After almost seven years in the UFC, after 13 victories, an untold number of soundbytes and going from one of the sport's most hated to one of its beloved, Michael Bisping is one win away from his long-stated goal of fighting for the UFC middleweight championship.
We can never be quite sure about such things until the fighters are actually in the cage, but as of now, that's the word from UFC president Dana White.
Bisping, inarguably the most successful British mixed martial artist ever with a career record of 23-4, is in the midst of a 5-1 stretch, with his only loss coming in a close and disputed decision at the hands of Chael Sonnen.
Waiting to play spoiler is Vitor Belfort, the heavy-handed Brazilian with a home-field advantage during the UFC on FOX 7 event in Sao Paulo.
On Thursday, Sonnen broke down the Bisping-Belfort fight in the simplest of terms: either Belfort finishes in the first round, or Bisping survives it and takes the fight over from that point on.
I completely agree with Sonnen, and there is statistical evidence to back up the hypothesis.
My colleague Dave Meltzer, who interviewed Sonnen for the piece in which he gave his prediction, noted an interesting stat about Belfort: he has never won a UFC fight that went past the opening five minutes. Belfort has fought 16 times in the octagon. In fights that were decided inside of five minutes, he is 10-1. In fights that went past that mark he's 0-5.
With that, it's hard to undervalue what happens in the first.
For all of the grief Bisping gets for his Knockout of the Decade loss at the hands of Dan Henderson back in 2009, the truth is that Bisping is a very durable fighter. Even when he's been stunned or rocked on occasion, he's recovered and often come back to win. That is largely due to Bisping's excellent conditioning. After all his time in the UFC, Bisping has never gone to the cage and been out-conditioned. That shows in his fight stats. According to FightMetric, Bisping has landed an average of 4.57 significant strikes per minute as compared to 2.47 from his opponents.
That number may be even more lopsided against Belfort (21-10), who often has long periods of inactivity interspersed with quick barrages. Belfort, in fact, is the rare top-level fighter who often takes more strikes than he lands. According to FightMetric, he lands just 1.35 strikes per minute, and eats 2.16.
Belfort's success has mostly relied on his power, as evidenced by his 14 knockouts. He has relatively fast hands, throws with bad intentions and is fairly accurate, landing 48 percent. But most of his flurries come in a straight line, and top opposition is usually well-schooled in avoiding it.
Belfort is a fighter that likes open space. He rarely shoots in for a takedown and usually attempts to free himself from tie-ups in positions where other fighters look to change levels and drag the fight to the mat. In fact, despite the fact that he's historically landed takedowns at a 60 percent clip -- he even once took down former U.S. wrestling Olympian Dan Henderson -- Belfort hasn't attempted a single takedown in his last eight fights. And that makes him relatively easy to prepare for.
Bisping has a few factors going his way. The first is his aforementioned conditioning. He's never outworked, and keep in mind, this time around, Belfort will be cutting down to 185 pounds for the first time in 12 months, as his most recent fight was at 205. At age 35, that weight roller-coaster could affect him more than it would a younger man. The other is that he naturally circles to his left. Against right-handers, that's right into their power hand. That was a mistake that cost him against Henderson, as he waded right into the fight-finishing H-bomb. Against the southpaw Belfort, he'll be moving away from trouble.
Bisping doesn't have the greatest footwork, but he does always have his feet moving, and that means he's never a stationary target. That's one of the reasons he doesn't take many clean strikes (according to FightMetric, only 30 percent of the strikes against him land, which ranks among the top 10 all-time), and it will be Belfort's big challenge to time his attack and land the bomb.
I'm betting against it. And yes, I do believe this is the only way Belfort wins. Bisping is at this point of his career the better and more active wrestler of the two, and though Belfort is a black belt, Bisping has never been submitted, making that an unlikely conclusion. So the fight will be won or lost through striking. In my opinion, Bisping has a more varied striking game, moves better and is more likely to rack up points with his activity. So it's boom or bust for Belfort. While he's certainly capable of landing that fight-ender, the possibility goes down with every passing minute.
Bisping will get stronger as time passes, and stay away from the power shot. By the third and fourth round, it will be clear he's the better all-around fighter, and he'll capture a decision and move on to his long-awaited title fight with Anderson Silva.