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Michael Bisping carries on as only Michael Bisping can

Zuffa LLC via Getty

It wasn’t so long ago that hating on Michael Bisping was the sport within the sport of mixed martial arts. Only one person at a time could fight him, but there was always a fleet of middleweights who believed they had a mute button in the form of some power hand or other. Bisping inspired a kind of hate that started at the Mancunian accent and ended at his audacity.

And all of it was actually kind of brilliant. So long as Bisping was in so many crosshairs, he would always have viability. So long as he remained British, he would have a country behind him. So long as he was winning, he would always be an antagonist.

Things haven’t changed all that much on that front in 2014, except that somewhere along the way Bisping suffered a sort of reverse heel turn. He became, for lack of a better word, likeable. Even to the most patriotic North American xenophobes who don’t dig the idea of sniveling Englishmen, he began to irritate less and actually (as if by potion) endear himself more.

Maybe it was working in television at FOX.

Whatever it is, even with the love/hate ratio split down the middle with fans, the fighters themselves still don’t mind the idea of kicking his ass. Cung Le is the next guy to get the chance, and even the affable Le, whom Bisping faces on Aug. 23 in Macau at UFC Fight Night 48, has gotten to the point where there won’t be much remorse attached to his punches.

The reason? Bisping can still grate with the best of them, and he knows it.

"I’ve thrown friendliness out the window -- I’m in fight mode now," Bisping says. "You know how everybody likes to talk s--t about me, about he’s an a--hole I am, this and that? Cung Le jumped on the bandwagon with that kind of thing. I went out there to Macau for a press conference and I was very cordial with the guy, all pleasantries. He doesn’t have a reason to say a bad word about me but he jumped in on the bandwagon.

"So I’m going to have to brutalize this guy. That stupid cheeky little smirk on his face? I’m going to knock that clean off his face. He’ll look like an absolute fool when he’s laying there on the floor in a pile of piss and blood. He’s in over his head, he’s outmatched, he’s outreached…I’m a better actor, I’m a better fighter, I’m better looking, and there’s nothing this guy can do to me. Tune in on Fight Pass, because we’re all going to see the demise and destruction of Cung Le."

Vintage Bisping. It’s that kind of thing that makes him who he is.

Yet at 35 years old, "The Count" will step into the cage with Le on a slippery slope. He has alternated wins and losses through his last five fights, something he has heard about ad nauseam for the last couple of months. But this time it feels a little different.

In his last fight against Tim Kennedy in Quebec City, he was ground to a halt in what was an anticlimactic main event. Look down his resume and you realize that’s not easy to do. Before that, his win against Alan Belcher at UFC 159 was marred by an eye-poke that rendered Belcher unable to continue. In between those bouts he was dealing with a career-threatening eye issue of his own, which casts some lingering doubt.

It’s been an nondescript stretch for Bisping, who in 30 professional fights -- 20 of which that have come in the UFC -- has never lost consecutive bouts. A loss against the 42-year old Le, an anti-grappler cut more from the Mortal Kombat cloth, would present itself as the writing on the wall.

Not that Bisping is considering such dour possibilities. In his mind, Le is the first step back towards title contention. Bisping, who has flirted with title shots for much of his career only to come up short, hasn’t given up that ever-elusive goal.

"My boxing coach, Jason Parillo sat me down a couple of weeks ago after a sparring session, and we had a really good talk," he says. "Jason said, ‘listen, Michael, I believe in you. I believe you can go out there and be a world champion.’ He said, ‘look at the way you fought in sparring. Look at how you handle guys. Look at how you completely outclass all of your opponents.’ He said, ‘please, we need to get that to go out there and really crossover to your performances and show the world. I believe in you, and I know you believe in yourself, let’s just go out there and f---ing do it. It’s no good doing it in the gym; the gym doesn’t matter. You’ve got to do it on fight night.’

"So I’m really focused on the mental side of things with this camp. Maybe that’s somewhere that I have struggled a little bit in the past, I’ve let demons creep in and things like that. This fight, this camp, I’m in a very, very positive mind frame. I’m performing well, I’m hitting harder than ever. I’ve been working on things. The last fight the guy wanted to take me down, so never got a chance to display what I have been working on. My punching power is through the roof. I’m still hoping to be world champion."

That pursuit might sound unlikely, but then there are the well-known asterisks. The guys who derailed Bisping from getting a title shot in the past belong the era of legal TRT. Dan Henderson (UFC 100), Chael Sonnen (UFC on FOX 2) and Vitor Belfort (in which he joined the 2013 platter of victims).

"I don’t really think about these things, but then all these people keep pointing it out to me, and I start thinking maybe I should let it bother me," he says. "Ultimately there’s no point being bitter over the past; you can’t change anything. So I’m just focusing on the future.

"I’ve never taken a steroid in my life. I’m a hard working guy, and I’m just focusing on the future, which is to be the world champion. I had a setback with my eye. That’s all good now, that’s cleared. I’m focusing on the future, and that’s Cung Le."

Though, Bisping doesn’t exactly view things in the abstract, either. With a queue of fighters who still want to lay hands on him, he has a specific plan in place. Start with Le, then take on Luke Rockhold, who has campaigned for a fight with Bisping for long time now.

"I never look past an opponent, so I’m really focused on what I’m going to do," Bisping says. "But Luke Rockhold has been making a lot of noise. That guy gets on like a little girl, I mean, my god…one comment and he just won’t let it go. He is a vagina. He acts like a vagina. And he’s obviously got a little sand in his vagina.

"In the next five months, I’ll fight Luke Rockhold. Everyone’s got a hard-on for Rockhold right now. I don’t understand it. He gets knocked out [by Belfort], and then he beats two subpar fighters in [Tim] Boetsch and [Costas] Philippou and all of a sudden he’s hot property. I’ll beat Cung Le, then I’ll beat Luke Rockhold, then I’ll fight for the title."

Isn’t that just like Bisping. With his back against the wall, he can point out the path to a title…he can call out one fighter, while throwing two others under the bus…he can make a play a humility, then flip the middle finger at humility all in the same motion. Even when he’s at his most likeable, he protects his right to be hated. Bisping connects the poles, and he sees the comedy in all of it. For better or for worse, that’s what makes Bisping Bisping.