Very few modern day sportsmen embody the ‘never say die’ ethos, quite like Britain’s most successful exponent of mixed martial arts, Michael Bisping.
Having started training in the arts at the tender age of eight, by 15 he was fighting in his first no holds barred competition. He worked his way up through the fledgling UK MMA scene before earning a spot on the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter TV series, which he duly won along with a coveted contract.
From there he rode a rollercoaster of sensational victories peppered with a handful of devastating defeats all culminating in Bisping finally accomplishing his dream of becoming the first-ever British UFC world champion in 2016 after taking out Luke Rockhold.
As one of the best talkers in the business and never short of a story or two it’s no surprise Michael’s autobiography Quitters Never Win is as gripping and as candid as you might expect.
It takes us from his youth as he learns to fight, through to his incredible Hall of Fame UFC career via shocking stories that helped forge his character, like the time a masked man tried to kill him when he was seventeen.
We sat down with Michael for a no holds barred chat about his storied career, including his toughest opponent and how he felt finally winning the championship he’d craved so much.
The MALESTROM: Firstly it’s a fantastic book. There’s not much of sense though of what those early years were like when you ended up pursuing martial arts. Perhaps tell us a bit about that?
Michael Bisping: There’s not much to tell really. I always enjoyed martial arts and martial arts movies. I remember Rocky quite vividly from a young age as well. But basically my brother started going and I tagged along, there’s no real big story there.
I remember at the end of every jiu-jitsu class we’d get the boxing gloves on and basically have a tear up and that’s what kept me going back week after week, I just loved that side of it.
TM: You were very dedicated to Martial Arts though right?
MB: Oh yeah, absolutely, I was totally obsessed. It was all I cared about when I was younger, and my old man was kind enough to help by driving me all over the country to take me to tournaments and he did whatever he could to support me.
TM: The story in the book about that stopover in Bali on route to your first international tournament in New Zealand sounded mad with you sort of stranded dragging around all those bags and finding yourself in mad situations, it could almost be a book in itself…
MB: Yeah, yeah that’s a couple of days that I choose to forget, but looking back now you can laugh about it, but, at the time it was a bloody nightmare. The story’s actually a fair bit longer than that but we whittled it down, but yeah it was a bit of a nightmare my friend!
TM: You were also big into your DJing back in the day, which a lot of people might not know, what were your go-to records?
MB: Yeah, it was a lot of house and trance music, all that type of stuff that was my go-to music. When I was younger I used to spend all my money on records, going looking for rare records up and down the country. It’s obviously very different these days, you just Google it and it turns up on your doorstep. Back then, you had to drive down to Birmingham or wherever.
TM: There is, of course, there’s that other crazy story in your book when that guy in a black hood turned up at your door late at night when you were 17 and sprays you with CS gas and then tried to kill you! That had a lasting effect on you, and basically made you fearless, a feature of your career?
MB: Yeah it did. I mean to be honest, all fighters have to have confidence, and certainly I’ve no shortage of confidence. But yeah it’s not ideal a guy coming to your house to kill you, I’m still not sure who he was actually. It’s crazy to think back, and it happened a long time ago, but, when you’ve been through something like that, competing in a sporting arena is not scary at all really.
TM: The book is incredibly honest, you got into a lot of scrapes when you were younger, one of which saw you do a stretch in prison. How much did that change you?
MB: Well it had a massive impact, one hundred per cent. It was obviously a low point in my life; nobody wants to go to bloody prison (laughs). But yeah I thought ‘wow, what am I doing here?’
I needed to make some changes in my life and back then all I cared about was going out with my friends on the weekend and having a good time, and if we got into a scrap from time to time no big deal. But it taught me a valuable lesson.
You can’t keep going on like that, on a road to nowhere. I was on a path of self-destruction and it was a massive wake up call, to change my mindset and become a more positive human being.
TM: And it wasn’t really long after that when you heard about MMA, which wasn’t a huge sport at that time?
MB: It was totally unheard of if anything, it was a very niche sport, a fringe sport at best. That was in the UK, in the US it was a little more well known, nowhere near what it is today.
But, I was told there was a lot of money to be earned in the UFC, as it turns out at the time back in 2002/2003 there wasn’t, fortunately, there is now and towards the latter end of my career, there was as well. Back in the early days, there wasn’t really, I was misguided or misinformed, but I guess it all worked out.
TM: What was that first fight at the Wembley Conference Centre like, it must have been an amazing feeling in front of a domestic crowd?
MB: Oh yeah absolutely, after doing my first fights in sports hall etc, to fight at the Wembley Conference Centre on Sky Sports was great. To be honest I was fast-tracked. I’d only had two fights and from there I won the Cage Rage belt and people started taking note really quickly and it wasn’t long before the UFC.
TM: Looking at the UK scene, things are obviously going well, but do you think it will always have a ceiling? Because wrestling isn’t the priority that it is in the US with the Collegiate system?
MB: Of course, I hear what you’re saying. I don’t think wrestling is the issue. Of course, I know that the UK team are working very hard and diligently on this, they’re trying to put on more localised events, on European time zones, but that isn’t the main problem. The problem is that the majority of fights happen in the middle of the night here.
So it’s hard to build a really large mainstream fan base when the events take place in the middle of the night. You know, if you’ve got a hardcore fan that’s going to stay up until that time like I used to do, it ruins the rest of your weekend. You can watch it the next day of course, but, everybody knows with sporting events, you’ve got to watch them live, it’s not the same when you’re watching it on a tape delay.
That’s one of the issues, I don’t so much think it’s the wrestling, certainly, wrestling is bigger in the US, and it’s a big part of mixed martial arts, but I don’t think it’s about that. It’s about local events, local time zones that will grow the fan base. But, the sport is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, there’s still a long way to go to catch up with America, and I don’t know if we ever will.
Certainly, all the events here in the UK sell out really quickly. I mean my last fight here, sold out in six minutes and that was at 6 am, so there’s definitely a fan base.
TM: If you were coming on the scene now would you still try and go through The Ultimate Fighter, obviously you’ve got the Contender Series route now?
MB: To be honest it’s hard to think like that, I know for me at the time it was fantastic, it was the best option available and I’ve no regrets with the way things have gone in my career.
If I look back, in hindsight at whether things could’ve been planned a bit better, honestly, I don’t think they could. Going on The Ultimate Fighter in the US a lot of people watched that series, that season I think it was averaging 5 million viewers an episode and it gave you a fan base overnight. So in that regard, it all worked out pretty well.
TM: And with your UFC career, UFC 75 for example, the Matt Hamill fight, you said it was your toughest fight, is that still the case?
MB: Yeah well, I don’t know if it was my toughest fight, but it was certainly tougher than a lot of them. Maybe I went into that fight a little overconfident, you know what I mean and paid the price for my own arrogance.
But listen, I’ve had many tough fights over the years, some harder than others, some way easier than others, none more so than when I knocked out Luke Rockhold to become World Champion. That was the easiest fight of my career, but that’s the nature of the beast, it’s not always an easy night at the office.
TM: Absolutely. One moment you mention in the book, after the Henderson knockout, when your memory was completely gone, that must have been scary?
MB: At the time my brain was all over the place, once I’d snapped out of it I was okay. Like I say in the book, I didn’t have a clue where I was, what I was doing, what was going on. I was majorly concussed, but fortunately, the UFC has got great medical care and I had a brain scare etc and was all clear. I’m still an idiot though, unfortunately!
TM: Obviously there’s a big and relevant discussion around head traumas, is that something that concerned you back then, having been in a lot of wars, so to speak?
MB: Not really no, to be honest. When I look back now, obviously I’m older and I’ve just turned 40 recently, I do think about those things. But, at the time you don’t care.
If anything at the time I was a little bit reckless, to be honest. I never really wore headgear in sparring and I sparred a lot, but I wasn’t really concerned. As you get older and a little bit more mature certainly you think about those things more.
TM: Looking at that huge Anderson Silva fight, you were the king of trash talking, you clearly got inside his head. Was that a big part of the game plan?
MB: I had a tremendous amount of respect for Anderson Silva and if I was going to go out there and fight to the best of my ability, I couldn’t allow myself to respect him, I had to strip all that away and not look at him as one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time.
I had to look at him as just another human being. And he’d just failed a drug test, for steroids and that was all the fuel I needed to talk a little shit basically and build the fight, hype the fight. And to have a bit of fun. To be honest, a lot of the time I’m just having a laugh, getting through my day. That’s my sense of humour, if I’m going to fight, Jesus what’s the problem with having a few words?
TM: And where does that stand in terms of wins? Beating Rockhold and winning the title perhaps meant more, but beating Silva, that was huge?
MB: Oh definitely, absolutely, that was always a long-term goal of mine to fight Anderson when he was the champion. I always felt I had the style to beat him and a lot of people thought I was crazy. I remember when I got the call, it was Christmas Eve and that was like a fantastic Christmas present.
Obviously winning the belt was huge, and then defending it in Manchester, but at that time, fighting Anderson, in London as well, was by far the biggest fight of my career.
TM: One thing that comes through in the book, was that “behind every great man, is a great woman”, your wife Rebecca has played such a huge part all the way through?
MB: Absolutely! We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if it weren’t for her. She put her own dreams on hold to support me and allow me to chase my own dreams and goals, so no, she was incredible and I couldn’t have done it without her.
TM: You’ve been called the Cinderella story of the UFC, how does that make you feel?
MB: (Laughs) I don’t know, it’s kind of a backhanded compliment… I mean I was always world-class; I always knew I had the potential. I lost a few key number 1 matchups; I think that’s what people refer to. But that was also at a time when everyone was taking performance-enhancing drugs, with less stringent testing.
Everyone was taking steroids, but I’ve never taken a steroid in my life, I lost a few fights on a decision, that one to Henderson was a bad one, but other than that they were all really close, competitive fights. Then all of a sudden USADA (United States Anti Doping Authority), started drugs testing everybody and I become World Champion! It’s cynical, but I don’t really think that’s a coincidence.
TM: Totally, that’s mad. Your whole career was the embodiment of never giving up really? Which is a great legacy to leave on the UFC?
MB: Thank you very much. Yeah, it changed my life in so many ways and opened my eyes to so many things. I grew up a lot. I said some things I regret when you get a mic thrust in your face straight after a fight, but it was a tremendous ride and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m just very thankful for everyone that supported me throughout my career.
TM: And being inducted into the Hall of Fame just recently?
MB: Yeah! That kind of came as a surprise, that was huge for me. To be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I was very proud and proud of the life that I’ve given to my family.
TM: And how are you enjoying life in the commentary box?
MB: I really enjoy it and hopefully it’s something I’ll keep on doing it for a while yet. We’ll see how the UFC feel. I think people seem to enjoy it and it’s just great to stay involved with the sport. I’m passionate about mixed martial arts, so it’s nice to be involved.
TM: And plans for any more acting?
MB: Oh yeah absolutely that’s where most of my energy lies. I’ve got a few more movies lined up for later in the year and I’ve just done a show called Warrior for HBO out in Cape Town. So things are going well.
I’ve got a documentary coming out early next year, and we’ve got some big star power in that. Vin Diesel, Mickey Rourke and a bunch of other people, all lent their time and said some very kind words, so yeah, got a lot of things going on. Some partners and I set up bringing UFC Gym to the UK. It’ll be a minimum of 120 gyms up and down the country, so keep your eyes out for those.
TM: And finally we always ask for a bit of wisdom you’ve gleaned over the years?
MB: Well the title of the book says it all I guess really. You’ve got to fight through adversity, it’s not always going to go your way, but if you dream and your willing to work hard and beat the system, maybe being a little bit stubborn and perhaps stupid along the way.
But if you’re willing to put the work in, you can achieve whatever you want to in this life. Figure out your skill, put a plan in place and go for it. I truly believe everyone has a skill and the ability to do something special in this world.
TM: And one last thing, did you ever take George St Pierre’s advice and get rid of your Range Rover?
MB: (Laughs) I did, but I just got a new one last week!
Quitters Never Win by Michael Bisping is out now, published by Ebury Press
Check out Michael’s brilliant podcast Believe You Me HERE
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