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Blue-collar star

Bisping, who will take on Chris Leben in UFC 89 tonight, uses mixed martial arts to rise from the Lancashire factories

October 18, 2008|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

The damp working-class neighborhoods within Lancashire, England, have a way of trapping their own. Residents toil in the factories that line the polluted Manchester Ship Canal then pass the night away in one of the local pubs.

Michael Bisping was living that life, departing his home before dawn each day and returning long after the sun had set. In between, he worked various blue-collar jobs, performing such rudimentary tasks as lifting 60-pound bags of sand from a conveyor belt and neatly stacking them.

The long, monotonous shifts were good for one thing. They allowed Bisping to daydream of a better life. If he was going to spend his prime years working with his hands, he might as well use them as fists.

Five years later, those daydreams have become a reality.

Bisping, one of the top mixed martial artists in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, is scheduled to take one of the biggest steps of his career today in Birmingham, England, taking on Chris Leben (18-4) in the main event of UFC 89. The three-round middleweight bout is scheduled to be shown tape delayed on Spike TV beginning at 9 p.m. PDT.

Bisping, 29, brings a 16-1 record into the fight, his only defeat by split decision last December against Rashad Evans in a light heavyweight bout. Evans went on to score a devastating knockout last month against former champion Chuck Liddell.

"This fight is big for both guys," said UFC President Dana White. "[Bisping] was fighting at 205 pounds, but this move down should make him stronger."

Bisping planned to drop down to middleweight after his first defeat at light heavyweight, but it took longer than expected. After coming so close to beating Evans, Bisping still had second thoughts.

"It didn't even feel like a defeat," Bisping said. "It wasn't like I went in there and got knocked out."

Bisping ultimately decided to stick with his original plan and drop down to the 185-pound division, where he mowed through his first opponent. Bisping was then scheduled to fight Leben in June, but Leben canceled about six weeks before because he was jailed in Oregon for violating probation on a drunk-driving conviction.

Jason Day stepped in for Leben and Bisping scored a first-round technical knockout. It became obvious that Bisping has found his ideal weight class.

"He's way faster, quicker," said Brian Talbert, one of Bisping's training partners. "He was always fighting bigger, stronger guys that were cutting 20 pounds just to fight at that weight and he didn't have to cut weight."

Bisping started the foundation for his MMA career before the sport really existed. An age-group jiu jitsu champion in his youth, Bisping began fighting grown men in bare-knuckled kickboxing tournaments when he was 15.

For nearly a decade, he fought in low-level organizations, all the while working in dingy jobs and feeling as if he was being sucked into the small town way of life. "I'd just think every day, 'What am I going to do, what am I going to do?' " he said.

Finally, in 2004, one of his boxing trainers persuaded him to pursue MMA, where hefty paychecks were said to be waiting. Bisping decided to quit his job, leave his girlfriend and two small children behind and move 200 miles away to the only MMA academy in England. At times, he slept in his car on cold, snowy nights, but he continued on, knowing it was likely his last opportunity to realize his dream of becoming a professional fighter.

Despite the promise of money, he was not paid for his first professional fight. Even worse, the promoters wouldn't even provide a free ticket for his girlfriend.

Still, he marched on, winning his first 10 pro fights, either by submission or knockout. His big break came when he competed in the third season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series on Spike TV. Bisping went on to win the finale in June 2006, earning a six-figure contract with UFC.

Bisping continued his domination, winning his next two fights by technical knockout. He then took on Matt Hamill in September 2007 and had the first close call of his career, winning by split decision.

He was then matched against Evans, another fighter with a strong wrestling background, and Bisping spent much of the match on his back, trying to fend off Evans, who won a split decision.

"I thought I won the Hamill fight and I think I probably lost the Rashad fight," Bisping said. "He got a takedown right at the end of the [final] round and I think that probably clinched it in the judges' eyes."

Bisping's last two fights have been criticized for a lack of action. Evans cleared his reputation scoring a one-punch knockout of Liddell. Bisping says he and Leben have the straight-ahead styles that should make for an exciting fight.

White said an impressive performance by Bisping will go a long way toward earning a title shot against current middleweight champion Anderson Silva. "If Bisping can walk through Leben, it's a big step," White said.

Just as important, a victory will take Bisping further away from the life he worked so desperately to leave behind.

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dan.arritt@latimes.com

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