Fighting Blind

Following a detached retina suffered in a fight against Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping's tenacious road to recovery not only marked a triumphant return to the UFC but also crowned him the middleweight champion.

Fight fans were buzzing underneath the cloudy sky in São Paulo, Brazil on January 19th, 2013. It was the day that one of the most well-known Brazilian fighters would face off against an English phenom, right at home in the heart of Brazil. It was home for one of them, at least. For the other, he simply had to go about his day training in a foreign country, failing to see a hint of sunlight under the clouds which shadowed over him. It became common in his future ahead that he would fail to see anything at all. What remained consistent was that he could only see gold.

Next in line for a shot at the Middleweight title in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or “UFC,” the only person standing in Michael Bisping’s way was six-foot-tall Brazil native, Vitor ‘the Phenom’ Belfort. At age 33, the English fighter held a one-inch height and almost two-inch reach advantage over Belfort (75.5”). After his first defeat by knockout against Dan Henderson four years prior, Bisping had worked his way back up to the top ten rankings, earning a spot at number four ranked in the middleweight division entering this fight. UFC President Dana White saw Bisping as a fighter who was up for any challenge. He had never said no to an opponent, but that response might have changed had he known that Belfort was on testosterone-replacement therapy prior to their fight.

The two fighters met at the center of the octagon, circling each other to find their own range and rhythm. Both light on their feet, they exchanged a few leg and body kicks before attempting to throw “money shots,” offensive strikes which would knock out the opponent. Bisping pressed forward with “one-two” combinations: shifting his weight forward to his front left leg with a quick left jab, and the rest of his body following this forward motion with a right hand cross. Belfort would look for counter strikes after the second punch, most often in the form of an uppercut. Unlike eight to ten ounce boxing gloves, mixed martial artists who fought in the UFC would wear four to six ounce gloves in the octagon to maximize damage upon impact. While both boxing and mixed martial arts coexist in the world of combat sports, mixed martial arts is the more reckless of the two since boxing is one dimensional, only allowing hand-to-hand combat standing on the feet, while mixed martial arts additionally involves wrestling, leg and body strikes or other forms of ground combat. 

When Bisping went in for another combination with a minute and nine seconds left in the first round, Belfort held up an open hand as protection from the strike, which caught Bisping wincing from an eye poke. A jolt of pain shot through his eye. Although this prompted Referee Dan Miragliotta to call a timeout, Bisping insisted he was okay to continue fighting within seconds. Little did he know that eye poke was the beginning of the end.

Bisping continued throwing heavy right hands with the five-minute round seemingly going his way until the last ten seconds, when a left leg kick to the head rocked him, allowing Belfort the opening to finish the fight. As Bisping shuffled alongside the cage to create space from the fighter, Belfort chased after him with strong left hand strikes. Bisping was saved by the bell.

Belfort significantly slowed his pace entering the second round, waiting for his “money shot” counter strike, and eying Bisping like it was a game of cat versus mouse. At one minute and twenty seven seconds, Belfort raised his left leg to allow his shin to contact Bisping’s right temple, sending Bisping backwards onto the canvas. With Bisping on his back, Belfort pounced on the dazed fighter, sending powerful left hammer fists to his face and body until the referee called a stop to the contest. Any ounce of gold slipped from Bisping’s sight, and within two weeks, all he could see was a curtain closing on his right eye. After an undefeated fighting career in England, Bisping had just faced his second loss by way of knockout.

Michael “the Count ” Bisping began learning jiu jitsu at eight years old in Nottingham, England, a few hours away from his hometown of Clitheroe. Based on his natural talent and motivation to succeed in the sport, both his father and coach at the time knew that Bisping was a gifted athlete who would one day become world champion. It wasn’t long before he was winning the under 13 division at age 11, followed by victories in the under 16, under 18, and adult jiu jitsu divisions. 

Bisping was the youngest of three boys, and because of that, he always competed against his older brothers. More so, Bisping often got into fights at school to defend his family name against those who would make fun of their lower-middle class standing. Life in England in the 1990s culturally had its ups and downs in itself which contributed to the uneasy interactions among people in everyday life. In addition to issues such as the jails in Manchester reaching a critical point of occupancy and growing concerns of acid parties or illegal raves, the sudden death of Princess Diana in 1997 gutted the country, taking everyone by surprise. In addition to the immense weight that cultural issues had on the English at the time, the 90s was a time of low opportunity, large working class areas, and a small percentage of wealthy individuals. This undoubtedly took its toll on Bisping’s parents, as his mother, Kathleen, was a stay at home mom and his father, Jan, was a military veteran who retired early due to an injury. Life was not always easy financially, let alone living in the no-nonsense, eight-person household of a former British sniper. However, Bisping never complained about his upbringing, having understood the sacrifices which his parents have made for him and his family. His upbringing did, however, force him to adult quicker, with the mental and physical strength of a man just as a boy. Easily channeling the energy and competitiveness from his upbringing into his fighting, Bisping eventually created a name for himself and his family as he became a successful fighter, also gaining popularity.  

With this growing popularity, however, Bisping gradually found himself involved in more public street fights, even if they were just acts of self-defense or stepping in for his peers. One morning after he defended a friend in a bar fight during his younger years, Bisping was arrested at his home and sentenced to 28 days in prison for a public order offense. This was all while his wife, Rebecca, was seven months pregnant. Bisping thought he would never throw a punch again. 

He was at rock bottom, or so he thought. If only he knew that feeling would return in the blink of an eye.

Following his loss to Belfort, Bisping’s partial loss of vision in his right eye prompted him to visit the optometrist, who diagnosed a detached retina. After the first surgery, Bisping underwent a great deal of physical pain. He still tried to remain active and continued to go on runs every day, but one morning on a run after his recovery, Bisping felt an increasing pain in his head after he woke up with a slight headache. By the time he got back to his house, the pain was like nothing Bisping has ever experienced before. Going to the eye doctor with his wife straight after, he was told that his eye pressure was almost 90 mm Hg on a scale where above 21 mm Hg is considered dangerous. This instance sent him back to the operating room once again to clear the drainage in his eye, but this was only the first of many cycles where Bisping would be screaming in agony from his eye pain which would send him back to the doctor for additional surgery. In and out of the operation room having thought each visit would be his last, Bisping underwent a total of six surgeries, soon developing glaucoma, damaged nerve endings and eventually complete blindness in his right eye. It was UFC President Dana White who told him he would never be able to fight again, but when the time came, he was also the person who granted Bisping a title shot.

White and Bisping first crossed paths in the UK at The Ultimate Fighter season 3 open auditions in early 2006. After witnessing Bisping dominate his opponents in the first round, White was so impressed with his confidence, skill, and “world champion mindset” that he signed him to participate in this combat sports reality show on television. At the time, Bisping was one of the top fighters in the UK, and the UFC was not even allowed on Pay Per View. The Ultimate Fighter was the UFC’s “trojan horse”; White knew he needed to get the sport on television, but various networks were terrified of glorifying such violence. Creating a reality TV show out of combat sports was the only way to make mixed martial arts seem less intense for television networks.

Competing in an elimination style bracket for a six-figure UFC contract, the 16 fighters moved away from their families to live together in a house together in Las Vegas, Nevada. Visiting America for the first time to compete on The Ultimate Fighter only strengthened Bisping’s hunger to become a “world champion,” as evidenced by his victories on the show which landed him a spot in the finale. 

Michael Bisping versus Josh Haynes highlighted the main event of The Ultimate Fighter season 3 finale on June 24th, 2006, and Bisping won by TKO at 4 minutes and 14 seconds of the second round. Handed a six figure contract with the UFC, Bisping never thought he would ever see a check that big given to him. Coming from a family of below-average wealth, he choked up on the words he could have used to express his gratitude to Dana White. This, in turn, marked the beginning of his UFC career. Bisping created a name for himself as the most popular English fighter in the UFC and most certainly overcome any obstacle presented to him. 

As Bisping began to recover from his eye injury, he endured the most physically and mentally exhausting stage of his life . Not only did he face a rollercoaster of emotions as he went through the ups and downs of his recovery process, but he also faced the gutting reality that he might not be able to step foot into the octagon again. A life without fighting was a period where Bisping was desperate to find himself again. To him, he identified himself with the sport of mixed martial arts, and without that identity, he almost lost sight of who he was. More so, it was as if the light in his life disappeared along with his identity and livelihood. He felt worthless, beyond just a failure. Unlike any other defeat, where Bisping could pick himself up after a difficult loss, this injury was as if multiple people were stepping on his chest to prevent him from standing back up. Not only was he feeling the weight of the physical injury itself, but it was also the weight of everyone telling him that his fighting career was over. And the worst part was that, at the time, he was physically unable to prove anyone wrong. He was drowning in his thoughts, anchored by his injury and the voices which unwantedly followed. Even if he was physically recovered, the blindness in his right eye would stand in the way of him being able to fight again. It was more than just a question of how he would fulfill the happiness inside of himself, but Bisping also questioned how he would continue to support his family. Given the social platform which the UFC has provided him with, Bisping ultimately decided to participate in movies, podcasts and television in order to continue making a living for himself and provide for his family. 

In early 2014, during a follow up appointment with his eye, Bisping saw a new doctor who gave him the hope to start fighting again. He essentially told Bisping, “my dad told me there’s two types of people in this life. One type of person who swings through the jungle on a vine and waits until they have a hold of another vine before they let go of that one. The other person swings through the jungle [on a vine] and they let go, hoping that they catch a vine. Something tells me you’re that second type of person.” To which Bisping responded, “you bet your ass I am.” Having said that, the doctor encouraged Bisping to get back to the gym and start training in hopes to book a fight, and the doctor will do everything to clear him on his part. In an instant, Bisping’s sense of purpose was restored. That day reignited a spark in Bisping as he eventually found a way to pass his eye exam before his matches. To this day, the way he managed to get medically cleared to fight blind in one eye remains unknown to the public. He knew it was risky, both to get caught and to risk further damage to his right eye, but it was proof that Bisping would stop at no means to become champion. Little did he know that the borderline loss of his left eye would be the reason he would retire fighting. But once he was back in the octagon, there was no stopping him. Despite the change in training to accommodate for his restricted vision, Bisping was back in the octagon, and before he knew it, he was fighting a rematch against Luke Rockhold for the Middleweight championship in 2016.

Over three and a half years since his fall against Belfort, the time came for Bisping’s walkout to fight for the middleweight title at UFC 199 on June 4th, 2016. Walking out for a fight was nothing new to him, but fighting for the middleweight championship with one eye made the world seem even more tunnel visioned than it was. Surrounded by the noise of screaming fight fans and his choice of walkout song, Blur’s “Song 2,” Bisping strode towards the ring. He walked fast, with hunger in his eyes, reaching his arms out for the support of his fans. Fighting at The Forum in Inglewood, California, he headlined the main event in a rematch against Luke Rockhold: a competitor which he lost against almost two years prior via submission in the second round. 

Making his way up the steps, Bisping turned around to embrace the cheering fight fans, enthusiastically flexing his muscles before heading into the ring for the 26th time, in his first title fight.

Bisping’s mind raced as he remembered the last time he was up next for a championship fight, having left the octagon with his life changed forever. He tried to keep his composure to the public, and although the arena was buzzing with fight fans and reporters, the loudest noise was the thoughts in his own head: “What if I mess this up again? What if he catches me at my blind spot? If I don’t win this, there is no chance that I will be getting another title shot ever again.” Since his injury, Bisping has had to change his fighting style to accommodate for his single vision. Every time he entered the octagon, he knew there was a chance he would be caught from an angle which he did not physically see coming. More so, having already hit rock bottom in the recovery process of his right eye, he knew there was a chance that he could cause the same damage to his other eye, as well, which would make him go blind in both eyes. 

Bisping’s body tensed up as he headed to his corner. He felt the eyes of his wife and children watching him from the stands, the people who have seen him go through his worst on his UFC journey. He could also see the eyes of Dana White following him as he paced back and forth, sitting with the championship belt sitting on the seat next to him. He heard his coaches talking to him through the fence, trying to calm his nerves and give him advice before the fight began, but all Bisping could focus on was how close he was to winning gold. Bisping has come too far to let this dream slip from reach yet again, and he was determined to do whatever means to come out of this fight as the new UFC Middleweight Champion.

As Rockhold made his entrance into the ring and Bruce Buffer delivered pre-fight introductions, Bisping paced back and forth in the blue corner of the octagon. The two fighters then proceeded to meet Referee Mike McCarthy in the center of the ring, who told them to have a clean fight and obey his rules and commands at all times. After they touched  gloves as a show of sportsmanship, the two fighters headed back to their corners.

After they stared at each other from opposite sides of the ring, Bisping and Rockhold started towards each other and faced off in the middle of the ring at the sound of a clap. Both fighters stood in a wide legged sparring stance, knees bent and light on their feet. While Bisping stood orthodox with his hands guarding his face, Rockhold stood southpaw in a left-hand dominant position, with his arms comfortably lowered from his face. 

Five seconds in, Bisping initiated the first strike, using his front left leg to quickly sidekick the front quadricep of Rockhold’s front right leg. The two continued fainting towards each other and circling in the middle of the ring, throwing jabs which didn’t land. 

Twenty-five seconds in, Rockhold raised his knee to throw a front right kick to Bisping’s body, which pushed him backwards a step. Rockhold followed with a quick shuffle to set him up for a low right kick to Bisping’s outer lower leg. Bisping, seemingly unfazed, extended his arm to maintain the distance, which Rockhold grabbed on to for a second before letting go.

Circling back to the middle of the ring, Bisping threw a right-left combo, landing the initial jab to the right shoulder before Rockhold backed away from the left hook. For the following 25 seconds, the two fighters exchanged light jabs which caused no significant damage, just as Rockhold threw another low right kick to Bisping’s front leg. 

The two fighters repositioned themselves to the center of the ring once again. At 1:05 into the fight, Bisping threw a left jab-right cross combination just as Rockhold raised his right knee for a right front kick to the body. Each of the fighters were able to land their strikes, but Rockhold was unable to extend his leg for a damaging kick, eating Bisping’s right cross to the face and which gained a reaction from the crowd.

The two fighters continuously moved around the cage, changing angles and positions. Rockhold landed the next three significant strikes with a front right kick to the body, a right outside hook kick to the body, and a powerful high left kick to the face which Bisping blocked with his forearms. Bisping continued throwing faints as he was pressured towards the cage, and the two fighters exchanged light jabs to the face.

Throughout the match, Rockhold kept his hands lowered from his face, chin up, displaying comfort and confidence that he would not be taking many shots. He proceeded with more of the offensive strikes, scoring points via leg kicks in the eyes of the judges, while Bisping stood tense, trying his best to counter them.

At 2:33 into the fight, the two fighters exchanged body shots after a straight left from Rockhold. With Bisping having shifted closer to the cage, he side shuffled to the right to create space before he lunged for a left-right-left body shot combo. Creating space once again, the two fighters repositioned in the middle of the ring.

As Rockhold showed himself to be the stronger fighter, Bisping threw another jab before he received a hard left kick from Rockhold to his front left leg, which caused him to stumble. Rockhold followed with two strong leg kicks, to the face and to the body, both of which Bisping attempted to block. Bisping then ducked from a right jab before he threw a right cross and missed. He dipped back out once again. 

Rockhold threw another leg kick and right jab, followed by the same return from Bisping. Bisping then went for a left-right combo, which Rockhold shot down with a right jab from Rockhold. His head flinched away. With Bisping’s back close to the cage once again, he threw a left jab in order to create space, but Rockhold continued to pressure.

A few seconds after, 3:29 into the fight,  Rockhold threw a right jab which Bisping absorbed. Just as the punch landed, Rockhold’s inability to quickly recoil allowed Bisping the opportunity to shift his body weight to the left, landing a right body shot and left hook to Rockhold’s temple. The money shot. 

This shot sent Rockhold stumbling backwards, chin down, before he fell backwards onto the canvas. He stood back up before Bisping ran over to finish him, unstable and leaning onto Bisping in order to retain his balance. Bisping pushed Rockhold’s body, head down, to create enough room for another left hook to the temple. Sending Rockhold face-first back onto the canvas, he turned to his back to see Bisping over him, feeding him three back to back power shots before Referee Mike McCarthy pulled him away. 

And just like that, it was over. He could only see gold.