Michael Bisping's performance last night at UFC 127 has polarized fans, to put it mildly. But last night is nothing new. Bisping's branding is more a product of his opposition crafting his image as much as it is pushback against his grandiose proclamations about his ability.
But is Bisping good or bad for MMA?
This could just be me, but Bisping is everything I despise in a human being all wrapped up in one package. He repeatedly throws around homophobic slurs like a high schooler, he cheats and he apparently lacks any traits to be the bigger and better man.
This is just a personal difference, though. In the grand scheme of things, my opinion of Bisping should mean absolutely nothing to him. How long will it be, though, until Bisping's behavior costs the UFC? In the long-run, if the UFC continues to allow his behavior go unchecked, it could lead to a bigger backlash in the future.
Bisping is a habitual line-stepper (and not in the romanticized ways of Rick James, either). Bisping is on a real slippery slope here in regard to his behavior because each new instance seems worse than the last. He has multiple instances of using the word "faggot" in public forum, once at the UFC 114 post-fight press conference and again at the UFC 127 weigh-in, where he called Rivera a "faggot motherf-----" in a heated exchange during the pose-off.
Author Jon Snowden, however, thinks Bisping's image - particularly after last night where he spat on Jorge Rivera's corner - is something that will serve the sport's interests:
Rivera, hopefully, learned an important lesson last night. Opponents used to be scared to death to talk trash to Michael Jordan. The Chicago Bull great would eviscerate anyone for the slightest perceived disrespect. Michael Bisping has a little bit of that in him too. Fitch is a great points fighter. But sometimes that's not enough. Sometimes I want to see passion, anger, and emotions boiling over. That's what Bisping gave us last night. The sport needs a bad boy or two and Bisping's the best we've got.
This is where MMA transforms from sport into something akin to gutter theatre. Snowden is probably right that Bisping, the fan's villain, will turn him into more of a box office draw. Note Snowden isn't personally endorsing Bisping's behavior. Who can? It's more a call to calm angry fans: hate Bisping all you want, but let's leave punitive actions from UFC President Dana White out of the process.
For my money, what Bisping does is far from the Chael Sonnen Show. He isn't crafting messages or trying to manufacture reality for entertainment's sake. He isn't thinking of one-liners or mastering the art of manipulating fans' emotions. He's responding as a child, with all of the insecurities and immature anger one would expect. There's no skill here, just blind reaction. Acting or not, boorish behavior can be good for the sport's bottomline, but it's a lot easier to be comfortable with an actor playing a thug than rooting for a thug.
As for White, it's hard to know if he'll take any action against Bisping. He can't be overly punitive and has historically shown he won't be. But he has immutable barriers when it comes to professional conduct. Perhaps spitting on an opponent's corner, while not illegal, will be deemed more than unsavory.
I also won't deny the nihilist arguments that Bisping's utterly boorish behavior might not be bad for his branding or the UFC. That's probably true, but it's also an indictment of the fight game generally and the utterly dubious tastes of casual fight fans more specifically.
The weight classes, referees, athletic commissions, weigh-ins and training best practices are what the fight game uses to forward its credibility. Those are all the trimmings of sport. Protecting or even promoting the most repugnant characters within the sport because their crass behavior enhances viewership or attention is how the fight game existentially removes itself from the rest of the sporting community. When pure unsportsmanlike conduct is lauded as integral to a sport's success, one must ask at what point does this activity we are all a part of actually a competition about physical excellence.