As we all know by now, Michael Bisping’s right eye is completely fucked. It has been for quite some time, dating all the way back to 2013 when he got kicked upside the head by the most TRTastic version of Vitor Belfort, who looked like a damn action figure and coincidentally fought only in Brazil that entire year, far away from the prying eyes and uncomfortable questions of U.S. athletic commissions.
That kick to the head and the ground-and-pound that followed left Bisping with a detached retina that took months for doctors to accurately assess. That delay may have compounded the problems with it, leaving Bisping effectively blind in one eye. You could see how a person might retain some hard feelings for the fighter who did that to him, especially when it’s widely known that the guy was getting away with a lot of synthetic help, but whatever.
All that was in January 2013. Bisping would fight for almost another five years before retiring. He won the UFC middleweight title with one eye. He defended it with one eye. He fought the two greatest fighters of his generation – Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre – with one eye. Arguably the most meaningful and consequential fights of his entire career happened when he was down to one eye. Which is, to put it mildly, totally fucking insane.
What’s also crazy is hearing how Bisping talks about it now. On Joe Rogan’s podcast recently he explained how he managed to continue getting licensed – again, for almost five more goddamn years – by lying, cheating, and tricking his way through exams and pre-fight medicals.
“I fucking lied to so many doctors,” Bisping said, before explaining how he and coach Jason Parillo even came up with a code (that they never had to use) in order to defeat the highly scientific how-many-fingers-am-I-holding-up test.
It seems that Bisping’s big fear was not that he’d be at too great a disadvantage while fighting guys who had twice as many working eyes as he did. Nor was his concern that a similar injury to his one good eye would leave him completely blind. (Though, when that nearly happened in a loss to Kelvin Gastelum just three weeks after he lost his title to GSP, it finally convinced Bisping to call it quits.)
No, his big worry was that the doctors and athletic commissions might realize just how badly his vision was compromised, at which point they would deny him further opportunities to fight in a cage for money. Herein lies an insight into the fighter’s mind, but also the fighter’s life.
Part of what motivated Bisping to keep up the trickery in order to keep his fight career going, he explained, was necessity. He’d just moved from England to America and bought a house. He’d been sued by his former manager over his split with the Wolfslair gym and the “legal fees were just incredible,” he explained. He needed money, and after spending all his adult life pursuing this goal of being a professional fighter, it wasn’t like he had a ton of relevant work experience in any other field.
“I couldn’t quit,” Bisping said. “I’d no choice. I had to still fight.”
Now pause for a moment and put yourself in this predicament. You’re all in on fighting for a living. It’s getting to be too late to change your mind and go to law school. If you were to quit now you’d probably end up as, what, a coach somewhere? A personal trainer? Maybe a grizzled bar bouncer? Probably not enough money there to pay for that house you’re living in or afford the lawyers in your years-long court battle. (Bisping was eventually ordered to pay over $400,000 to his former manager in 2017.)
The only way to get the money you need is to keep fighting professionally. And since this sport typically pays you twice as much to win as to lose, you also need to continue being very good at it while competing against other people who are very good at it. That’s hard enough to do with two working eyes. If you can’t see strikes coming from one side of your body, or if your depth perception gets thrown all out of whack so that it’s hard to tell when you’re in someone’s punching range and when you’re just far enough outside of it, the job only gets tougher.
Want to know how tough? Make a fist and hold it out at the edge of your peripheral vision. Now close the eye on that side and watch it disappear completely. With that eye still closed, rotate the fist around in front of your face and see how long it takes for it to re-enter your field of vision. Now imagine the damage a trained fighter could do to you while attacking from that side.
Even worse, imagine while all this is going on you can’t tell anybody. You know all those ‘I don’t want to make excuses but here’s my excuse’ speeches we’re used to hearing from fighters after a loss? Here’s an entirely valid excuse – ‘I only had one fucking eye, and that was at the START of the fight, BEFORE the face-punching began’ – and yet Bisping not only couldn’t use it, he had to go out of his way to assure everyone that the eye was fine, no problem, totally not as bad as it looks.
I remember interviewing Bisping about his fight with GSP. It was a massive fight, headlining a pay-per-view in Madison Square Garden with Bisping’s middleweight title on the line. Before the fight, St-Pierre’s coach, Freddie Roach, came into Bisping’s locker room to watch his hands get taped up. Bisping said he could feel Roach staring hard at that bad eye, as if trying to determine just how blind he was on that side. Pretty goddamn blind, was the report that Bisping expected him to deliver to his fighter, and sure enough it was a left hook from St-Pierre that caught Bisping on that right side and put him down to set up the fight-ending choke.
Of course, Bisping had also injured his ribs in training and was debating whether to try to surreptitiously self-administer a pre-fight cortisone shot while FaceTiming with his doctor. (He decided against it, due to the risk of fucking it up and puncturing his lung.) Just in case all that wasn’t enough, his jockstrap snapped early in the fight. Because lol why not, what’s one more fucking thing at that point?
All that shit going on, and what do people remember now? That GSP came out of retirement as a middleweight because he thought Bisping was a beatable champ, and then he choked him out and took his belt and peaced the fuck back out of the sport again.
Point is, you don’t get a lot of sympathy for extenuating circumstances in this sport. Bisping knew that as well as anyone. For almost his entire UFC tenure he was the villain fans loved to hate. People loved to get online and clown him for his losses. The one thing that might have earned him some more respect and maybe even a little bit of slack – he was doing all this with one fucking eye, like a goddamn cartoon pirate – was the one thing he had to keep secret lest his entire career be ended against his will. No severance package. No pension. No disability benefits. Just, so long and thanks for sacrificing your body so that we may witness the fitness of the modern warrior.
That is a lot to deal with. It’s a lot to carry into that cage with you, especially when you know you’re one more eye injury away from spending the rest of your life in the dark. And his big concern through all this? That the doctors might figure it out and deny him the chance to keep taking that risk. That’s a certain kind of person, right there. Even though in this sport we like to act as if it’s just part of the minimum requirements.
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