Believe it or not, Michael Bisping is going to fight Kelvin Gastelum in China, just three weeks after losing his UFC middleweight title – rocked, dropped and submitted in the process – to Georges St-Pierre at UFC 217.
As far as surprises go, news of this replacement main event (following Anderson Silva’s latest failed drug test) was every bit as shocking as some of the drama produced on that UFC 217 main card at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t expected. It wasn’t rumoured. It wasn’t even bandied about by bloodthirsty MMA fantasists.
All the talk, in fact, was of Bisping doing one of two things following the loss of his belt to GSP: he was either going to ride off into the sunset a rich, proud man, retiring from the sport for good, or he was going to enjoy a homecoming fight in his native England next year.
But then ‘The Count’ hit us with it. There’d be no retirement and no homecoming, at least not for now. Instead, he was offered the November 25 fight with Gastelum, asked if he’d like to fill the void left by Silva, and duly took the opportunity.
The wisdom behind this decision remains to be seen. But a couple of things are clear at this stage. One, Bisping must have been made an offer he couldn’t refuse to even contemplate setting foot inside an Octagon less than a month after being bloodied and beaten in a championship fight. And two, irrespective of the money involved, Bisping has agreed to do something 99.9% of the UFC roster would probably refuse and, in doing so, confirmed his reputation as one of the ballsiest fighters in the history of the sport. For that, he deserves all the credit in the world. A pat on the back. A round of applause. Appreciation.
Yet fighters, they say, sometimes need protecting from themselves. In fights, in business. They are, by their very nature, emotionally-led individuals who tend to think with their fists, their heart and, well, their balls. They need someone to rein them in from time to time, provide some cold clarity, and look out for their wellbeing. In fights, in business.
Which begs the question, is Bisping doing the right thing for his career and for his health? Brave though he might be, there can be no arguing the view that a professional fighter should not, in an ideal world, be a feature of two high-profile main events within the space of three weeks, especially when stopped in the first. It seems reckless, dangerous, worryingly shortsighted. Not only that, it also serves to emphasise how fighters today seem to be viewed as commodities to be flogged to the public as opposed to human beings with beating hearts and heads in need of protection. That, too, is a concern.
Certainly, Bisping vs. Gastelum is a fight that makes financial sense in the minds of those who prioritise that over common sense. Bisping is a major name in the sport and Gastelum, despite a July loss to Chris Weidman, a future star in the sport. Better yet, Bisping’s name is particularly hot at the moment on account of the fact he’s just received a promotional kick from being entangled with GSP for the best part of the year. He might have lost the fight, but the Englishman won plenty in terms of marketability and general goodwill. Indeed, a ‘good loser’ is how he was described in the aftermath, as videos of gracious acceptance speeches did the rounds; for a man long hated by the American public, it appears Bisping has turned a corner, won them over.
This newfound respect will only grow as a result of his decision to accept the Gastelum fight. And so it should, too. Bisping, after all, is going above and beyond. He’s accepting fights, challenging himself, taking risks. At 38, he’s showing the others, those more reticent, those eager to protect themselves and their record, how it’s done. Showing them how a fighter should think.
The great fear, though, is that Bisping, surely concussed on November 4, isn’t fully healed and therefore isn’t ready for a fight like this just 21 days after a damaging defeat; that Bisping is merely squeezing in another bumper payday before Christmas and simultaneously blurring the lines between sport and entertainment.
No doubt Bisping vs. Gastelum works as a story, as entertainment, as a show-saver. It probably shouldn’t, however, be taking place in the name of sport. Not in this day and age. Not in 2017.