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When Tyron Woodley actively lobbied for a first title defense against Georges St. Pierre or Nick Diaz rather than Stephen Thompson, it reflected an exceedingly straightforward calculation. Fighting St. Pierre or Diaz meant more money and fame for the new welterweight champion; it also meant an opponent without a win since at least 2013 rather than the top contender on the upswing. That’s just how fight matchmaking works: Sometimes a fighter gets a more desirable opponent, and sometimes he or she gets a less desirable opponent. It’s pretty much always clear which is which, as much as Mickey Gall was strangely lavished with praise by the media for his revelatory observation that Sage Northcutt is in the former category.
On the surface, Michael Bisping’s first Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title defense against Dan Henderson in the UFC 204 main event on Saturday in Manchester, England, appears to be a gift wrapped with a bow for the long-tenured Brit. That’s certainly the view of many fighters, fans and media members who have criticized the fight. There’s no escaping that the fight is desirable for Bisping in a number of ways. However, digging deeper, there are also some massive downsides for “The Count” in taking the fight. Bisping-Henderson 2 is one of the strangest fights of the year, not only in terms of a 46-year-old title challenger who has lost six of his last nine fights but in terms of all the unique pros and cons for the newly crowned champion.
A rematch with Henderson is something Bisping desired long before winning the middleweight title, and it’s not hard to understand why. Henderson’s knockout of Bisping at UFC 100 remains to this day one of the most memorable knockouts in the history of the sport. There are likely few days since then that Bisping hasn’t been reminded of that spectacular finish, and the desire for revenge has to linger. Adding to the equation was the extra blow that Henderson dove in and administered after Bisping was already out cold, something for which Bisping surely would have been ripped if the shoe was on the other foot. Bisping gets his opportunity for vengeance now, and at home in front of his partisan supporters to boot.
Beyond the personal issue, the fight with Henderson will also likely mean the biggest paycheck in the life to date of Bisping. With the readymade story, UFC 204 will likely do much better on pay-per-view than it would have with an alternate challenger, and that’s a major boon for fighters with pay-per-view points. Getting career-high paydays is particularly important for fighters in their late 30s when there are no guarantees as to how much longer they’ll continue to be able to fight at an elite level.
There’s also the not-exactly-inconsequential matter of Henderson being almost universally perceived as a much easier opponent at this stage of his career than alternative challengers such as Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Yoel Romero and Ronaldo Souza. Henderson has noticeably slowed, and his once granite chin has become not just human but an overt weakness. He has been knocked out in less than 90 seconds as many times as he has won since 2011. Compared to the diverse arsenal of weapons possessed by the top challengers in the division, Henderson relies on his punching power and little else now.
Of course, this widespread perception of Henderson gets right into the dangers for Bisping in this fight. Fully taken into account, the fight starts to look not quite so attractive for “The Count.” If Bisping does defeat Henderson, he isn’t going to be getting a lot of credit. The first knockout was so notable and it came so much closer to Henderson’s prime that it will almost certainly be the lingering memory of the Bisping-Henderson rivalry no matter what happens now. Even a spectacular win for Bisping may be thought of more in terms of sadness for Henderson than triumph for Bisping.
If Bisping loses, it’s all the worse. He will have lost to a bitter rival widely labeled an undeserving challenger. Henderson will stand out even more as the opponent that defined his career and in an entirely negative sense. It will have happened in Bisping’s hometown no less. With Henderson retiring and his respect in the MMA world, that might even be greeted with cheers by Bisping’s supporters. It would make it all the easier for his detractors to diminish the middleweight title win that will be his career legacy. In all, this has the potential to be one of the most devastating losses an MMA fighter is ever going to suffer.
The pressure is on Bisping at UFC 204. He got a fight that is desirable in so many ways. Yet, it’s a matchup that could backfire spectacularly. It’s a classic be careful what you wish for predicament. In a few short days, we’ll have a much better sense of how great or terrible the opportunity to fight Henderson again ended up being.