Michael Bisping put his gift for gamesmanship on full display leading up to his return fight against Tim Kennedy.
Bisping’s penchant for the dramatic was evident during weeks of trash talk, media appearances and one supercharged staredown at the official pre-fight weigh-in. When they finally got in the cage on Wednesday at the The Ultimate Fighter Nations Finale, however, Kennedy refused to play his game and the cocky Brit—a man seemingly never lost for words—couldn’t find an answer.
Bisping simply conceded too many takedowns, ate too many right hands and eventually allowed Kennedy to deal him a costly defeat via fairly lopsided unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 50-45).
It was his first Octagon appearance in nearly a year, and he exited looking like a man in decline, 2-3 in his last five fights and on the heels of surgery for a detached retina.
While not a career-defining night for either man, the lasting impression was that Kennedy wrestled him out of contention for the foreseeable future, maybe for good.
At 35 years old, it’s impossible to know if Bisping will ever be able to string together the wins needed to get to the front of the middleweight line. He hasn’t won consecutive fights since victories over Jorge Rivera and Jason Miller in 2011, so the need to find consistency feels fairly urgent.
If he can’t, he’ll certainly go down in history as one of the best UFC fighters never to earn a title shot in the promotion.
Now eight years and 20 fights into his career with the world’s largest MMA organization, it seems likely Bisping will be best remembered as a guy who talked a great game. He started with the company on a 12-3 tear after winning Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter and became a solid overseas attraction and the most popular guy on the roster in terms of getting called out by his peers.
Despite the fact he beats most who challenge him, his foes have never feared him. Though a talented striker, he has always been known for his pace and ability to frustrate more than awe-inspiring power.
He fought his way to the brink of championship bouts on multiple occasions, but in recent years he got turned away by top contenders Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen. At this point, it’s tempting to cast him as a guy who beat a lot of good fighters in the UFC but lost to the great ones.
For Team Bisping, perhaps the most troubling aspect of Wednesday’s result is that, coming in, Kennedy seemed to belong in the first category. Yet the popular American had him thoroughly scouted, never allowing the near 2-1 favorite to get his offense in gear.
He took Bisping down during the first exchange of the fight, clearly won at least three rounds with his top control and ground-and-pound and all around did enough to salt away a convincing, if unmemorable judges’ verdict.
Bisping managed to stuff a fair amount of his shots—winning the second stanza on the feet and making the fourth razor close—but the constant threat of a takedown stifled his normally high-volume striking game. He also ate enough of Kennedy’s winging overhand punches to raise questions about ring rust and his surgically repaired right eye.
This time it was Bisping who got frustrated and never got comfortable. Though Bisping kept moving forward, Kennedy refused to stand in front of him long enough for him to get off with his jab. When they did exchange, Kennedy landed the harder shots, and Bisping couldn’t load up on many combinations before he was forced to fend his opponent away from his legs.
In the end, Kennedy came away with a broken hand (and admiration for Bisping’s chin), but Bisping lost the fight and a chance to establish some much-needed momentum in a wide-open 185-pound division.
It’s not game over for him—he’ll likely have a spot in the UFC as long as he wants one—but his chance to prove he’s more than just the fight company’s most popular target is starting to run short.