The Upset That Shocked the World: How Michael Bisping Beat Luke Rockhold

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 6, 2016

INGLEWOOD, CA - JUNE 04:  Michael Bisping of England poses backstage for a post fight portrait after defeating Luke Rockhold to attain the UFC middleweight championship title during the UFC 199 event at the Forum on June 4, 2016 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Michael Bisping has been on the verge of great things for more than a decade. His UFC tenure, beginning with a triumphant 2006 star turn during the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, has spanned generations, surviving the rise and fall of Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre. Through it all, Bisping has remained a constant, always seemingly inches away from grasping the brass ring, only to consistently fall just short of it.

On Saturday at UFC 199, at the age of 37, Bisping finally won the big one.

Long after astute observers had written him off, following years of being the biggest name to never fight for UFC gold, the British superstar clocked middleweight champion Luke Rockhold with a solid left hand, then did it again, completing one of the most improbable career resurgences the sport has ever seen.

How did he do it? How did a challenger, on just 17 days notice, overcome some of the longest odds in UFC history? Senior writers Jonathan Snowden and Patrick Wyman take a look, minute by minute, at the upset that shocked the world.

Prelude

Jonathan Snowden: Some people believe in the power of science, of demonstrable fact, of analytics. I believe in the power of story. And this fight had the makings of a great one.

After 18 wins and 25 fights inside the UFC Octagon, Michael Bisping finally got his shot at the championship of the world. As a storyteller, I recognized immediately how powerful this narrative was, how right it would feel for the legendary veteran to overcome the odds and pull off the impossible victory. 

Patrick Wyman: It's hard to overstate the power of Bisping's narrative heading into this fight. He only got the title shot because Chris Weidman, whom Rockhold had just pounded into submission to win the title, was forced to pull out with a neck injury. Jacare Souza, the only other likely candidate for the fight, had just suffered a knee injury.

There's a word for that, and it's destiny.

Snowden: Of course, not every heart-warming story plays out the way we want them too. And, in Rockhold, Bisping's conquering hero faced one heck of an end boss—one who seemingly reveled in the idea of squelching his dreams.

"Bisping thinks this is going to be his fairy tale," Rockhold told the audience watching on pay-per-view. "I will have none of that. This will be his swan song. I'm going to prove there's no such thing as destiny."

Rockhold was relaxed.
Rockhold was relaxed.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Wyman: There was absolutely no reason, based on what we'd seen in the cage, to feel good about Bisping's chances here. The best anyone could point to was the fact that Bisping had been somewhat competitive in the first round of their initial meeting, in November 2014. Of course, Rockhold snuffed him with a head kick and a one-arm guillotine choke in the second round, and even the blindest optimist couldn't ignore that fact.

Rockhold is an incredible grappler with a wicked front headlock and the exceptional counter-wrestling skills born of years sparring with Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez. On the feet, the rangy southpaw has vicious power in everything he throws, especially his variety of left kicks and counter right hook.

Snowden: As the two entered the cage, Rockhold maintained a carefully nonchalant pose, his sleepy dismissal of Bisping palpable, his place in the pecking order beyond question. And it was an earned confidence. His size and smooth athleticism were unlike anything we'd ever seen from a middleweight, even the great Anderson Silva. Bisping's dream come true had the real possibility of turning into a nightmare.

Wyman: Rockhold's biggest advantage over Bisping was in sheer physicality—strength, power and especially speed. Weidman is a good athlete by any reasonable standard; Rockhold put him to shame, and the 37-year-old Bisping is a full tier below Weidman in terms of physical gifts.

Even without the outcome of their first fight in mind, it was difficult to see a path to victory for Bisping.

And yet Bisping managed to find one. Let's take a look at the fight, minute by minute, and figure out how Bisping pulled it off.

5:00-4:00

Wyman: Rockhold opened the fight with a smile on his face, and let Bisping toss a few half-hearted feints and strikes while he gauged the distance and timing. Bisping subtly tried to pressure, but Rockhold backed him off with jabs, a right front kick to the body and a pair of low kicks. Meanwhile, Bisping fell short on everything, struggling to reach the taller, longer fighter with straight right hands.

Snowden: Rockhold's smile disappeared pretty quickly when Bisping tossed off a kick to his knee in the opening seconds. But, other than that, there wasn't much for either man to grin about as they felt each other out.

It's not always obvious outside the cage, but Rockhold is absolutely gargantuan. Bisping, who once pushed former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans to the limit, is not just the smaller man—he looks almost lilliputian in comparison.

Bisping's straight right.
Bisping's straight right.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Wyman: There were a few important things here. First, Bisping noted that Rockhold was slipping the straight right the same way every time. Second, Rockhold's jabs—never a major part of his game before—carried real heat, but he also had a tendency to throw his weight forward, leaving him at a bad angle to Bisping after throwing the strike.

Still, if you were looking for reasons to feel good about Bisping's chances in this fight, the first minute wasn't promising.

Snowden: Bisping's challenge here is evident from the beginning. Rockhold is genetic perfection, all tight abs, rangy musculature and perfect California tan. Bisping, pale white with a pudge around his middle appropriate for a man staring 40 in the face. looks ill suited to compete with such a glorious specimen.

But, then, looks can be deceiving.

4:00- 3:00

Snowden: In the first 15 seconds of the second stanza, Bisping landed the first real blow of the fight, a straight right hand. Rockhold responded with a series of kicks that back the challenger up.

Wyman: This is where business started to pick up. Bisping's straight right at the 3:55 mark was a beautiful shot; Rockhold slipped to his left, precisely the way he had in the opening minute, but Bisping placed the shot where Rockhold's head would be rather than where it started.

Rockhold responded by going on the attack. He laced a vicious right kick to Bisping's body, and then backed him off with a crushing left high kick whose impact on Bisping's arms was audible in the arena. Again, though, Bisping landed the straight right, throwing it where Rockhold's head would be after the slip.

Bisping pounces.
Bisping pounces.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Snowden: "He has some serious power, particularly in that left kick," announcer Joe Rogan said, as Bisping stomped at Rockhold's right knee. The strategy here is sound. If Rockhold can't plant on his right leg with any confidence, the hard left is an impossibility.

That little kick, quintessential Bisping trolling, got Rockhold's attention in earnest and he responded with a stinging left hand. Bisping was on the defensive, already looking like a desperate man batting his arms against an oncoming storm.

Wyman: The first real exchange of the fight took place at the 3:15 mark. Bisping stepped in with a left hook, which Rockhold tried to counter with his trademark right hook. Instead of letting him easy, though, Rockhold pursued with a glancing straight left.

Snowden: It would have been easy for Bisping to remain on his bicycle here, simply doing his best to avoid Rockhold until he could once again initiate his offense. Five years ago, it's likely he'd have done exactly that. Instead, as Rockhold came forward, Bisping made the calculated choice to stand his ground. If he was going down, it would be swinging.

Wyman: Right here is where things got interesting. Instead of backing off in the face of Rockhold's assault, Bisping planted his feet and threw back, missing with a left hook and straight right before landing a flush left hook on Rockhold's jaw. Keep this in mind, because it's the same shot that will eventually put Rockhold down.

Rockhold always starts a bit slow, tapping away at range and countering before committing to his own pressuring offense. That's precisely the shift we saw here, but it happened much earlier than it usually does for Rockhold. Perhaps that was a sign of the overconfidence that led him to think he could eat Bisping's shots in the pocket with impunity.

3:00-2:00

Wyman: Rockhold slammed home a sharp body kick, and Bisping replied with that side kick to Rockhold's lead leg and then a body kick of his own. You could tell Rockhold was starting to feel more comfortable in the pocket. He countered a lead left hook from Bisping with a stepping knee.

Snowden: Rockhold's confidence is intoxicating. Because he had already beaten Bisping easily and taken his measure in the early going of this fight, his sense of invulnerability and superiority was all but written on his face.

Rockhold defending early.
Rockhold defending early.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Wyman: The range here suits Rockhold better. He was backing Bisping off with round kicks and front kicks before throwing punches in the pocket, and Bisping's jab and straight right replies were coming up short.

Snowden: There was no reason to suspect an upset was brewing at this point. Rockhold was not just initiating every exchange, he was winning them with crisper strikes. Everything Bisping threw with purpose seemed to be falling just short.

But, on commentary, Rogan noted an issue that would have dire consequences.

"Rockhold," he said, "has his chin straight up in the air."

Wyman: Rockhold closed the minute, his best of the fight, with a trio of vicious round kicks. First he went to the leg, then the head and finally the body before planting a flush right hook on Bisping's temple. This is vintage Rockhold: use the kicks to set the range, and then blast the shorter fighter with power punches as he tries to cover the distance.

That last exchange, however, showcased a problem for Rockhold: He left himself off balance and with his back partially turned to Bisping after he threw the right hook, and while Bisping's straight right counter missed, the issue was still present.

2:00-1:00

Snowden: The final minute (spoiler alert) of the fight began with a Rockhold kick to the body. "Michael might be hurt," Rogan exclaimed, though there was no sign that was true. Instead, the Brit came forward with a thudding leg kick to Rockhold's thigh.

Wyman: Not much happened in the first 20 seconds or so of this section. It appeared that Rockhold managed to set his preferred longer range, driving home a front kick to the body and a jab, but it was a lot of swinging and missing.

McCarthy pulls Bisping away.
McCarthy pulls Bisping away.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Snowden: Rockhold, nonchalant as ever, continued pressing Bisping back towards the fence. He landed a glancing, lunging right jab, but Bisping was unfazed. It managed, however, to throw the champion off balance, back to Bisping who was in perfect position to respond. 

As Rockhold desperately attempted to recover his footing, the unthinkable happened. After landing a right hand to the solar plexus, Bisping, he of the alleged pillow fists, thunked a clean left hook right off Rockhold's head. With 1:30 remaining in the first round, the champion was on the deck and in real trouble.

The crowd erupted as Rockhold popped immediately to his feet, only to be sent reeling a second time with yet another left. Three uncontested punches to the jaw later and it was all over but the shouting.

Wyman: This exchange was the culmination of everything Rockhold had done wrong—which, to be fair, wasn't much—and Bisping had done right through the first 3:28 of the fight. Rockhold had left himself off balance after throwing punches with his lead hand on several occasions, while Bisping had shown his willingness to hang in the pocket and counter with the straight right-left hook combination.

That's precisely what happened here. Rockhold over-committed, nearly turning his back while pulling his head far off to the left. Bisping missed with the straight right, but the follow-up left hook landed cleanly. To his credit, Rockhold recovered, but another left hook put him down. A few more punches followed and it was all over.

Closing Thoughts

Snowden: "Michael Bisping is the new middleweight champion of the world," Michael Goldberg screamed as referee John McCarthy pulled the new middleweight kingpin off of his rival.

"Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness That's why this is a crazy sport ladies and gentlemen," Rogan replied. "Because anything can happen at any given moment. At any given moment you can be sitting at home watching this and just go 'Holy s--t.'"

Rockhold's powerful body kick.
Rockhold's powerful body kick.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Wyman: This is why we watch and love MMA. The unexpected, the unpredictable, the shocking can happen at any moment, defying our rational expectations and leading to incredible moments.

It's not like Rockhold screwed things up. He over-committed for a series of brief moments, and Bisping had both the skills and the luck—yes, luck—necessary to put himself in position to land the perfect shot.

Bisping had been training for this moment his whole career, and when it counted, he was able to accomplish the unthinkable.

Jonathan Snowden and Patrick Wyman cover combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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