Michael Bisping is months away from embarking on his sixth year in the UFC's middleweight division. In that time, he's headlined three events, blazed through two coaching stints on The Ultimate Fighter, and other than the division's twin titans -- Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen -- generally kept a higher profile than any of his contemporaries.
But through it all, the glaring omission from his mantle remains an ever-elusive UFC title shot. Sure, Bisping has been perennially close, just like he is now. But because of external forces and the current landscape of the division, the Brit remains on the outside looking in.
"Listen, would I like to fight for the title? Of course I would," Bisping flatly said on The MMA Hour. "But that opportunity hasn't been presented. By all accounts, I think Anderson Silva is probably going to be fighting GSP, if GSP beats Condit next. Yeah, a lot of people want me to fight for the title, but as I said that opportunity isn't there right now. I want to continue fighting. The more I fight, the better I get. The more time I spend in a training camp, the more I improve. I want to fight the best guys out there."
For Bisping, it would be easy to be frustrated by the current logjam in the division. Aside from himself, both Chris Weidman and Tim Boetsch have relatively strong claims to the label No. 1 contender. And yet, for all three men, a bout against Silva remains a pipe dream.
However, at 33 years old, Bisping is a realist, and he's been in this game long to understand the UFC is a business above all else.
"Anderson has had an amazing career. We all know that. And a big fight with GSP, a lot of people want to see it," he explained.
"So I can see the bigger picture. Of course it's frustrating. I'm not an idiot, I can see the reasons why they want to do that. Obviously the pay-per-views would be astronomical, I would assume. Anderson, GSP, the UFC are all going to make a lot of money. And so, listen, I'm not bothered, really, too much. I know I'll get my shot eventually. I keep doing what I'm doing, I keep training, I keep improving, I keep winning fights, then I will get what I deserve eventually."
Ultimately, that self-awareness is what led Bisping to accept a headlining spot opposite Vitor Belfort, targeted for early 2013 in Belfort's home country of Brazil. According to the Brit, he instantly said yes to the fight, because why wouldn't he? This is how he makes his living, and sitting out until at least May waiting for the winner of Weidman vs. Boetsch never even crossed his mind.
"In my opinion, the hardest fight in the 185 [pound] division, other than Anderson Silva, is Vitor Belfort," Bisping said.
"He's a southpaw. I think that's one of the main things that complicates things because it changes up the striking. He's very good at jiu-jitsu, but that doesn't concern me. I don't think he's going to be looking to take me down and submit me. I think the main thing I've got to watch out for is punches to the back of the head. Got to watch out for those rabbit punches, because he does like to punch people in the back of the head."
Among others, Bisping plans to tap the services of Bellator contender Alexander Shlemenko to help prepare him for the bout.
He makes a habit of repeating his mantra about fighting "whoever they want ... anyone, anytime, anyplace." And after fighting Chael Sonnen on eight days notice and then accepting such a dangerous fight against Belfort when he could've waited, it's hard to argue with the man.
But ask him, and Bisping remains confident in his decision.
"If I beat Vitor Belfort, I think there's no question that I'm the No. 1 contender," Bisping asserted. "And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is. I think I deserve it. If I beat Vitor, I deserve it. If I don't beat him, then I don't deserve to be in a title fight anyway."
It's because of this old-school ‘anywhere, anytime' attitude, plus his open mockery of TRT, that "The Count" has begun to notice a shift in public perception than can only properly be described as a minor miracle. Bisping, long one of the most hated men in the sport, still hears his fair share of boos, however these days they're not quite as overpowering as they used to be.
"I like to play with it and say I'm hated everywhere I go, but to be honest, that isn't the case," Bisping said with grin. "I think you get a lot of people together, and there's a pantomime effect, the ol' boo or whatever. But generally, for the most part my interactions with the UFC fans, they're always positive.
"Certainly on Twitter, everyday I almost get 20 messages with people saying, ‘You know, I used to absolutely hate your guts, and now you're one of my favorite fighters.' So that's nice. Obviously it's always nice to be appreciated. But it's not necessarily anything I've consciously done or changed. I think maybe, just over time, people are warming a little. Who knows?"