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A classic showdown between a seasoned old gunslinger and rising hotshot is on the cards, as battling Brit Michael Bisping squares up to Californian kid Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai. With Bisping hoping for a season ticket to the ‘last Chance Saloon’ and Gastelum bidding to get ‘contender’ attached to his name, our odds expert Mark Sylvester expects the octagon to be tested to breaking point.
Don’t adjust your sets! Yes, that is Michael ‘The Count’ Bisping dragging his battle-weary body and shell-shocked mind into the cage to face tricky up-and-comer Kelvin Gastelum.
With Anderson Silva pulled for once more being a very naughty boy in the banned substances cupboard, Bisping was on the phone to UFC bosses before they’d finished the ‘d’ in suspended.
Just weeks after having his middleweight belt torn from his bruised hands by Georges St-Pierre, Bisping’s obviously decided the best way to get over that nightmare is to get on top of Gastelum, and teach him the finer points of ground ‘n’ pound.
The Count obviously believes he was on course for hanging the iconic Canadian’s scalp in his locker, in what was an epic tug-o-war for the title, before switching off for a second and allowing GSP to choke him out.
We’ll probably never know what happens in those moments when Bisping checks out. Maybe ‘did I leave the kettle on’ or ‘Hmm, I really like pop tarts’ suddenly pops into his head. Whatever it is, it’s consistently been the mischievous spirit that’s stood between the grizzled warrior and greatness.
And at the end of this fight, whether he’s bathing in the cool waters of victory or dunked in the freezing pool of defeat is likely to come down to whether his flaky brain stays focused.
It’s a risk.
Gastelum is a pumped-up welterweight, just like GSP, with the hand speed of a cartoon character, who’s managed to smuggle every ounce of his welterweight power past middleweight border control.
We all know what Bisping can do. This is a man who once quit kickboxing to do demolition work and you suspect he did it with his bare hands. He probably wasn’t born at all, but chiselled out of some granite block just outside Manchester.
That’s the Bisping who turned Cung Le into a pulp before starching him in round 4 back in 2014, and last year survived a Grand Canyon-sized gash under his eye to outlast Anderson Silva.
His legendary engine keeps going even after it’s been carpet-bombed. And if he simply keeps going against Gastelum, you can get Bisping to win by any method at 43/20.
And, his engine will get carpet bombed by Gastelum who last year survived being thrown around like a rag doll by the bigger, stronger Tim Kennedy, only to launch an all-out striking assault that ended with Kennedy trying to tunnel through the canvas to safety.
Since winning The Ultimate Fighter in 2013, Gastelum’s fast, agile style – with a left jab so perfect it’ll one day be in the hall of Fame on it’s own – has put him into the mix.
He outfought former great-bearded-hope Johny Hendricks for a decision, and he’s chalked up a couple of impressive submissions by near naked choke. He’s also got one of the most accurate strike rates in UFC, with around half finding their eye-watering, skin-splitting target.
The former high school wrestling champ will also fancy his chances if Bisping falters, drops his hands, and he can get him off his feet. If The Count leaves a crack in the door of his defences, if his mind wanders back to the brutality of his GSP encounter, Gastelum could finish things before the final bell. It could definitely happen and it’s a 6/4 shot.
The 26-year-old could also use his ability to slip strikes and come back with big hands to take the iron out of Bisping’s attacks, and drag the fight over the line with his nose in front. A win of any sort for Gastelum is 33/100. That’s a sign of how the wind’s blowing here. But MMA’s a funny ol’ sport!
So fight fans, this is a tough one to call, right?
Will the Bisping that climbed to the middleweight summit by going medieval on Luke Rockwold turn up? Or will it be the hard-as-old-boots warrior with the dodgy concentration that fought like a lion, but ultimately let GSP pickpocket his crown?
You pays your money and takes your chance. But I think there’s a big clue as to how this could go lurking in plain sight. Gastelum is a supremely talented fighter with enough in his locker to take him to the top.
But his flirtation with the weighing scales has seen him bounce between welter and middleweight, with a few catchweight brawls thrown in. Right now he’s running about in the middleweight playground, and despite possessing speed and power he was found out against Chris Weidman in his last encounter.
He was out-muscled and outfought, bullied, and shoved. Under constant physical pressure, Gastelum started to fold like a cheap, slowly folding, deckchair. By round 3, the writing was on the wall and he submitted.
At 5ft 9in he’s used to fighting fellas bigger than himself, but the 6ft 1in Bisping will look like a craggy, sheer, rock face with fists.
Everyone always doubts Bisping, and for good reason. But with the scent of redemption in his nostrils, his dark looming, monolithic presence, heavy hands and bottomless tank, I think he’ll have just too much for Gastelum. Out on a limb here, but Bisping to finish it by KO or TKO. That’s 6/1. Exciting, eh!