Michael Bisping's knockout of Luke Rockhold was one of the best underdog stories in mixed martial arts history. Bisping was a last minute replacement, didn't get a full camp, and to top it all off he was fighting an opponent who had already beaten him in brutal fashion once before. At a pre-fight press conference Bisping announced "all you have is a left kick and a right hook". You will recall that this was when Rockhold was hot off his victory over Weidman and we were touting him as the most rounded mixed martial artist in the game. Bisping came out circling away from the left kick, scrambling the signals he sent the counter puncher with feints, and refusing to lunge onto Rockhold's usual checking right hook.
Having little success with his most practiced methods, Rockhold tried to mix it up and began to lunge in with punches. Rockhold's offensive boxing has never been pretty but Bisping, through subtracting some of the opportunities for Rockhold's most practiced weapons on the feet had invited Rockhold to try something different. Rockhold lunged in with a jab and Bisping narrowly missed his return. The second time Rockhold showed the same lunge, Bisping decked him with a left hand.
"Pillow Fists Bisping" died that day and was reborn as "Left Hook Larry." A champion for England and one to whom all the world can look as a shining example of pugilistic greatness. His Fistic Majesty, Michael Bisping.
Then the UFC booked this fight with Dan Henderson and all that magic died. Henderson is forty-six years old, on a 3-6 run dating back to the end of 2013, and has been given this title shot for knocking out the welterweight Hector Lombard. Tim Boetsch is the only other middleweight Henderson has bested since he first fought Bisping in 2009, and that was by merit of Boetsch running onto Henderson's right hand at the opening bell. Yes, he's a legend of MMA for what he's done in the past, but perhaps the most telling statistic is that the co-main eventers of this card—Vitor Belfort and Gegard Mousasi—have between them knocked Henderson out three times, in a combined time of three minutes and forty seven seconds.
This match up is a head scratcher. What's the best case scenario? Henderson runs out throwing those stumpy low kicks, catches Bisping on one leg and decks him with the right hand? Great, Dan Henderson is the UFC middleweight champion in 2016 and is retiring immediately afterwards. Does Michael Bisping get to fight for the vacant title when Henderson is gone? Or perhaps Bisping kickboxes Henderson for twenty-five boring, cautious minutes. Or perhaps Henderson gets brutally laid out again. It's hard to believe this is the same middleweight title picture which seemed so fresh and exciting just a year ago.
Nobody should be giving Dan Henderson the chance to land his right hand in this day and age because everyone knows where it is coming from, and where it is going to. It is a long, telegraphed motion of his entire body and it comes like clockwork whenever he thinks his opponent is close enough. Yet it still lands from time to time. But Henderson's gas tank has always been so-so. For this reason feints and non-committal strikes should be a large part of Bisping's gameplan. Catch-and-pitch counters might be an idea as Henderson leaves his chin out for such a large window after his right hand—think Anthony Johnson's counter uppercut against Glover Teixeira or Frankie Edgar's against Urijah Faber.
While Belfort hurt Henderson with the counter uppercut, attempting it with the lead hand low got Shogun dinged up a few times.
Better to take it on the forearm first and fire back in the wake when Henderson is recovering from his swing. Once Mousasi had the timing of Hendo's right swing down he never needed to worry about a left hand coming in to 'close the door' and could pick his shots, drawing Henderson out and using his length excellently.
And of course Henderson's constant crouching down to his right side and loading up his right hand makes him a mark for the left high kick as Vitor Belfort amply demonstrated twice.
Periods of clinch fighting and work on the ground to tire Henderson out might also be a decent idea to keep Henderson out of that one range where he is so effective in the early going. Despite his wrestling pedigree Henderson has always been susceptible to being taken down amid his aggression on the feet.
For Henderson? You know the gameplan he's probably hoping to use. Running low kicks and the overhand. Attempting to get Bisping on one foot by kicking one leg out or by forcing Bisping to pick that leg up and check. When you're on one leg you can't get away from Henderson and he actually has the chance to run in and hit you with the right hand. You will remember that from the Bisping knockout and the numerous times he used it against Shogun Rua.
Attempting to time the right hand across the top of Bisping's jab might be an idea, but Henderson's head movement isn't the best. The catch and pitch, palming the jab and swinging the right hand as soon as he feels the jab might work better than attempting to score a pure cross counter against an active feinter. The jab has often proven to be a marvelous weapon against Henderson even when used by relatively uncomfortable jabbers like Shogun. But committing to it means risking that old fashioned battle between the jab and the cross counter. You're one mistimed jab from eating an arcing right across the top.
It would be interesting to see Henderson actively seek out the clinch in the early going. He isn't known as a dirty boxer or infighter, but his break from a clinch against Mauricio Rua allowed him to score a clean sneaker right and saved him in a fight in which he was being outlanded at distance. Notice those sneaky hammerfists to the back of the head while the referee is behind him, veteran tactics.
The main thing this fight does is raise questions about what being a champion in the UFC means. A champion cannot beat everyone. You're supposed to think that they can, that's how the UFC shifts its t-shirts and hot dog branders but if you made Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier fight the top 100 light heavyweights in MMA, they'd eventually lose and it would probably be to one of the guys you have never heard of. The point of rankings and championships is not to declare a fighter unbeatable but to reward consistency. When you can get a shot at a belt based off one surprising victory because folks get nostalgic about stuff you did half a lifetime a go, the titles don't mean much of anything. There's nothing to say that Henderson vs Bisping won't be a great fight—there's a chance of that in any match up—but the whole thing feels like a cheap diversion from the UFC's middleweight division which had recently become an exciting and fresh place in the wake of Anderson Silva.
If you're emotionally invested in the seven year old rivalry, this fight is awesome. But if you're just a normal fight fan, watch Justin Gaethje vs Ozzy Dugulubgov and David Branch vs Vinny Magalhaes on Friday's solid looking WSOF event and I'll let you know if UFC 204 was any good on Monday morning.