When people say Anderson “The Spider” Silva is the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the history of the UFC, they are just reading a label that’s been attached to the Brazilian since 2006. The term “P4P” and even his statistics – record longest title reign in UFC history (2,457 days), record longest winning streak in UFC history (16), record number of knockdowns in UFC history (17), and on and on – don’t really describe how good a fighter he was.
Only those of us who’ve swapped talent and bad intentions with him can really explain how outstanding a prizefighter Silva really was. And we don’t do it with words. Rich Franklin’s misshapen nose, Chael Sonnen’s crushed ego, Forrest Griffin’s shattered pride, and the zagged scars on my brow tell the story.
Going into the fight on February 27, 2016, I knew I was nearing the end of my time as a fighter. My body was turning on me, and I knew the Silva fight would deliver the final verdict on my entire career. I knew the sport’s self-appointed historians had already drafted the summary: “Michael Bisping, perennial contender, BUT couldn’t win the Big One” and this was my last chance to force a rewrite.
Anderson wouldn’t just be looking for a win; I knew that for a fact. The former champ’s ego would demand the full restoration of his near-mythical status that only a spectacular knockout would deliver.
“It took Chael Sonnen two years of non-stop bullshit to finally anger Anderson,” the Spider’s manager Ed Soares said during fight week. “It’s taken Bisping less than two months.”
No doubt about it, I’d worked fast. I’d blasted him about his 2015 failed drugs tests and his excuse he’d used a Thai sex pill (“Did it work, then?” I asked the GOAT, “Do you get an erection or not?”). I got into his face every chance I got – at the press conference, at a photocall at Tower Bridge in London, when we passed each other at the UFC host hotel.
So, why did I go all out to piss off the greatest fighter of all time?
Simple, I respected him too much and Silva preyed on respect. For years, I’d watched opponents fail to challenge him to the best of their ability because they went in going, “Oooh, it’s the legendary Anderson Silva.”
Meanwhile, Silva – a master mind-gamer – would be using meticulous deference (the bowing and all that nonsense) to con opponents into “respectful” martial arts contests that best suited his style. Then, inevitably, he spring the trap and smash them to a brutal defeat.
The atmosphere crackled with as the first round began in front of a long since sold out London O2 Arena.
There was no way to beat Silva on the back foot, I knew. I had to take the center of the Octagon right away, be intelligently aggressive and push the pace. Silva would counter and hurt me, he’d play his gamesmanship and make me miss, he’d pretend nothing I did was working but – whatever happened – I knew I could not let him blunt my aggression.
I landed first, and not just a single shot but a combination. Silva switched from his natural orthodox stance to his preferred southpaw, back and forth, back and forth, and I could see him performing calculations behind his eyes. He threw – and landed – several punches. The speed was equal to the accuracy. I had no trouble landing on him, though. I kept pressing him backwards, landing ones, twos, and even several three-punch combinations. He wasn’t as hard to hit as I had expected, although hitting him with the same combination or setup twice proved difficult.
As if a timer had gone off, Silva surged forward in the last thirty seconds. I had to stand my ground – and did – clipping him with a big left hook that staggered him as the buzzer sounded.
As the horn blared out to end my 10-9 round, Anderson attached a goofy grin on his face and came in to give me a hug. It was another one of his psychological set pieces.
Congratulations on winning a round against the great Anderson Silva, his embrace inferred. I shoved him backwards – hard – with both hands and told him what he could use a Thai sex pill for.
You are not coming to my country and condescending me in front of my own people. I am just getting started with you – see you back here in one minute.
Anderson reached deeper into his bag of magic tricks in the second.
His reflexes were extraordinary. He could go from naught to nuclear in a split second. But one of my long-held suspicions was already confirmed – he relied on discouraging opponents from throwing combinations as much as his own reflexes to avoid them. I’m a stubborn bastard at the best of times, and I trusted my cardio and skillset to land strike numbers three, four, and five even if numbers one and two missed.
This was no unmasking, though. Silva was every bit as good as he’d looked during his championship reign. On several occasions, his anticipation of my attacks was so exact it gave me the disquieting sensation we were doing fight-movie choreography. I had to push such thoughts away and keep the pressure on.
A minute into the second round, Silva backed himself against the fence, squared his hips into a normal standing posture and waved me in.
“Come on, man,” he said in that Michael Jackson voice of his, expecting me to play the game of firing punches while he dodged like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies.
Unfortunately for Anderson I’d seen this ruse before (most memorably vs. Stephan Bonnar in 2012). His squared-up stance made dodging punches easier, not harder, and the proximity to the fence all but ensured no one would try a full-power kick and risk catching their toes in the chain links.
It was a con, not unlike those can’t-win carnival games, and I’d have none of it. I stepped back three paces to the center of the Octagon, put my hands on my hips and shot Silva an unimpressed look.
I’m not one of the overawed challengers you’ve clowned and beaten for years, I shook my head.
The British fans began to play their part, too, cheering my bravado and letting Silva know he was a long way from Brazil.
The second round was going even better than the first for me. Silva knew it, too, and in the final minute he dropped down off his toes and loaded more TNT in his gloves. Silva pressed forward but I sent him into reverse with a push kick. Then I flicked a jab on my way inside and – BAM! – a drum-tight left hook buzzed him badly. Before he could recover any equilibrium, I twisted my hips into a right cross and then arched another left to the jaw. BAM-THUD-BOOM!
I’d decked him! He was down, hurt!
The British fans roared like the place had caught fire. I followed Anderson to the ground – taking an up kick from the lightning-fast Brazilian on the way down – into his guard and began hacking away at him like a madman.
(The up kick was incredible, I have to add. I could see in his eyes he was rocked – but this man is such an instinctual fighter he still fired and landed a counter.)
I had no fear of his BJJ guard. I wish I’d got him down earlier, because the thirty seconds of ground and pound were my most dominant of the fight so far. I smacked him with both fists and elbows until the round ended.
The fans thundered noise around the cavernous arena at the end as I walked to my corner. I felt great. It was hard; I was a little bloodied already – but I was putting on the performance of my life. I was two rounds up, 100 percent. I just had to keep focused like the edge of a scalpel.
“You’re doing well,” my coach Jason Parillo said. “Stay focused.”
Anderson shot off his stool determined not to lose a third straight round. He was coldly aggressive, less content to give ground and, after getting hurt and dropped by the left hook, he wore his shoulders locked in formation either side of his chin.
Silva’s punches and kicks were as accurate and slicing as the strokes of a diamond cutter. He thudded a kick into my midsection. I refused to back off. I chased Silva to the fence and landed three of a four-punch combination. Silva’s right fist sent sweat bouncing from my head. Moments later I felt his nose stab between my middle knuckles as a right cross crunched into his face.
“This fight is living up to the hype,” commentator John Gooden stated.
BISPING! BISPING! BISPING! BISPING! rumbled around the arena.
Anderson slammed his left knee through my defenses and into my guts. He chased me along the fence. We exchanged shots and, somehow, my mouthpiece fell out. I pointed the ref’s attention to it, lying on the canvas and Herb Dean went to retrieve it.
For a split second I thought about the long-term consequences of professional cage fighting. I wanted my mouthpiece back in before my incisors were knocked out or my face was grated from the inside out.
“Mouthpiece!” I said to the referee. The Spider saw my preoccupation and attacked, blasting into the air like a rocket and driving his knee directly into my face. I crumpled to the canvas, my knee twisted underneath my weight with blood gushing from the bridge of a broken nose. Before I’d finished falling, Anderson had landed, turned, and was walking towards the center of the Octagon celebrating.
The round ended two seconds after Silva’s knee had struck.
If that had been the end of the fight, it would have haunted me for the rest of my life. I’d fought an intelligently aggressive fight for 14 minutes and 58 seconds, hurting the GOAT in the first round, dropping him in the second, and out-striking him 63-36. And then I’d completely disengaged from the task and invited a calamity to happen.
But it wasn’t the end of the fight. My face felt collapsed, but I was still with it.
“I’m not knocked out!” I told Herb Dean. “I’m okay!”
One of those statements was more accurate than the other, but Dean confirmed I wasn’t out of the fight.
“No, you’re not knocked out,” Dean said to me clearly. “End of round.”
Twelve feet away, Silva had thrown himself into celebration. Somehow, his entire team burst into the Octagon to join him. Confused commissioners wandered after them like emasculated grandparents trying to persuade kids it’s bedtime.
Silva then leapt up and straddled the Octagon fence and celebrated even as officials on both sides of the mesh – including UFC president Dana White – pleaded with the excited Brazilians to accept the fight was not over.
Somehow, his manager Ed Soares was in the Octagon speaking with him but, at the opposite gate, my teams were refused entry by security. Bags of blood gushed out of the cuts and I badly needed the assistance of a cutman and my team. A cutman appeared above me momentarily, only to be marched away by some random official without so much as applying grease to my lacerations.
Finally, my team sprinted over to me. They were told I needed to return to my corner. There’s no such rule – but the Octagon was a complete riot by now.
“You’ve still got this,” Jason said calmly. “This is still your fight.”
When I raised my head once more the Octagon had been cleared. Anderson Silva was pacing for the fourth round to begin. I rose off my stool and felt at sea.
“Michael Bisping does not look like himself,” commentator Dan Hardy told the television audience. “He looks dazed. He looks confused.”
In fact, mentally/cognitively I felt okay – physically I was a car wreck. My right leg trailed behind me as I moved across the canvas; my full weight had collapsed on top of my bad knee and the bottom half of my leg was numb. My nose was broken and I couldn’t breathe through its misshapen nostrils for the rest of the night.
Let me do this… I thought behind my bruised eyes.
That’s when I heard it. The roar!
The roar of the British fans rolling tighter and tighter until I could feel the soundwaves moving the hairs on my forearms. A roar that gathered energy to me. The fans still believed I had this! I can’t describe what that cheer did for me. Whatever confidence Jason had instilled, whatever self-belief I’d dragged from the bottom of my soul – these people doubled and then tripled it.
I let the referee’s signal release me. I went out and took the fight to Anderson Silva all over again.
We had both reached the championship rounds hurt and tired. The fight had become a battle of wills. I pumped out combinations: an inside leg kick followed by a foot stomp into a jab, a right cross, a left hook, a right hook, and another left.
“Great work by Michael Bisping! His hands are really fast and Anderson Silva is struggling to keep up with him,” Hardy said on color commentary.
Silva remained against the cage, looking for a big counter, as I kept the pressure up. I switched up my attacks constantly, trying to make it harder for him to read what I was doing next.
BISPING! BISPING! BISPING! BISPING! BISPING! The fans were heard again.
Silva speared at my face with his right half a dozen times during the fourth round, puncturing my already bruised features above and below the left eye. With the cuts I’d already sustained, my entire face and neck were awash with blood.
Once again, he launched a lightning raid in the final seconds. A corkscrew uppercut + left cross combination buzzed me and opened the gash under my eye a little wider. I timed his next attack and sent him careening backwards with a right hand. The round ended.
The fourth round had been my most active of the fight; I threw 80 strikes, all but 12 of them power punches and kicks, and out-landed Silva massively. I was sure I’d taken a decisive round.
“You are winning this fight, Mike!” Jason said. “He’s looking to counter with something big. Keep smart pressure on him.”
The cutman could do nothing with any of the axe wounds on my face. In the seconds before the fifth and final round I looked up at one of the big screens suspended 140 feet in the air. There was my face, shredded raw. Every blink smeared the blood across my eyeball.
Silva went for the knockout right away – I barely blocked two head kicks thrown just moments apart.
Unable to breathe through my nose, I had to curl my lips and drag air over my mouthpiece for long stages of the fight. My oxygen levels must have plummeted, because I was more tired in that last round vs. Anderson than in any in my career.
The Brazilian was fighting on fumes, too. I could see him biting down on his mouthpiece and flaring his nostrils as he stalked forward, throwing every last watt of power into his strikes.
The legend whipped a big left cross in. I matched him with a hooked right cross that sent him backwards against the cage. I gave chase but missed the follow-up and – BANG! – I was sent staggering backwards by something.
Silva had uncorked the front kick to the jaw that had so iconically laid out Vitor Belfort. I was hurt and Anderson went for broke. His knee thudded into my guts and then my chin. He kicked my nose and the already contorted cartridge snapped. Everything fired was intended to land with a fight-finishing detonation.
But I refused to go backwards for long. I landed a heavy one-two combination to his mouth. My left hook landed once, twice, and a third time. Then he clubbed my jaw with that Filipino back fist. I heard him gasp as I swung a kick to his midsection.
It felt like we’d be fighting forever and then the round–the fight–ended.
Exhaustion hit me like a tidal wave. I’d spent all of myself. Nothing was left.
You never know when close fights go to the scorecards, but all three judges scored it 48–47 for me. That moment was overwhelming. The swelling and blood gave my tears cover as they streaked out of my eyes. I was overcome with emotion. This was my world title win, the Big One.
I was one of the best fighters in the world. No one would be able to take that away from me again.
After celebrating with my family for a few moments, I thanked the fans who’d lifted me up for that fourth round. Honestly, I’d never needed them more than I had in those lonely moments.
“These people – they give me the power,” I told my old training partner Dan Hardy, who was holding a microphone in the middle of the Octagon. “I’m just a guy from a very normal background and you guys have been in my corner every single time. Thank you so much.”