s punches, by the first round.

“It felt very, very good. The sacrifices my wife and family had made, all the support from Great Britain, and of course being the first British champion as well – it was a huge, huge deal. The intro to my podcast is the shot of Dana White wrapping that belt around my waist with my family behind me. Every time I see it, it fills me with pride.”

Bisping’s podcast, Believe You Me, tackles MMA and beyond, his signature humour bolstered by the patter of co-host and New York stand-up Louis J Gomez.

“I was doing a radio show for Sirius FM with him and we had a good vibe, but Sirius FM don’t pay well so Louis said: ‘Mike, we could make more money doing this as a podcast.’ Four years later, it’s doing very well and I love it.”

He has also landed a position commentating on UFC with Fox Sports.

“I was trying to set up a life for myself after fighting because I knew the writing was on the wall. I knew I was going to get rumbled at some point,” says Bisping of a secret he’d harboured until 2017: for the last four years of his UFC career, he had been fighting with vision in just one eye.

Back in 2013, Brazilian Vitor Belfort landed a flush kick to the side of Bisping’s face, detaching the retina in his right eye. Even after surgery, scar tissue formed and he lost the sight in the eye. Adding insult to injury, Belfort had been caught with elevated testosterone earlier in his career and it was widely speculated that he was still doping during the fight. But Bisping does not hold any animosity towards him.

“It’s not completely his fault but he was the catalyst and he did set the wheels in motion. I have no regrets though – it is what it is.”

With frequent testing for fighters, Bisping believes MMA has cleaned up its act, as best it can, when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. And while he lost a number of contests to fighters who eventually got caught out during his time in the octagon ring, he never blamed others.

“Every time I lost I would take a look at myself and figure out what I was doing wrong. I was far from the finished article. I made physical tweaks bit by bit but I found it was my mental approach that needed to change. I always thought the angriest version of myself made me a better fighter but really I needed to be cool, calm, collected and present in the moment. I only really figured that out for the last couple of years of my career.”

After a scare concerning his good eye, Bisping called time on fighting in 2018, when he was 39. Now he says he will use the one skill he’s always had besides his powerful fists – his gift of the gab. His An Evening With… tour this autumn will combine tales from his fighting career and questions from the audience.

“I was in Toronto and an agent friend suggested I should do a one-man show in the city. I was nervous at first but thought screw it, I’ll do it. It was a sold-out crowd and everyone laughed their heads off.” Now travel restrictions could allow it, Bisping is keen to bring the show to home turf, with Gomez opening for him.

“I’ve got some pretty funny stories to tell about my life,” he says, grinning broadly through his computer screen, before adding: “I’m still blagging it. I’m still getting by day by day – so far so good. I never thought any of this would ever happen.

“The biggest highlight of my life is my wife and kids – my family. I know that’s a boring answer, but it’s true! They are why I do it. They are what fuel me. They are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. I never rested on my laurels. Even when I started making money, I thought the bubble would pop and I’d be back clocking into a factory somewhere – that’s what kept me working so hard.

“I have no idea where this ship is sailing to next but, if it’s anything like the last 10 years, I’m going to be very happy.”

An Evening With Michael Bisping: Tales From The Octagon is at Manchester O2 Apollo on 8 October

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