Mixed martial arts (MMA) are full-contact combat sports following a rich history of tradition back to Pankration, a Greek Olympic Games event introduced in 648BC. Sitting at the absolute pinnacle of this tradition are UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), who bring together the most skilled fighters from every country and continent, in every martial arts discipline, creating events that showcase true champions.
Michael Bisping is a UFC Hall of Fame fighter, former Middleweight Champion of the World, an actor, television presenter and Sunday Times & Amazon Best Selling Author. Bisping’s legendary 29-fight career with the UFC saw him headline sold out shows across seven countries and become the first British born World Champion. He remains one of the most popular personalities in the sport, serving as an influential commentator, ESPN analyst and podcaster.
In this interview, I speak to Michael Bisping about his life in martial arts, competing to win, and how we can all adopt a warrior mindset.
Q: What did martial arts do for you, as you were growing up?
[Michael Bisping]: Some people are sceptical to the benefits of martial arts, and the narrative that, ‘oh, it’s great for children!’ – but it was hugely beneficial for me as a child. It helped me with many things- of course it helped me physically- but it gave me a sense of identity. I wasn’t particularly good at sports (I was terrible at football, which here in England isn’t a good look!), I didn’t have many friends, and was a bit of a loner. Martial arts changed everything. I finally found something I was good at… it became my identity… it helped my confidence… it gave me a social circle! Going deeper… martial arts give you that discipline, right? You show-up every week, you do what you’re told, you pay attention, you learn.
Ultimately, martial arts gave me my identity, my purpose, a passion for a pursuit in life.
Q: What attracted you to competing in the martial arts?
[Michael Bisping]: What attracted me to fighting? …maybe we’ll need to sit down with a psychiatrist to get to the bottom of that one! <laughs> Competing is what attracted me to the martial arts. I’ve always been a competitive guy, even with my kids! I’ve got to win! It’s definitely a personality flaw.
I started out with Japanese Jitu-Jitsu. It encompasses everything. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mainly focuses on groundwork, whereas Japanese Jiu-Jitsu was one of the first martial arts, and a lot of other martial arts derived from it and accentuated parts of it. For example, Judo took the throws from JJJ and made them better. Karate took the striking from JJJ and made it better. At the end of each class, we would put the boxing gloves on and spar. That’s what kept me coming back.
Central to martial arts is the notion of testing yourself. That’s how you know if you’re improving. It’s one thing to demonstrate something and show it on a willing partner or instructor, but a whole different thing to use those techniques in a fight. The importance of rolling in Jiu-Jitsu or sparring at the end of the class is to demonstrate you can apply what you’re learning, and also, that you can improve. With martial arts you also have the additional question of, ‘can I use this in real life? In a situation that’s actually life and death?’
As humans, we also are deeply competitive creatures. We want to know who’s the best!
Q: How do you find the warrior mindset to compete and win?
[Michael Bisping]: It’s ironic. You would assume that when you go in to compete in a sport like mixed martial arts, you’d want to wind yourself up, get angry, get mad, and get fired up… it’s a brutal sport in many ways… beautiful, but brutal. I used to try and do that in my early career. When is as in the locker room, I’d find a corner, think about the sacrifices I’d made, and really try to wind myself up so I’d be a force to be reckoned with. That’s OK against 80-90% of people, but when you’re going up against the very best in the world, that attitude will work against you.
When you’re angry, you’re in a frantic state of mind, you are not the best version of yourself. When you’re fighting the very best martial artists on the planet, you cannot react out of emotion. You have to be cool, calm, collected and in the moment. You need to think clearly about how to counter an attack, not reacting to an attack out of emotion or anger.
The warrior mindset turns on much earlier than you might think. Of course, when you step into the battle you are thinking about what you have to do to win… but much earlier on, months in advance, you’ll get matched-up and offered a fight. That becomes a mission, and you’ll start to think about what you need to do to achieve that mission, to win that battle, to beat that opponent. You’ll start to plan, your coaches and team will work with you watching your opponent’s previous fights, and that leads to your strategy. Maybe you’ll do more Jiu-Jitsu… maybe you’ll do more boxing… maybe you’ll up your cardio… That’s the preparation you need to make sure the warrior is there on the day.
You’re not going to be a warrior in battle unless you are a warrior in preparation. You have to be single-minded, you can’t just show-up on the night.
As a fighter, it’s about doing everything in the lead-up to the night to make sure you win. You have to get your weight cut right, you have to make sure you’ve fought the right sparring partners, you need to make sacrifices, you’ll have to invest money, you’ll spend a lot of time away from your family, you’ll be in the gym, you’ll be flying around, living out of your car, sleeping on the floor. That’s where the warrior mindset turns on – it’s when you prepare so can do whatever it takes to win that fight.
Q: How do you separate the show, from the task?
[Michael Bisping]: You have to compartmentalise things. Of course, you have the show, you have the promotion, you have 20,000 people cheering, screaming… at the end of the day, none of that matters. You are there to win that fight. When you don’t win fights, you’re going to start sliding down. Losing comes with consequences. It hurts. This isn’t football. You might get knocked out, you might get submitted, you are going to get the crap beaten out of you for 25 minutes, it doesn’t feel good.
Q: How do you deal with failure, with losing?
[Michael Bisping]: Every now and again, you’ll get a fighter who comes out of nowhere and takes over the sport. That’s not a typical journey. Most fighters have to chip and claw their way up the sport – you win, you lose, and you learn.
Mixed martial arts aren’t like boxing. In boxing, if you lose on your way up? It’s pretty much career over. In mixed martial arts, there are so many ways to win and lose… you zig when you should have zagged, you bobbed when you should have breathed, you sprawled when you should have punched… things go wrong… When that happens, you say, ‘OK, what did I do wrong?’ – you have to be honest with yourself. Maybe it was something you did wrong on the night, maybe you didn’t prepare enough, maybe you prepared wrong. Maybe you just got beat by someone who was better than you – it happens, there’s no shame in that.
If you make it to the UFC, you will certainly have the ‘raw ingredients,’ you’ll have the athletic ability, the mindset and- by virtue of stepping into the octagon, you’re inherently brave. In my own career, I got three number-one-contender matchups, I lost all three… I thought I won one or two, I was robbed by the judges! But in one fight, I was knocked-out stone cold. There’s no argument. I was very happy that I made it that far though – a lot of people don’t make it to one fight at that level, never mind three. You have to get to work and improve.
When you’re training in the martial arts, you always want to be getting beaten in the practice room. That signifies you’re fighting good people. When you’re getting beaten, you’re getting better, you’re learning. If you’re dominating everyone in the dojo, you start to develop bad habits because you can get away with them. After getting submitted a few times… guess what, you learn. When you’re getting defeated in training, you’re getting better.
You’ve got to get tested in life if you’re going to improve.
Q: What did you learn about pain through your career in mixed martial arts?
[Michael Bisping]: When it comes down to it, people that fight for a living are cut from a certain cloth. Not everyone will choose to do this for a living. People who fight for a living can get amongst a bit of rough and tumble… they’re the ‘tough guys or gals.’
In a fight, you tend not to process pain. You’re running on adrenaline. You don’t feel it… it’s weird, you get used to getting punched. Unless it’s a really good strike, you tend not to feel it too much, you just get on with it. We’re sparring two or three times a week with training partners, so getting hit is part for the course. You’re going to get punched… you’re going to get kicked… you don’t go out in the rain without getting wet, and if you’re going to step into a fight, you’re probably going to get punched.
Punches to the face you tend not to feel so much, you’re expecting them. Leg kicks though, even with adrenaline they sting. They’re really bad. Body shots… there’s no masking that, when you get hit in the body, you can’t breathe, they hurt. For the most part though, because of the adrenaline, you recover fast and get on with it.
If I think back, I never really remember being in a fight and thinking, ‘agh, that really hurt!’ But there’s plenty of times where you get punched… you feel dazed and confused… you see that flash of light, get that buzz of sound, and you’re like, ‘whoa, where am i… that’s right, … I’m in the octagon… I’m in a UFC fight….’ And you get it together, and you fight.
You have to poker-face your opponent. If they see you’re hurt, they’ll swarm on you and try to get the finish. You have to pretend you’re ok, even when you’re not.
Q: So the question was about, when you had your eye injury originally and you carried on.
[Michael Bisping]: When we moved out here to the USA, I got kicked in the head and my retina detached. It then re-detached and left me with glaucoma. Everything that could have gone wrong with that eye, did go wrong with that eye. I didn’t want to give up on my fighting career though – we’d just moved out here, I was earning good money, life was going well, we’d bought a big stupid house we didn’t need…. I was also sadly fighting a completely made-up matter in a lawsuit which was costing me an arm and a leg. More than all of that… fighting is who I am, it’s what I do. I wanted to be champion of the world… I knew I was good enough.
I knew I could still fight, and some of the people close to me said, ‘not with one eye you can’t’ so I continued anyway… I lied, I cheated and scammed the system… I did whatever I could. It was highly stressful, but I believed in myself. It was also really difficult… With one eye, I didn’t have depth perception- I’d miss a glass a couple of times trying to pick it up. When I was sparring, I’d be hitting fresh air but as soon as I made contact with someone, the brain remembered the distance. It was amazing.
I was on a four-fight streak, and I got a shot at the title fight with two week’s notice. My wife was really excited but said, ‘Michael, listen, after this fight you need to retire… you’ve pushed this for long enough… you’ve got injuries… you’ve lost an eye…’ – I told her, ‘Babe listen, if I lose, I retire. I’ve wanted to fight for the belt my entire life. If I get it, I’ve reached the top of the mountain, but if I lose, I retire. If I win…. You’re out of your goddam mind if you think I’m going to retire.’ I went on to win.
Eventually, I started having issues with my other eye, and that was when I thought, ‘right, time’s up…’
Q: Why have combat sports become so important?
[Michael Bisping]: If you look at UFC, it’s the best on the planet. You can’t help but admire the skill… but it’s deeper than that… you have the bells, whistles, lights, lasers, music and production… but that love of watching fights is primal, it’s built within us. Mixed martial arts are a worldwide sport, it’s popular all over the world, transcends culture, transcends languages, race and all the rest of it.
If you’re walking down the street and there’s two people having a fight. Rightly or wrongly, you’re inclined to watch. You feel like you want to stop and watch and hopefully nobody gets hurt. Just go back to Ancient Greece too… to the Colosseum. Fighters have been with us since the beginning. It’s primal, it’s animalistic, it connects with who we are at our very core.
Q: What are the life lessons UFC has taught you?
[Michael Bisping]: I was a bit of a troubled kid. I was always getting in scraps, fights and in trouble with the law. I was never a bad kid, but I was angry and had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. If I look at where I am now, and the journey I’ve been on, it tells me that to a certain degree, if you keep within the realms of realism, you can achieve great things in life. Not everyone’s going to be an astronaut, but everyone has a skill. If you’re willing to get off your backside and do some work, formulate a plan, and find some discipline, you never know where your skill could take you.
Years ago, I was a quality control inspector at a furniture factory. It was minimum wage, boring, but was good, honest work and I had some nice people to work with. I remember one of my managers asked me, ‘is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?’ I said, ‘no way!’ He said, ‘well give that some thought Michael. You’re young now… to me it seems like yesterday when I walked in here 40 years ago.’ It made me think about what I could do… what I was good at… I had two children, I wasn’t making money the way I wanted to… and my mind kept coming back to fighting, martial arts… I won almost every martial arts tournament I ever entered… I knew I was good at it. I went back to my manager one day and said, ‘Hey Mick, I’ve figured it out, I’m going to be a professional fighter…’ – he said, ‘oh my god, I take back all those comments where I said you were smart…’ <laughs>
Everyone has a skill, that was my skill, I was always good at that. It doesn’t matter what your skill is – it could be sewing, anything… but you never know where it will take you. If you’re willing to start at the bottom and do some hard work, your skills can take you a long way.