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Michael Bisping’s mind games are now the game within the game

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Matt King

One of the reasons the idea of Luke Rockhold fighting Michael Bisping was so infecting was because they obviously share a genuine need to ram their fists into each other’s faces. These things aren’t hard to figure out. Rockhold sees doing bodily harm to Bisping as a sort of public service. It’s just that basic. And even before he turned Cung Le into gore, Bisping was needling the poor devil in setting the table for an eventual fight.

This is just the kind of thing that Bisping does so well -- he pisses people off.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say he’s become the most accomplished vendetta provider in the game -- at this point Bisping has established more rivalries than the SEC. One thinks of his practice targets like Charles McCarthy back in the beginning, or Dan Henderson, who to this day says random people stop and thank him for knocking Bisping out at UFC 100. He called Hector Lombard a "poison dwarf," and said that Alan Belcher should "sue the tattooist for the abomination on his arm," which is a ruddy-cheeked image of Johnny Cash. Nobody manufactures dander quite like Bisping, who can be as funny as he can be snide.

All it took this time was a sparring session with Rockhold, an off-hand comment that, judging from the way the sparring session went, he was the "unofficial middleweight champion of Strikeforce," and boom! -- Rockhold’s pupils began turning black on a sunny afternoon.

If Bisping has learned anything over the years, it’s that feuds mean relevance as much as winning means relevance.

Now Rockhold and Bisping are bringing their on-going feud to Australia for settlement, and the lead-up has been as good as expected. The fight streams Friday night in North America on Fight Pass. You’ve probably seen Bisping and Rockhold going at it. On the "Counterpunch" segment of The Ultimate Insider, it was like standing by as hostilities mount between barroom patrons. It was raw, tense and unnerving. It was also meta in that the debate fell between the players knowing they’re being taped and simultaneously forgetting. Jon Anik, the host, did his level best to keep things civil, but they were already going great guns. As Bisping carried on, Rockhold goaded him with nothing other than the pomp in his smile. Blows felt inevitable, which is what makes the fight game feel so satisfactory -- it’s all leading there.

The mental jostling carried over to a recent media call.

"Luke, I don’t know you," Bisping said. "I don’t care for you. We haven’t shared a single proper conversation, so you’re basing your facts or what you presume [are] facts on absolutely nothing, on fresh air. We have had one conversation, after the sparring matching question everybody talks about. You don’t know me. You don’t know me as a person. So kiss my f**king ass, you lanky piece of shit. I’ll see you in Australia, you asshole. We’ll put it all to bed then."

"Great professionalism," Rockhold replied.

This kind of exchange has been pretty normal. As other fighters have realized over the years, it only takes a little restraint to make Bisping come off as the spaz. Then again, Bisping knows how to work the levers of another man’s psyche. He feasts on the mentally vulnerable. Is he doing that to Rockhold?

When I’m in there, I actually enjoy myself. It’s enjoyable. I like fighting. It’s a weird one, but I kind of like it when people hit me. When guys hit me I get a little more excited about the fight. -Luke Rockhold

Heading into a fight like this where mind games play such a factor, who’s in whose head?

"It’s the fight before the fight, and it’s part of the fight," sports psychology expert Jim Afremow says. "You have to win the fight before the fight as well, and that’s what they’ve been doing. You need to also be intentional. What am I trying to get out of this? What’s in my best interest? Is [Rockhold] really upset at what Bisping said about being the unofficial Strikeforce champion? If he is, it’s ironic. It’s a guy who’s gone in the Octagon against some of the toughest guys in the world, yet he’s upset by some words?"

The Phoenix-based Afremow, who works with pro athletes in every sport, is the author of The Champions Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive (Rodale). He can appreciate a subject like Bisping, who knows a thing or two about (strategically) getting under the skin of an opponent. He sees a lot more in the feud between Bisping and Rockhold than a casual observer.

He sees mechanics, origins, concessions.

"Rockhold seems to be playing a little bit of the victim role – [Bisping] said bad things about me," Afremow says. "Is [Rockhold] really upset about those things or is he using that for motivational fuel?"

Afremow says that on the surface it may seem that Rockhold is walking right into Bisping’s trap. There are little indicators that tilt that way. He also says that a "savvy fighter" like Bisping has long figured out how to play head games without losing himself emotionally in the process.

"If you’re bad at gamesmanship, you’ll self-destruct," he says. "But if you’re good at it, outrageousness can pay off in many different ways. It can motivate you. It can help you blow off some steam as you get closer to the fight. And it can help you get into your opponent’s head. The mind rules the body. If you can win in the Octagon between the ears, then you clearly have an edge. Many of the greatest athletes of all time have been trash-talkers -- from Larry Bird to Muhammad Ali -- but they also back it up."

Though Rockhold was definitive early on in saying he’d finish Bisping in the first round, he isn’t known as a talker. Yet, as an understated talent who has only one loss in seven years, he is known for the ice in his veins on fight night. Rarely has Rockhold looked anything other than nonplussed in the Octagon. If there was an exception, it was in his fight with Vitor Belfort, in which Rockhold admits he got a little too emotional, something that may have cost him in the end.

He was knocked out by a spinning heel kick.

"I’m a competitive person, so I don’t want Bisping to get the better of me whether we’re fighting or whether we’re talking," Rockhold says. "I definitely like to stock some ammo and come prepared when it comes to the verbal battles, but it’s not particularly my thing. As you see, I don’t talk smack about many people. Only guys I really dislike and felt the need to talk about are Vitor Belfort and Bisping for obvious reasons."

Rockhold says the experience with Belfort led to him understanding how to remain cool though the psychic jabs in the lead-up with Bisping. And with that same measured calm, he speaks of his emotional investment towards Bisping -- a guy he can’t stress enough that he dislikes -- with a sense of casual detachment.

"I think [Bisping]’s just that guy -- that guy that nobody likes," he says. "He’s a self-promoting guy, a guy who talks about himself in the third person. He’s that guy. What I think of Bisping…I think he’s a very hard-working, determined guy. He’s technical and he works really hard, and he’s a true competitor.

"But I just don’t know if he actually likes fighting. When I’m in there, I actually enjoy myself. It’s enjoyable. I like fighting. It’s a weird one, but I kind of like it when people hit me. When guys hit me I get a little more excited about the fight. I’m definitely in there to pick apart my opponent and try to outsmart them. But when a guy does hit me, it kind of lights my fire a little more."

Knowing that Bisping can chirp louder in media settings, Rockhold reverts back to the fight itself. The fight will happen. His trump card is in that inevitability -- that proof is forthcoming. Bisping likes the foreplay, because for him it only builds the moment of resolution.

It could be that Rockhold’s smug confidence peeves Bisping, too. Though he knows how to hype a fight by generating a personal/public feud, it’s also the fact that he lets himself get insulted by what’s being flung at him. One of the better examples of that occurred when he fought Jorge Rivera at UFC 127 in Sydney in 2011.

Rivera, realizing that Bisping could be a little hot headed, put out the infamous "Dick Dick Dick" video in the form of an apology, and that gave Bisping plenty to get upset about.  

"We did know that it would get under his skin, and that was the plan," Rivera says. "To rile him up and throw him off his game. It also helped create much bigger hype around the fight."

"I look at anger as like electricity," Afremow says. "You can either light a room with it, or you can electrocute yourself."

In that case, Bisping lit up the room. He finished Rivera in controversial fight that didn’t do him any favors among fans (you might recall the illegal knee and the spitting incident). Bisping likes to carry a chip on his shoulder to the cage. Asked if he thought Bisping needs a feud to compete, Rivera says it may seem that way, but that "The Count" is far slicker than that.

"I don't think Bisping needs a feud -- he’s sells fights," he says. "At the end of the day it’s business. He’s well known, a lightning rod for controversy and if you beat him you will be recognized."

True, but in this particular case Rockhold is in superior standing for a title shot in the middleweight division. Because he’s such a "prick," he gets a chance to leapfrog a contender as he tries once again to make his way towards a belt. Rockhold didn’t have anything to gain by beating Bisping, he just wanted to beat up Bisping. Which is the magic of Bisping.

The very set-up of the fight would suggest that Rockhold is so bothered by the existence of Michael Bisping that he did away with logic. That he is, as Dr. Afremow suggests, walking right into Bisping’s trap.

Is he?

"People keep asking me, ‘is Bisping getting under your skin?’" Rockhold says. "Look at me. I’m not bothered. It doesn’t faze me. He can say that he’s getting under my skin and that he hates me and can’t stand the sight of me, but…at the same time, I don’t like [him], and if I’m laughing about it it’s because I can’t wait to beat his ass. I’m just going to enjoy that moment."