I am not opposed to the idea of rematches. In fact I find them to be quiet helpful in building hype: nothing sells a fight better than “unfinished business” or “this time it’s personal”. But a rematch is just like any other commodity, if you flood the market with them, the value will be lost.
Rematches should be saved for three kinds of occasions:
If one man comes out on top in a close fight I see no reason for them not to have a second, like Jon Jones and his upcoming rematch with Daniel Cormier for the light heavyweight title in July.
I can also understand if a fighter loses, goes on a tear and shows technical improvements that would suggest the fight may turn out differently now, like when the one dimensional wrestler Chad Mendes was knocked out shooting a takedown on José Aldo, then changed his game up and emerged as a thunderous power puncher who went on a 5 fight streak with 4 knockouts to earn his second shot at the belt.
The final situation is where one man loses but his performance on the night leaves you feeling unsure of whether you just saw him get exposed or whether he had an off night, and a second fight might help clarify which one it was, like when a young Georges St Pierre lost to both Matt Hughes and Matt Serra, or when a tentative Cain Velasquez was knocked out by Junior Dos Santos.
If you’re wondering why I started with this, it’s because I hate the other types of rematches. The ones spun together to try and cash in on the idea of grudge matches, like the rushed third fight in the Dos Santos/Velasquez trilogy, or the ones that are obviously as an attempt to get a ‘re-write’ and put the favored fighter back in the win column, like the proposed matchup between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz after Diaz soundly defeated McGregor for the biggest upset of the year in a year which included no fewer than 3 titles changing hands so far. What is interesting is this weekend’s headliner between Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping is a fight that fits in to none of these categories.
We all know why this fight is happening. Chris Weidman got injured, Jacare is scheduled for surgery, Yoel Romero is suspended, and that leaves Bisping as the next in line with a reasonable win streak and the balls to step up and take a 5 round title fight on short notice. But the appeal of the fight is questionable to me. It’s not necessarily a grudge match, at least not any more so than any other Bisping fight, and I don’t get the feeling the UFC is trying to get Bisping the UFC title he has desired for so long by matching him up with Rockhold.
When they first met a little over a tear and a half ago, the fight ended in decisive fashion, it was not a close fight. The fight was one that highlighted why there is no such thing as a perfect fighter: it is impossible to fight in a way which is effective against every type of opponent, if there was such a thing everyone would do it. Simply put there are bad matchups out there for everyone, and Luke Rockhold proved that night that he truly is in every sense a bad matchup for Bisping. Finally, and most importantly, since that fight Michael Bisping has looked better, but he hasn’t showed us anything new. His gameplan is the same, and the flaws that saw him battered by Rockhold are just as present in his latest match with Anderson Silva as they were when Rockhold exploited them. What has changed is the opposition he is being placed in there with. That is not to say he is fighting worse fighters, I doubt there are many well versed fans who would say Luke Rockhold is a more accomplished Middleweight than Anderson Silva, it is simply that Bisping has not had to fight a fighter stylistically similar to Rockhold since he fought him, but he has seen shades of it, and those shades gave him trouble.
At his core Luke Rockhold is a man of simplicity. He has a few tools and he uses them very well. If you had to describe his style you would call him a southpaw power kicker. Outstanding grappling aside (and it really is tremendous, there’s not many people out there who can roll through a takedown attempt this smoothly) Rockhold makes use of his tremendous size at 185 to plant himself in the middle of the octagon and punt his opponent with his left roundkick to the body, as he did to Michael Bisping throughout their bout. He walks forward, he smashes the body kick home, he repeats. Think it would be easy enough to deal with? Well he also has a cracking left head kick, and because of the way he chambers his kicks, bringing the knee up first then whipping the leg out in a very traditional martial arts style, means that you aren’t quiet sure which is coming until he hits you with it. This is exactly how he dropped Bisping in their first fight, and in the gif you can see Bisping duck himself in to the kick, expecting a body kick. To defend one of these kicks is to open yourself up to the other, and Rockhold is a master at playing with his opponents expectations.
When you deal with a power kicker, especially one with competent hands, the way to beat them is to crowd them, not rush them. You have to be constantly walking the knife edge between staying in his face but not just standing at kicking range to be a target. If you try to kick with a longer kicker like Bisping did at points in their bout, you leave yourself open to his straight left, which he has been working religiously if his training videos for this fight are anything to go by. This is an effective tactic for Rockhold but not his opponents because of the fact that Rockhold holds a reach advantage over everyone he fights at 185, even former light heavyweights like Lyoto Machida.
Trying to rush him with punches will only see the longer Rockhold retreat and look to land his money punch, the counter right hook. This is by far Rockhold’s most effective tool when boxing, and he has used it to hurt much more diverse strikers than himself, like Lyoto Machida, Chris Weidman and yes Michael Bisping. He will often retreat on a straight line, which could spell trouble if he hits the cage, but he is so aggressive with his forward motion that he always has at least half the octagon between himself and the octagon wall, making a chase all the way to the cage unlikely, not to mention dangerous. This all works to keep Rockhold where he wants to be, punting his opponent from distance with his body/head kicks and clobbering them with the right hook when they look to rush him, or the left straight if they try and kick with him. Chris Weidman is far and above the best ring cutter in the Middleweight division, and even he had trouble dealing with Rockholds’ length and aggression.
So how about Bisping? Well he has a very unusual style for heavier weight classes, he is a volume striker. Not known for his knockout power (in fact he is known specifically for his lack of it) Bisping works off his jab, using it to build to longer combinations as the fight wears on and his pace starts to pick up as his opponent fades. When he puts his man against the fence and covering up, Bisping can pile on the damage like few others. The problem is Bisping doesn’t really have a reliable way to get the fight there. He presses forward, but he also makes sure to move left and right, he circles, he retreats and he keeps the fight on the outside. All good qualities to have in a fighter, but together they add up to the kind of pressure that forces an opponent to work, to follow, to turn with him and face him, but not the kind of pressure that drives a man to the fence before he is tired. This see’s a huge amount of Bisping’s fights play out in the center of the octagon, where he looks to work his jab. The jab is the foundation of Bisping’s game. He throws it constantly, and it is sharp, straight, has very little telegraph, and is very quick. This jab was enough to jam Anderson Silva’s normally razor sharp counter striking skills and saw him swinging at air or standing still in front of Bisping for long portions of their bout. However Bisping has one flaw in his jabbing form that has been exploited time and again: he keeps his lead shoulder low.
In boxing, one normally steps the lead foot in with the jab, turning the hip to increase your range and raising the shoulder to protect your chin. The turning of the hips is not really practical in MMA, as it is offering the lead leg up on a platter to be tenderized by any low kicker worth his salt, but because of that Bisping’s jab does not have quiet the range that it would in boxing. When you combine that with his tendency to leave his shoulder low and his chin out in the open when he jabs, you start to see why a man who almost always reacts to an advancing puncher by throwing a counter right hook over the top of the path of a jab may have an easier time hitting his mark than you would expect. This same low shoulder shows up every time Bisping punches, even mid combination, and it saw Anderson Silva land a few of Rockhold’s favorite shots on Bisping throughout their bout. Cung Le was also able to touch Bisping up with the right hook over the jab in their fight, before gassing horrendously after the first round.
Bisping has also showed a weakness for body kicks, particularly coming from the left, in to the side of his damaged right eye, the same eye he in which he suffered a detached retina in a fight with Vitor Belfort that has left him with impaired vision on his right side. Another reason for Bisping’s tendency to take these kicks is, ironically, his footwork. It may have been due to his infamous knockout loss to Dan Henderson (yet another instance where Bisping’s low lead shoulder got him in to trouble), or it may just be a habit of his, but more often than not Bisping circles out to his left, away from a conventional orthodox fighters strong rear hand. This takes him directly in to the path of the left roundhouse, shortening the path for the kick to travel by walking himself in to it. Vitor Belfort, Anderson Silva, and Cung Le all landed strong round kicks on Bisping from the southpaw stance.
So in Bisping you have a man who uses a jab to set up combinations later on in the fight and overwhelms his opponents with his volume and cardio, but who struggles to place fighters on the fence where he does his best work when they don’t walk themselves there and leaves himself open to left round kicks and right hooks. which just so happens to be the two weapons in which Rockhold has become so proficient that he has beaten the best in the world using those two techniques with his monstrous top control and slick submission game to polish off his opponents once they succumb to his two pronged attack. When this fight was announced, the oddsmakers opened Luke Rockhold as a 10-1 favorite, and to be perfectly honest I would agree with them. Bisping’s key to victory is to pressure the ever aggressive but predictable Rockhold to the fence, without taking too many of those kicks, then begin to work his combinations without leaving himself open to the counter right hook he has been susceptible to his entire career, including his most recent streak of wins, all while avoiding the ground fight like the plague, where even though Bisping has horrendously under appreciated defense, the advantage would lie firmly with Rockhold. Rockhold on the other hand has to do what he always does: take center octagon against a guy who likes to move around anyway, throw out those left roundhouse kicks that Bisping’s injured eye and habitual circling to the left leaves him open too,and when he advances throw that counter right hook that has proven so effective against Bisping and that Rockhold has proven so effective at using, then repeat, repeat, repeat.
This is MMA, anything can happen. We could see Bisping come out with a completely different strategy to the one he has been employing up until this point in his career. We could see Rockhold screw up and get caught out just like Weidman did in their fight. We could see this fight play out in a million different ways and we won’t know which way it’s gonna be until we see it.
But if I had to put my money on it….