Michael Bisping and fighting’s Faustian bargain

Friday, November 24, 2017

The coach wasn’t surprised at my stance. He knew how I’d want to talk about the recently announced, short-notice fight

Days after losing a heartbreaker at UFC 217 to Georges St-Pierre, former middleweight champ Michael Bisping (30-8) was asked to replace Anderson Silva against Kelvin Gastelum (13-3) in a Shanghai main event just a couple weeks away. Bisping, of course, accepted the bout.

“Oh, I knew you were going to be worried,” Bisping’s head coach Jason Parillo told me and my Extra Rounds podcast co-host Mike Dyce last week.

“No one is going to be more worried than Elias, I know that. I knew that when you called me – ‘I’m getting the worrywart calling me.’”

No argument, here. The legendary fight coach and I had spent enough time together in the past couple years that he could easily predict the darkened lens through which I’d look at this fight that the whole world seemed to be uncritically celebrating.

Sure, I marveled at Bisping’s guts and fighting spirit for wanting to fight again so soon after losing to GSP, throwing caution to the wind. However, given that the British warrior had long ago established himself as an almost storybook-level, archetypical fighter – A hardworking one wholly committed to his grisly craft, come glory or disaster, who had clawed his way into deserving notoriety – none of us should have been shocked that he accepted the quick-turnaround fight against Gastelum.

So, I was and am less inclined to state the obvious – about Bisping’s bravery and gameness – than to speak on the often ignored issue of the fight game’s (in this case, the UFC promotion in particular) callous and exploitative bent. Bisping was initially suspended from contact after his New York City loss to St-Pierre for a month, and for good reason.

“The Count” had been dropped, hard, by a left hook, and then was choked unconscious. Fighting again just a few weeks after such brain trauma is clearly not healthy.

If the UFC did not effectively regulate itself in markets like Shanghai it’s unlikely that Bisping would be allowed to fight again, against anyone, so soon. A promotion like the UFC, which does not provide year-round health care coverage, pay into a fighter pension fund, or offer any retirement plans, doesn’t have fighter’s long-term health in mind when they rush hurt fighters into their next bouts with dizzying speed.

Fighters, of course, will fight. For one, it’s what they’ve built themselves to do.

That’s why referees officiate bouts – to not just save competitors from one another, but to save them from themselves and stop contests when a fighter won’t give in on their own accord. That’s also why independent, strong, and well-funded athletic commissions are needed – to do much of the same thing, on a larger, zoomed-out scale, with things like medical suspensions, and choosing not to sanction certain contests.

Secondly, fighters will fight because it’s how they make money. UFC fighters aren’t salaried. They only get their relative pittances after they fight, and so frequent, short-notice fights often represent the possibility for an unexpected and welcome check for athletes, one that helps obscure the risks.

Parillo knew I’d be thinking and saying all that. And I had a feeling I knew what to expect from him.

Parillo is a fighter’s coach, in the truest, best, and most old school way. He works with individuals, one-on-one, often for years, and cares deeply about them.

As a former fighter himself, he knows exactly the sacrifices his pupils make, and doesn’t appear to ever treat his fighters like mere paychecks. Parillo doesn’t cut corners and he gives good advice when he’s asked, looking out for his charges more than for himself.

He also respects them all as adults capable of making their own decisions, and knows when it’s time to shut off the philosophy and tune into fight preparation details. So, though he teased me for my concern about Bisping – who turns 39 in a couple months – facing Gastelum – who turned 26 last month – so soon after his last fight, Parillo didn’t deny the danger his man faces taking tomorrow’s bout.

Instead, the coach just explained to me why the fight would yet go on, and did so with full-throated confidence in his guy. “It’s not that it’s a good or bad idea. It’s the spirit of Michael Bisping. That’s just the way it happened,” Parillo said.

“Mike’s at peace with whatever decisions he makes, you know? He’s the type of guy where he’d rather ignore the negative past and try and make something positive in the future.

“Are there health concerns? Of course, there’s always health concerns.

“When he originally called me he said, ‘hey, I’m not hurt at all. Nothing bothers me at all. I’m not hurt in my head. I’m completely fine.”

Parillo, nor any real coach or fighter is blind to the cruelty and danger of the fight world. They also would recognize the need for policy and regulatory reforms to protect fighters.

Right now, in the moment, a fight is about to happen, however, and all of that needs to be put aside for a bit. Besides, as Parillo pointed out, fighters often go into fights after having recently taken serious damage. The public just doesn’t usually know about it.

“In all reality, and you probably know this as well, Elias, guys get knocked out in the gym a week or two before the fight a lot of times,” he continued.

“That happens more times than you know about, than you think about. It happens. It happens more times than not.”

That is to say, ‘health’ for fighters is always a relative term. When a fighter tells a reporter that they’re healthy heading into a bout, they’re not.

Maybe it’s an ankle or knee sprain. Maybe they nursed a cornea scratch for a week during camp.

Maybe they got knocked out two weeks ago in sparring. In any case, no fighter is ever completely healthy heading into battle.

So, as far as these things go, Michael Bisping is doing pretty well after losing a fight he was arguably winning a few weeks ago, Parillo reasoned. Besides that, there are mental benefits to getting right back in there and dealing with all the stress of fight week.

“He’s healthy, he feels good, and he feels alright about it,” Parillo said of Bisping.

“Is there an emotional concern because of the adrenaline, the exhaustion with all the promotion leading up to the last fight? Sure, but there’s also a lot of conditioning there along with it.

“There’s no perfect answer to any of this stuff. Should I be concerned? Yeah. Should I be excited and positive to help my guy go in there and help my guy win the fight? Of course, that as well.

“Once a fight is accepted it’s not my job to sit there and be a worrywart about it. My job is to go in there with the best mind frame we can go in there with. Worrywart is not the frame of mind that I can have or carry with me. It’s too late for that.”

I can’t argue with that. I’ve only relatively low-level analogous experience as a coach and fighter compared to Parillo and Bisping, but what the RVCA Training Center head says resonates with me when I empathize.

I’ve gone into amateur fights of my own on days’ notice. I’ve had opponents changed on me on minutes’ notice. I’ve gone into others with torn up ligaments and after missing out on weeks of camp preparation in order to show up in one piece.

Those decisions to fight were not, strictly speaking, ‘smart,’ or ‘safe.’ Still, at a certain point after making them, a mental switch had to be flipped, or not.

Once the fight is on, reflection isn’t your friend. Neither is looking too far into the future. The challenge in front of you is everything, and it will demand everything from you.

The challenges of fighting sports present uniquely dangerous risks to athletes. They also present opportunities for unique glory.

Nothing in sport hurts so much as losing a fight. Inversely, nothing feels so satisfying as winning a fight.

Only the latter can wipe out the hollowing effect of the former. Winning after a loss is redemption of the self, by yourself.

What’s more alluring, and appealing than that? What risk isn’t worth taking to achieve that?

Michael Bisping recently lost.

Now, sooner than expected, he has a chance to win. I can’t imagine anything else mattering as much to him, right now, as that.

“Mike knows he could have won that fight [with St-Pierre],” Parillo summed up.

“Mike knows he fell short and it’s frustrating and he wants to get that out of his head. He feels the best way to do that is go get in another fist fight. God bless him for it.”

About the author:
Elias Cepeda is a host of Sports Illustrated’s Extra Rounds Podcast, a staff writer at FloCombat, and has a weekly column for The UG Blog.

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