When Michael Bisping steps into the Octagon on Jan. 19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he's got something he wants to avoid: leaving a legacy in the sport of being the man with the most fights in UFC history never to get a championship match.
Bisping (23-4), who opened his training camp on Monday, faces Vitor Belfort (21-10) in a five-round main event fight.
It will be his 18th UFC fight, tying Melvin Guillard for third place on the list of those who have never fought for the title. The top two are Chris Lytle, who fought 20 times in UFC competition without ever getting a title shot before his recent retirement and Chris Leben with 19. The difference in all of them is in the records since Bisping is 13-4 in UFC competition. Lytle was 10-10. Leben is 12-7. Guillard is 11-7.
And it's not that he's been passed over, as much as every time he came close, he stumbled, none more heartbreaking than his loss on Jan. 28 to Chael Sonnen where the winner was to get the chance. In that one, Bisping fell on the short end of a close decision that could have gone either way.
With the shoulder injury suffered last week by Chris Weidman, requiring surgery and a long recuperation period, that puts Bisping in the strongest position of any contender, particularly if he beats the former light heavyweight champion in Belfort. The question, however, is when Anderson Silva is going to defend the title with all the talk of potential superfights with Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones.
"Far be it from me to look past Vitor," said Bisping. "I'm trying to make this fight more significant. I'm concerned that I've got my hands full. It's not going to be easy. We're fighting in Brazil. He hits hard. But I think I'll weather the storm and he'll become a punching bag."
Bisping has pushed that if Silva is not going to defend the title this year, that his fight with Belfort becomes an interim title fight, or Silva should vacate the title.
"Regarding Anderson, I surely don't want an easy road to the championship," said Bisping. "His last fight was at light heavyweight. His next fight is going to be at a catch-weight. When will be fight at middleweight? What if he gets injured and has to be on the sidelines? All that time will have passed. All the fighters at the top of the middleweight division are on the sidelines. We all want to be world champion some day. We work so hard and strive for it.
"It's not there if Anderson isn't defending the title. I'm not knocking him. He's the greatest fighter we have. But a champion needs to defend the title or he needs to vacate it. And when he comes back to middleweight, he should get an automatic shot. Or they should create an interim title. With Weidman out for six months, I don't think (Tim) Boetsch would have beaten Weidman. I don't think he can be world champion. I think myself and Vitor should be fighting for the interim title. Whoever wins it should continue to defend it. We keep the division moving. The division is more stacked than it's ever been but the champion isn't defending the belt."
With Belfort, Bisping faces one of the most dangerous men he's ever fought, but one that has a history of inconsistency. Some days, with his strong grappling and knockout power in both hands, Belfort comes across like a windbreaker. Other days, you just don't know what you are getting. But a telling statistic is that over the past decade, Belfort is only 3-6 in fights that have gotten out of the first round. During that same time frame, Bisping is 12-4 in fights once they get into the second round.
"It's well documented, rightly or wrongly, that Vitor gasses quickly," said Bisping. "He does slow down after the first round. Obviously, early for me is going to be the most dangerous. The longer the fight goes, he'll start turning into a walking punching bag. At least that's the plan. It's easier said than done. He's going to come out hard and fast, and he will be dangerous. He's a big middleweight. He's been a heavyweight (tournament) champion, and was a light heavyweight champion back in the day. But these are the kind of fights I'm going to take if I want to back up my talking.
"I feel like I'm in my prime," said Bisping, who turns 34 in three months. "I relocated to Southern California. I've really enjoyed my training here. I've got new training partners and the more time I spend here, the more good people I find to train with. I'm training smarter instead of harder. I've got a long time left in my career."
But he wants to make it clear that is Silva will defend his title soon, he would prefer that.
"If that's the case, great," he said. "If he comes to fight, I'll shut the f*** up. That's what I want. I don't want to have an easy run for the title. If he wants to fight the winner of me and Vitor, that's great. But if he fights GSP and Jon Jones, something needs to be done with the middleweight division."