Pulling an Upset: A look back on Bisping/Rockhold 2

(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

Michael Bisping told us. He told us it would be quick, that he would find Luke Rockholds chin and put him to sleep. He told us that every fight is different and that just because he lost to Rockhold once, it didn’t mean that history would repeat itself. He told us it was his destiny to be the UFC Middleweight Champion of the world, and that this was the universe coming together to give him his shot.

But the funny thing is, I don’t think even Michael Bisping would have a problem with it if you told him you didn’t see his first round starching of Rockhold coming in the main event of UFC 199. Nobody did. His own son famously picked Rockhold to win this fight! Even Bisping’s most ardent supporters agreed that he had his work cut out for him against Rockhold, a man who had handled Bisping quiet easily in their first fight a little over two years ago. This is a man who has always been known for his almost unwavering sense of self belief, so when he started talking about how ‘every fight is different’ and that he was going to knock Rockhold out, we all nodded and smiled and chalked it all up to Bisping trying to hype himself up before what was arguably the toughest fight of his decade long octagon career.

But he was right. Every fight is different, and all the perceived advantages Rockhold held coming in to the fight (see my previous article for more on that) only mean as much as he makes them mean in the cage on fight night. A grappling advantage is only an advantage if you actually use your grappling to your… well advantage. A reach advantage means as much as you can make it mean, and looking back at the events leading up to the fight as a whole, you would be hard pressed not to say that the events surrounding this fight were at the very least a bit of a lucky break for Bisping, almost as if the Universe really was doing him a solid. The old saying is that styles make fights, and that is true, but so do people. A man who fights a certain way can just as easily choose to do something else, and this fight more than any proves how crazy and unpredictable this sport can be.

In my last post on this I spoke at length about Rockhold’s strong kicking game, especially off his left leg, and how that combined with his size and beautiful check right hook served to deter Bisping from coming forward and allowed him to chew Bisping up at range with left kicks in their first fight. In the build up to this fight it later became revealed that Rockhold had suffered a Grade II MCL strain. Anybody who has ever had to deal with knee troubles will tell you that they are not to be taken lightly, and yet take it lightly is exactly what Rockhold did, claiming that he hadn’t grappled or kicked all camp, that he had been doing only boxing for this training camp, and that that was all he would need.

During the fight it became apparent, bold prediction aside, that his statement was true. It looked very much like Rockhold had done very little grappling or kicking for this fight. He seemed a little tentative to kick with his left leg throughout the bout, even though when he did unleash it he had success. He kicked much more frequently with his right leg than is normal to see in his fights, and a lot of the time his distance and timing seemed off, leading to a lot of instances where Rockhold would raise his leg to kick and would be too close too actually do it, instead just clacking his knee awkwardly in to Bisping. This seems to support his claim that he had not kicked all camp, as Rockhold is normally quiet a savvy kicker, rarely wasting energy on a kick if he doesn’t think he can land it.

Rockhold’s second statement that he had only been boxing during this camp was also evident, as he looked remarkably less one note in his boxing game than he has in previous fights. The funny thing is one note is not always a bad thing, just like more does not often mean better. You will often hear fighters talk about how they ‘have more tools’ at their disposal than their opponent, but the reality is that it is not the quantity of techniques that is important in a fight, it is the quality. I hate to drag out the old Bruce Lee quote that has been done to death, but it could not be more applicable to a situation than in this instance: “You should not fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once. Instead, fear the man who practiced one kick 10,000 times”.

What I have always appreciated about Luke Rockhold’s striking was its simplicity. He was not a man with a big tool box, he was a man with a few very high quality tools. Those left roundhouse kick of his along with the check right hook was enough to win Rockhold the world title, it’s not like he had struggled on the feet before this fight.

When Rockhold came out to box he looked every bit the man who had been doing boxing for one entire training camp. He did not look like a man who had been using his boxing to outclass world class competition on the feet for years, as Bisping has been. Developing your skills as a fighter is essential to staying ahead in the fight game, but it is not a job that can be rushed. It is one thing to be a great power kicker with a money punch, it’s another thing completely to try and use his boxing offensively as his main focus of attack and expect it to be equal to the game that took him years to develop. While he looked to stand on the outside and jab (not a good technique to use out of his southpaw stance due to his lead hand and Bisping’s being directly in front of eachother, leading to them being blocked much easier) Rockhold looked every bit the fighter who had been boxing consistently for a few months, not years.

While I am sure Rockhold has always worked his boxing like everything else, he never relied on it the way he did Saturday night, and you could see why. While Rockhold’s stance with his lead hand low allows for his right hook to generate serious power and come through a blind angle (from under his opponents field of view over the top of their lead shoulder), it also means that if he doesn’t keep his distance, his chin is right there to be hit. This had never been a problem before because Rockhold was always sitting back, slamming in kicks from a safe distance and looking to smash that counter right home whenever his opponent decided to try close the gap. This is exactly the strategy that caused Bisping, a guy who normally likes to lead off his jab, so much trouble in their first fight. If he waits on his opponent to come after him, he bounds back on a straight line and looks to smash that hook home, if they don’t come in, he can kick at them with impunity, as his fierce ground game is enough to deter most takedown attempts. It was a simple gameplan, not a lot of flare, but it was unquestionably effective. As Rockhold began stepping in with his jabs, he began to both close the distance and remove the threat of the counter right hand from Bisping, the much more experienced boxer. This is also where Rockhold’s habits of keeping his head up high, lead shoulder low, and working in single shots gave Bisping the opportunity to step up.

The end came when Rockhold clipped Bisping with his usual counter right as Bisping looked to close the distance, then as Bisping stepped back Rockhold stepped in with a jab and Bisping ate it, then came roaring back with two big shots. Rockhold retreated, but after his jab connected he was too close to Bisping to avoid the punch and too out of position to throw his right hand. In the same way that the counter right hook is perfect for catching an orthodox fighter like Bisping coming in behind his jab, the left hook caught Rockhold over the top of his lead shoulder, right on the chin.

Many have disparaged Michael Bisping’s ability as a knockout puncher (myself included) and for the most part Bisping still is not a heavy hitter. What Bisping did in this fight was more impressive than suddenly developing the power to part men from their consciousness: he recognized an opportunity and he took it. What he did was commit to landing blows moving forward, breaking his stance and stepping with his punches and almost taking a short run at Rockhold. The key to hitting with power is shifting your weight. When you weigh around 200 pounds, putting your body weight in to blows will always lead to a heavy punch that has the potential to deliver a knockout. You would normally not see Bisping be so aggressive in his fights, as by driving your weight forward so openly, you leave yourself exposed. If your opponent decides to throw a punch back at you while you run towards them you are going to run right on to it, and all that weight will lend power to your opponents punch, not yours. Lyoto Machida has built most of his knockouts off this principle, most famously his knockout of Ryan Bader. Bisping didn’t have to worry about this as Rockhold had taken himself so out of position after his jab that a punch coming back at him was very unlikely, so he saw his moment and he took it. After that punch landed Rockhold was badly wobbled, and his habit of retreating on a straight line saw Bisping chase him down and finish him off by again exploiting the low lead shoulder which I myself had criticized Bisping for in his own fights.

And just like that we have a new Middleweight Champion. Some people are calling it a lucky punch, but the fact is it takes two to tango. Rockhold came out using a strategy that he was not familiar with, disregarded a pretty serious injury, and in general treated the fight as if he had already won. Bisping went in their and showed the whole world why we love MMA so much: odds don’t mean a damn thing in the cage. He saw a weakness in Rockholds game, and he exploited it ruthlessly. If he hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t matter what Rockhold did or didn’t do, and he has more than earned the belt and the right to be called champion, as much as Rockhold before him earned it off a poorly chosen Chris Weidman wheel kick.

This has to be a close call for biggest upset of the year, as stylistically Michael Bisping had no business winning this fight. Rockhold walked in with every conceivable advantage a guy could have short of being allowed to bring a bat in to the cage with him, and he still wound up blinking up at the doctor wondering why he seemed so concerned about what day it was, or how many fingers he had up. Everyone likes to say their sport is one where ‘anything can happen’ but very rarely do you get to see Rocky climb the mountain and come out on top against all the odds (hell, you didn’t even get to see that in Rocky). MMA really is a sport that revolves around the split second decisions made in the moment, even more so than the months of preparation needed to get there.  The stakes in the cage are so high, one slip up, one mistimed movement, one moment of complacency, and you may not get a chance to rectify your mistake. That is why the sport of MMA is continuing to grow, and why we can expect to see many more upsets in the years to come. Just don’t forget, whatever may be the case before or afterwards, on the 4th of June 2016, Michael Bisping was every bit the world champion that he needed to be, and as always, he had told us so.

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