Unlike Saturday’s main event between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and “Suga” Rashad Evans, there is no underlying "outside of the Octagon" storyline for the co-featured bout between middleweight standouts Michael “The Count” Bisping and Dan Miller.
They aren’t fighting for the opportunity to challenge the champion. They aren’t heated rivals. And they certainly aren’t expert trash talkers. Bisping has a sharp tongue for sure, but nothing like Jackson and Evans.
So what is the deal? Why are we focused on the matchup in the days leading up to the event?
Because this fight is huge for both combatants.
It is difficult to express just how important this fight is for Bisping. One year ago, he was just a few weeks removed from his successful 185-lb debut with an overall professional record of 15-1 and all the shine that comes with winning The Ultimate Fighter. Bisping’s only loss at that point was a controversial split decision defeat at the hands of Evans a few months earlier in his final 205-lb bout, and many viewers felt that the Brit deserved the nod in that bout.
Bisping really was on a fast track to the top of the sport at that point in his career. His great run of success continued for two more fights, both dominant one-sided performances that left some calling for a title shot. Then he ran into the right hand of former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson. The result was the single-most vicious knockout of 2009. Bisping returned to his winning ways a few months later, but he suffered his second loss in three fights when he faced legendary striker Wanderlei Silva back in February.
The recent tough stretch leaves the UK’s biggest MMA star in desperate need of a win if he is going to remain immediately relevant in the middleweight division’s title picture. Another loss and the climb back to title contention will be long and steep. An impressive win and Bisping is right back in the mix.
Miller is in an even more precarious position. After starting his UFC journey with three straight wins, he now sits mired in a two-fight losing streak—the first multi-fight losing streak of his career. Back-to-back losses are tough to swallow. Three consecutive losses could be crushing. By contrast, a spectacular win over an A-list guy like Bisping not only guarantees him another fight, it catapults him into the world of middleweight contenders overnight.
How is that for motivation?
There is no doubt in my mind that Bisping and Miller each want to win just as badly as the combatants in the year’s biggest grudge match. Thus, there is no reason to believe that the fight will be any less thrilling, particularly if Bisping is able to successfully defend Miller’s takedowns.
Not to beat a dead horse, but this fight, just like the bout with Jackson and Evans, is about one man keeping it on the feet and the other taking it to the ground. I know. I know. That is starting to sound like a broken record, but a ton of fights can be broken down that way whenever one man has a significant edge on the feet or on the ground.
Make no mistake about it: Bisping is in a different league on the feet. He defeats Miller in a kickboxing bout 10 out of 10 times, barring a lucky strike—no, not the cigarette, but a punch, elbow, kick or knee. Actually, I don’t like referring to any strike as lucky because if a shot is thrown with the intent of knocking someone out and it accomplishes that goal, that isn’t luck. It is perfect execution.
The problem is that Miller has yet to find perfect execution in the form of a strike. In 15 professional fights, he has never truly separated someone from consciousness with a strike. Yes, he defeated an opponent by corner stoppage, but that isn’t the same thing. I’m not saying that it is impossible for Miller to score a knockout on the feet. If I’ve learned anything over the last 12 years of watching the UFC, it is that anything can happen in any fight. It is just highly unlikely.
Maybe he doesn’t have enough power on the feet. Maybe he is so focused on his wrestling that he never sits down and really commits to a punch. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Whatever the case, he doesn’t want to try and answer that question against a surgical striker like Bisping. He instead wants to get the fight to the ground immediately and keep it there.
How does Miller accomplish that goal?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Conventional wisdom suggests that he should come out swinging in an attempt to convince Bisping to forget his sprawl and focus on dropping bombs. At that point, he can change levels and explode.
I’m not sure that will work.
Bisping will slice through Miller’s standup attack with precise counters if he doesn’t come forward with commitment. But Miller doesn’t need to sit down and try to trade strikes with a far superior standup fighter. What he should do is approach aggressively with his hands up and look to initiate a clinch, rather than punching away.
Bisping is excellent at defending takedowns, but I think that he is more exposed to takedowns from the clinch because he tries to pull straight out, which opens the door for trips and Greco-Roman throws. That isn’t necessarily Miller’s forte for taking the fight to the ground, but he is a strong, athletic middleweight who has shown a very good ability to get opponents to the mat.
If the fight goes to the floor, both men are very good submission artists, but neither of these guys wants to play the guard game for very long because the man on top will be looking to reign down strikes, not work for slick submissions. If Bisping finds himself on the ground, he should quickly get his heels on Miller’s hips and explode to create room for him to pop back up on his feet.
Miller, of course, will want to prevent that from happening by keeping his hips down with a wide base. That will help him control his opponent on the canvas. He should slowly work his ground and pound while forcing Bisping to the cage where he can smother him against the fence, effectively stifling Bisping's jiu jitsu. The downside is that Bisping will be able to use the fence to stand up if Miller gives him any room to breathe whatsoever.
If Bisping makes any mistakes trying to work to his feet or if he allows Miller to pass into side control and tries to roll out, Miller will not hesitate to snake around to his back and look for a fight-ending rear naked choke. I think that is a very real possibility.
Of course, all that assumes that Miller is successful taking down Bisping. I’m not certain that will happen. As mentioned, the Brit has excellent takedown defense. That was obvious in his fights with Evans and Matt Hamill, both of whom are regarded as more dominant wrestlers than Miller. He is good at sprawling, and he is excellent at avoiding clinches along the fence. More importantly, though, he employs a stick-and-move strategy against wrestlers, rather than stalking like an apex predator.
Bisping is very skilled at fighting behind and active jab while circling to his left. In my opinion, that is when he is the most effective, despite the fact that it was his major mistake in his first knockout loss. In that fight, he was facing a guy with a dynamite-filled right hand, so circling to his left meant that he was walking right into the weapon he so desperately wanted to avoid.
Miller doesn’t have a dynamite-filled right hand, so Bisping shouldn’t worry about jabbing and circling to his left. Circling will make it difficult for Miller to square up to Bisping and either shoot for a takedown or lockup a clinch.
Keep in mind that sticking and moving doesn’t mean pitty-pat strikes. Bisping throws most of his shots, including his jab, with conviction. That is obvious by the fact that 13 of his 19 wins came by way of knockout or technical knockout. Nevertheless, he is not a come-forward-at-all-costs apex predator with a granite chin and bazookas for fists, a la a prime Chuck Liddell. He needs to set up his strikes with angles and chip away at his opponent until he is hurt enough that Bisping can throw caution to the wind and open up full throttle.
I guess that is a long way of saying that if the fight remains on the feet, Bisping will be the one leaving with his hand raised. If Miller is able to score multiple takedowns and keep the fight on the ground for long stretches, then he will be able to pull off what most would deem to be an upset.
I don’t see the latter scenario playing out. Bisping is very good at keeping the fight on the feet, and Miller showed major standup flaws against a green standup fighter (Demian Maia) his last time out. I think that spells a Bisping victory on Saturday night. But I don’t think that victory will come without a few interesting moments. Miller is as game as they come. If anyone can rebound from a poor performance with a career-defining effort, it is this guy. I just don’t think it will be enough to take out Bisping.
• 31 years old
• 6’1, 185 lbs
• 75.5-inch reach
• 19-3 overall (8-3 UFC)
• 3-2 in last 5
• 7-3 in last 10
• 4-2 as a middleweight
• Only 4 fights have lasted the distance; 2-2 in those fights
• Winner of Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter (light heavyweight)
• Fight of the Night twice (TKO2 over Denis Kang on November 14, 2009; and TKO2 over Elvis Sinosic on April 21, 2007)
• Current layoff is 98 days (UD3 loss to Wanderlei Silva on February 20, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 266 days (UD3 over Chris Leben on October 18, 2008; until KO2 by Dan Henderson on July 11, 2009)
• 28 years old
• 6-1, 185 lbs
• 74-inch reach
• 11-3, 1 NC overall (3-2 UFC)
• Currently riding a 2-fight losing streak (first multi-fight losing streak of his career)
• 3-2 in last 5
• 7-2, 1 NC in last 10
• 9% of his wins have come by KO/TKO (1 out of 11)
• Six fights have lasted the distance; 3-3 in those fights
• Current layoff is 112 days (UD3 loss to Demian Maia on February 6, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 259 days (UD3 loss to Chael Sonnen on May 23, 2009; until UD3 loss to Demian Maia on February 2, 2010)