A funny thing happened to Michael Bisping on his way to the Octagon last Saturday night. He heard cheers. Lots and lots of cheers. It is a sound that has been foreign to the Brit for the majority of his career, from just after the time he joined the UFC as a cast member of season three of The Ultimate Fighter.
In the years since, Bisping has been mostly hated everywhere outside of his home country. The dislike for him grew exponentially shortly after he insisted he won a disputed split-decision with Matt Hamill, a fight that remains one of the most controversial in recent history. The feeling spread slowly, intensified by Bisping's willingness to offer his unfiltered thoughts on nearly any situation.
It got so bad that at one point in the fairly recent past, noted rival Jason "Mayhem" Miller remarked, "now that Osama [Bin Laden] is dead, Bisping is the most hated man in America."
Suddenly, though, it seems as though the icy feelings towards Bisping are beginning to melt away. The thawing seemed to begin in January, after he lost a close decision to Chael Sonnen. Surprisingly, there was an outpouring of support for him from many who believed he had deserved the judges' nod. It certainly helped that Bisping accepted the defeat graciously, congratulating Sonnen while voicing a polite disagreement with the scorecards. That he was even willing to fight Sonnen on less than two weeks' notice after training for the vastly different style of Demian Maia was just another point in his favor.
His UFC 152 fight with Brian Stann was his first fight since then, and Bisping was mostly received as a hero.
He was a fan favorite at the open workouts -- except of the fan he booted out for having "no respect" -- signing autographs afterward. He was loudly cheered at the weigh-ins and got a similar reaction on fight night, with the crowd popping for every takedown he executed. When the decision was read, a loud ovation tore through the Air Canada Centre.
This is all very new, of course. Aside from his jaunts to the UK, Bisping's been booed everywhere. Las Vegas, Chicago, Sydney. But suddenly, that's changing.
Bisping said that he has noticed a different reaction recently, noting that he's begun to regularly receive tweets from fans who say they used to "absolutely hate" him but have since been won over.
"People love Michael Bisping because Bisping speaks his mind," UFC president Dana White said. "He doesn't care what he says and he comes out and fights and backs everything up. That's why people love Michael Bisping."
Bisping thinks it has to do with his lengthy tenure and growing maturity level.
"I've been here a long time," he said. "Have I done things I regret now over the years? Of course I have. I’ve said stupid things, I've done stupid things. I'm 33 now. I have three kids. I've grown up a bit. I've acted like an a------ at times, of course. We all make mistakes. But you know, I'm still me. I'm still doing exactly what I do. I like it though, it’s nice."
This new move towards fan favorite could end up paying huge dividends for Bisping (23-4), who has been lobbying for a middleweight title match for years. After UFC 152, White admitted that the possibility is "interesting," a positive development in Bisping's favor.
Given champ Anderson Silva's preference for high-profile opponents, Bisping would likely fit the bill as someone who would intrigue him. Of course, there's more to a title fight than the champion's feelings, and that's where Bisping's history comes in.
There are two ways to look at his recent record. If you are pro-Bisping as a title contender, you can point out that he's won five of his last six, and that his only loss came in disputed fashion against a two-time divisional No. 1 contender. If you are anti-Bisping, the easy argument is that he doesn't even have a win streak, having split his last two fights.
The win over Stann, though, is his most significant in some time, perhaps since defeating Chris Leben nearly four years ago. It also showed the diversity in his game as he mixed up striking with takedowns and ground work. In challenging Silva, he'll need all these tools. When it comes to promotion, the fight is easy sellable, with a natural home in either hot market of Brazil or England.
The question now is whether he'll get the fight. The division has a lot of moving parts. Silva is set to fight out of his weight class on October 13, and if as expected, he wins, he is almost certain to wait for the result of Georges St-Pierre's November bout in hopes of setting up a super fight with the welterweight king. If that happens, the middleweight belt will be on ice for the foreseeable future. But if things don't go as planned -- and really, how often do they go according to plans in MMA? -- Bisping is in a better position than he's ever been.
When the business of producing a championship fight is equally about sport and business, Bisping, with his record of success and newfound popularity, has a case that combines the two better than any other middleweight of the moment.