LONDON • Middleweight champion Michael Bisping finally avenged the most devastating loss of his career by claiming a close decision victory over Dan Henderson, in a thrilling title fight at UFC 204 in Manchester early yesterday morning.
Hometown favourite Bisping finished the brutal five-round battle with his face swollen and bloodied, after he flirted with disaster against his veteran American opponent before finally retaining the belt thanks to the judges' scorecards.
The 37-year-old won the title in sensational fashion in June, stepping up to fight Luke Rockhold at short notice at UFC 199 and knocking him out in the opening round to become the first British UFC champion.
He immediately called out the 46-year-old Henderson, who knocked him out in 2009 in what he called "the worst knockout in UFC history", and despite his plans to retire, the former Olympic wrestler duly obliged.
Bisping started well, taking the centre of the octagon while Henderson shuffled around its perimeter, right hand cocked on his jaw.
Through all but the most recent period of Bisping's career, his principal weakness has been for attacks delivered from an opponent's left side.
Under the tutelage of Jason Parillo, he has developed a dangerous left hook of his own - it was the shot that won him the belt against Rockhold - but this has opened up a throwing lane for an opponent's right hand.
Deep into Round One, he missed with a lead left hook and Henderson uncorked a stupefying right over the top of it that landed flush.
Bisping went down, Henderson followed him to the floor, and did all he could to end the fight with punches and elbows.
Bisping, though, is a supremely conditioned athlete, and somehow held on, eventually bouncing up to attempt a jumping kick that proved his recover.
Round Two followed a similar pattern. Bisping, now sporting a huge, bloody bruise under his left eye, again pushed the pace while Henderson waited.
And, sure enough, but with even less time remaining, another devastating right landed on Bisping's jaw. Again, he went down, but this time grabbed Henderson's torso and waited out the final few seconds.
Bisping was more circumspect thereafter, still the aggressor but taking greater care to stay out of trouble.
He rocked Henderson in Round Three before again being collared by a right, so predictable as to elicit a grin from both men.
But as Henderson tired, Bisping could play it relatively safe in championship rounds still high on excitement, the judges returning scores of 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46.
"This guy is incredible. At his age, he just kicked my ass. You've got to respect the guy, he's a legend," a gracious but battered Bisping said in an interview after the decision was announced.
For Henderson, it was to be his last professional fight and while he will be remembered as a UFC great, he goes into retirement without ever having won a belt in mixed martial arts' largest and most prestigious circuit.
"Fortunately for you guys, this is the last time that anyone will see me fight live," he said.
"I appreciate all the support throughout the years, I gave my heart and soul to this sport, and fans like you... made it worthwhile."
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN