Whisper it quietly, but Michael 'The Count' Bisping is, in fact, a pleasant and likeable kind of guy. Those around the Manchester middleweight contender know this to be true. Last opponent Dan Miller also discovered the extent of Bisping's warmth when the pair met in May. Despite this, the proud Brit chatterbox gets a bad rap from the many who pin their hopes on seeing him defeated.
Sure, he traded barbs with Dan Henderson and Wanderlei Silva and often displays an overwhelming sense of confidence, but this is the fight business, not finishing school. Now 31, Bisping isn't about to change anytime soon, yet he admits circumstance has forced him to mellow somewhat. Set to face another nice guy, Japan's Yoshihiro Akiyama, on October 16 in London, reformed 'bad guy' Bisping is left with no choice but to smile graciously.
“I want to really sell this fight and hype it up with a bit of needle and bad blood, but there's really nothing I can do or say,” said Bisping, with a laugh. “Akiyama is not giving me much ammunition and seems to be a very quiet and respectful guy. I can't just decide to start slagging him off and taking shots at him. That would be very unfair on the guy and wouldn't really reflect on me very well.
“I've not heard anything from him during the build-up to this fight. Believe me, if there was something I could claw on to, I'd grab it. All I can say is that I believe I'll knock him out. I'm allowed to say that as it's something I strongly believe will happen. I also think I'm the better fighter.”
Bisping offers no theories as to Akiyama's sudden peace treaty.
“He's obviously just knuckling down to training and getting on with it,” added 'The Count'. “I know he's training with Greg Jackson and his camp, so he's obviously taking it very seriously and realises what kind of threat I present him with. He's taken himself out of his comfort zone and moved to America to challenge himself.”
Futile attempts to climb inside the mind of his Japanese foe do nothing for Bisping's chances of winning the fight, of course. Both men are far too experienced to allow mind games to determine their destiny. Since losing to Henderson in 2009, the Widnes warrior has grown from strength to strength and rebounded with impressive scalps of Denis Kang and the aforementioned Miller. In fact, if we're talking mental make-up, Bisping's may now be as strong and impenetrable as it's ever been.
“In terms of my mindset right now, I'm more confident than I've ever been before,” assured Bisping, 20-3. “I've had my ups and my downs, but I now feel as if I know what I can achieve in this game. The Henderson loss was a bad setback for me at the time, but it was also probably the best thing that has ever happened to me and my career. That sounds like a cliché and something all fighters feel like they have to say, but I truly do believe that.
“I've now realised I've got a few weaknesses and a few things that need working on, and that loss made me concentrate hard on becoming the fighter I can be. It taught me a lesson and forced me to get better. Everything's coming together right now. I feel I'm one of the best wrestlers in the division, my boxing is fantastic, my jiu-jitsu has gone to the next level and my all-round game is so much improved.
“I'm not doing it on purpose, but most of the time I spar nowadays I end up dropping or knocking out the guy I'm sparring with. I'm not trying to knock them out or do it through bad intentions – it just happens. That's not something that used to happen during my sparring sessions, but I'm now planting my feet more, using better head movement, picking my shots more and believing in my striking.”
Bisping's striking certainly seemed much improved in May, when he picked, poked and prodded at Miller for three rounds at UFC 114. Not only did he lead the American on a merry dance around the eight sides of the Octagon, Bisping also appeared to be setting down on his shots more and punching with conviction. Scorecards redundant, Miller's battered and bruised face told the entire story of the fight.
“I think the Miller fight just showed how much I've matured as a fighter and how much more confident I am in my skills now,” recalled Bisping. “I've had a lot of experience now, and have been involved in some big fights and events, and all that experience helps you out and pushes you to a new level.
“I still believe I'm better than the fighters that have beaten me, and the only reason I lost was because I got up in the moment and made basic errors. I turned the page against Miller and I'm looking to continue this momentum by stopping Akiyama.”
Of course, were Bisping's forecast to ring true, the indefatigable Brit wouldn't be the first fighter to halt Akiyama inside the UFC. American slugger Chris Leben, a common opponent, outlasted and choked out Akiyama back in July, in a fight which was, arguably, the best of 2010.
Having already faced and defeated Leben in October 2008, Bisping was left with the choice of whether to go over old ground again two years later or draw battle lines with the defeated, but far more alluring Akiyama.
“I've been involved in this business for a long time and I know how it works,” explained Bisping. “It's easy to say this guy should fight that guy, but it doesn't always work out that way. Some fans don't understand how difficult the business can be sometimes. You've got to realise that some fighters are tied up, either through injury or other engagements.
“Knowing how the business works, a fight with Akiyama made a lot of sense from my point of view. A lot of my rivals had fights lined up at the time and I was keen to get a big fight in order to headline this London show. Nate Marquardt was busy, Chael Sonnen was given a title shot, and Wanderlei Silva was injured. I wanted a rematch with Wanderlei originally, but his injury prevented any chance of that happening. I would have fought Wanderlei if he had beaten Akiyama, but he couldn't go through with the fight and so my chance went.”
So Bisping settled for Akiyama, pointing to the fact that the Japan star had lost only once in five years and remained a marketable commodity.
“I'd already beaten Leben and didn't like the idea of the rematch being shoved down the throats of the English UFC fans,” he added. “The Akiyama fight seemed to make sense. OK, he lost to Leben, but he's still only lost one fight in five years and remains one of the best middleweights out there. He rarely gets beaten, he's always exciting – has won 'Fight of the Night' in his first two UFC appearances – and is a good character. I see the fight as a good challenge for me and a good stepping stone into the New Year.”
As well as making sense from a marketing point of view, a duel with Akiyama appeared to be the right kind of fight to inspire motivation, too. While Bisping was, of course, willing to fight whoever was put in front of him, he admits Akiyama excites in ways Leben couldn't, having already shared Octagon time with the Oregon southpaw.
“A fight with Akiyama is way more appealing than a Leben rematch would have been,” admitted the former winner of The Ultimate Fighter. “Don't get me wrong, Leben is an exciting fighter himself and has done tremendously to do what he's done recently. I've been there and beaten him once, though, and I wouldn't get the same satisfaction from doing it all over again. I won that first fight on all three scorecards by a margin of 30-27 and I've no doubt the rematch would be just as one-sided.
“If I was to headline this show against Leben again it would do nothing for my career and, to be honest, I'd be back in the exact same position I was two years ago at UFC 89. I want to feel like I'm moving forward with my career and Leben would be a backwards step at this stage. My plan is to beat Akiyama, fight one of the other top five contenders in the New Year and then get my shot at the title.”
So what of Akiyama, the beaten but selected next foe? The talented judo exponent is 13-2, 2 NC in his celebrated mixed martial arts career, and has so far competed in two of the most entertaining UFC tussles of recent years. He won a tight three-round decision over Alan Belcher last July and then swapped periods of momentum with Leben three months ago. Akiyama had Leben seemingly out on his feet at numerous intervals, only to later succumb to a see-it-to-believe-it, last-ditch triangle choke in the final knockings.
“He's a good power-puncher and he's got some nice knockouts on his record,” assessed Bisping. “He also has a dangerous uppercut and a nice box of tricks, including a spinning back-kick. He's a well-rounded fighter with a diverse striking style. He's an Olympic medalist in judo and is well-respected for his takedowns and grappling skills. You'd be a fool not to respect his judo talents and his hands. He's also got a good chin to go with all that.”
Although the Leben blueprint was a little sketchy, messy and improvised, Bisping believes he's seen enough of Akiyama, in both his first UFC loss and his narrow win over Belcher, to feel encouraged and confident heading into their October 16 match. With an opponent's weaknesses seemingly playing into his strengths, Bisping hopes to become the second man in succession to stop Akiyama, a fighter who'd previously suffered setback only once in half a decade.
“In terms of weaknesses, I don't think his stamina is the greatest, I'm bigger and stronger than him physically, and am definitely faster as an athlete,” said Bisping. “I also think I have got better boxing technique than him, despite the fact he's got a good uppercut and a couple of other nice shots.
“He seems to get tired and lose his shape as the fight goes along, and that's a bad thing to experience against a guy like me. He falls apart as the rounds tick by and his technique goes out the window a little bit. I need to maintain my own consistency and just make sure I'm capitalising on the mistakes he makes.”
Bisping's a changed man. Not only is he now offering only compliments and a courtesy, he's also looking to exchange cute for concussive once inside the Octagon. If his personality may have coincidentally softened in recent months, his fighting style is about to get cranked up all the way to eleven.
“I won't just be content to pepper him and make him pay,” added Bisping. “I want to put this guy away and get the stoppage. I'm really focusing on knocking Akiyama out on October 16. My punching power has gone through the roof, I've changed my style of fighting and I'm completely confident I'll knock Akiyama out. I've gone to a decision against both Wanderlei and Miller and feel the need to knock someone out. I'm not just looking for a stoppage, either. I want a knockout on my feet, just to stick it to those critics that say I've got no power.”
That's more like it. He'd done a good job of hiding it of late, but, rest assured, the fire within Michael 'The Count' Bisping still burns as fiercely and brightly as it's ever done.