UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. Martin Rickett
UFC 204

The division's title is on the line this weekend but the UFC's best middleweights are elsewhere

Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson top the bill in Manchester.

MICHAEL BISPING IS a UFC champion and Dan Henderson is one win away from replacing him.

If you uttered that sentence as recently as four months ago, your loved ones would have expressed concern for your sanity.

The UFC’s middleweight division is in good health, yet this weekend in Manchester a 46-year-old who has lost six of his last nine fights could become its champion.

The 185lbs weight class in the UFC isn’t short of quality. Until last December, Chris Weidman had spent two-and-a-half years as its champion — a reign which included successful title defences against Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort.

Luke Rockhold looked extremely impressive when he dethroned Weidman at UFC 194. On the same card, Yoel Romero beat Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza in what was billed as a number one contender bout. Romero, an Olympic silver medallist in freestyle wrestling, got the better of the former Strikeforce champion via split decision.

When the victorious Rockhold and Romero left the MGM Grand that night, with Weidman hoping for an immediate rematch and Jacare bemoaning a controversial decision, Michael Bisping was as far away from the title picture as he’s ever been.

His unremarkable win against Thales Leites in Glasgow five months earlier had given him back-to-back successes for the first time since December 2011, but the Manchester native wasn’t in the discussion to be Rockhold’s inaugural challenger.

Having seen his progress halted on several occasions by fighters who later tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, Bisping hasn’t always had luck on his side in the UFC. However, the chips gradually fell his way in 2016.

In January, Romero ruled himself out of title contention for the immediate future by failing an out-of-competition drug test. A month later, Bisping picked up the biggest win of his career by defeating ailing former champion Anderson Silva, who attempted to coast to victory in second gear. But the English veteran’s big break came at the end of May.

UFC Work Outs - Manchester Arena Michael Bisping at Wednesday's UFC 204 open workouts in Manchester. Martin Rickett Martin Rickett

With Weidman and Rockhold set to meet last 4 June in Los Angeles, an injury forced the challenger to withdraw just over two weeks out from the fight. Jacare was offered the chance to step in but the Brazilian was unavailable due to a knee injury.

Enter Michael Bisping.

Facing Rockhold, a man who had stopped him after 57 seconds of the second round of their meeting in November 2014, few gave Bisping a chance. The pre-fight narrative centred around the fairytale of the 37-year-old finally getting a UFC title shot after 10 years with the organisation. The possibility of him actually winning was barely discussed.

In the main event of UFC 199 at The Forum, Bisping capitalised on Rockhold’s complacency. Having spent a decade vying for an opportunity to fight for a UFC title, ‘The Count’ needed less than four minutes to make it count. But Bisping’s rise to the top wasn’t the only middleweight curveball which was thrown that night.

Earlier on the card, Dan Henderson also caused a big upset by stopping Hector Lombard in the second round. While Weidman and Rockhold both clamoured for an opportunity to regain the title, Bisping saw a chance for revenge and the UFC got right behind it.

Michael Bisping has been beaten seven times in the UFC, but his July 2009 defeat to Henderson at UFC 100 is the one that stings the most. Bisping was knocked out cold by a H-Bomb — Henderson’s signature overhand right — but what left a bitter taste was the unnecessary follow-up punch that his opponent added before referee Mario Yamasaki could intervene.

The prospect of Henderson being granted a third-time-lucky opportunity to put a UFC belt beside the Pride and Strikeforce straps on his mantlepiece seemed absurd when tomorrow night’s UFC 204 headliner was initially discussed back in June. Now that the fight is upon us, it’s still no less bizarre.

UFC - Ultimate Fighting Championship / YouTube

The UFC chose to overlook form and merit by giving Henderson this chance. Just after the fight was officially announced in August, Henderson — who has suffered (T)KO defeats in three of his last seven bouts — miraculously reappeared in the rankings.

The recent announcement that Conor McGregor’s first fight in the UFC’s lightweight division will be for the title against champion Eddie Alvarez was widely criticised, as it allowed the Dubliner to skip the queue of contenders. By that logic, the catapulting of Henderson into a title shot warrants much more condemnation.

Bisping should retain his title if he is patient and avoids circling to his left, leaving himself open to another overhand right, but regardless of the outcome, Dan Henderson’s status as a legend of MMA will be unaffected. With wins over the likes of Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko, his greatest work is already done.

Win or lose, Henderson has insisted that he’ll retire after tomorrow night’s fight and he can do so with his head held high. Going out as a UFC champion would be a fitting end to a decorated career. A UFC belt has thus far eluded him — he lost light-heavyweight and middleweight title bouts to ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Anderson Silva respectively in 2007 and ’08. He certainly wouldn’t have expected an opportunity to rectify that to arrive eight years later.

His use of testosterone replacement therapy helped Henderson to paper over some cracks in the latter stages of his career, but the UFC’s introduction of a ban on TRT in 2014 has accelerated the deterioration of his powers. Three years shy of his 40th birthday, Bisping is no spring chicken either. Nevertheless, his relentless resolve has seen him improve consistently and he should emerge victorious in front of his hometown crowd.

The UFC had the box office in mind when they decided to match two fighters with a combined age of 83 for their first numbered event in Europe since UFC 138 in Birmingham in November 2011, yet the rematch of Bisping and Henderson hasn’t captured the imagination to anywhere near the level they were hoping for.

UFC Work Outs - Manchester Arena At the age of 46, Dan Henderson could become the oldest UFC champion ever this weekend. Martin Rickett Martin Rickett

In addition to the lack of genuine substance to the main event, the overall card itself is the weakest pay-per-view line-up in recent memory. The real value is likely to come from the likes of undefeated featherweight Mirsad Bektic and English prospects Danny Roberts and Marc Diakiese. The fact that the headline bout will still take place at 5am to suit the primetime TV market in the US doesn’t help either.

Normally at the end of a tee-up piece like this for a pay-per-view event, we list the event details such as the fight card and broadcast information. On this occasion, however, we recommend that you get yourself a good night’s sleep and be up early for DJ Kat on Sunday.

If it’s elite middleweights you’re after, you’ll have to wait until next month when Chris Weidman takes on Yoel Romero at UFC 205 (12 November), and Luke Rockhold and ‘Jacare’ Souza headline UFC Fight Night 101 (27 November).

Provided there are no more hiccups, expect one of those men to relieve Bisping of his belt in 2017. The Englishman deserves admiration for his perseverance, but he faces a stiff challenge — and one he’s unlikely to conquer given the calibre of the contenders — to prove himself to be more than a champion by default.

UFC 204 may only be available on pay-per-view in the US, but this is a Fight Night card in everything but the name. A title fight between the UFC’s fifth-best middleweight and a man who’ll be 50 in the next Olympics year isn’t going to change that.

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