On November 25th, the UFC will make its debut in Shanghai, China with one of the most top-heavy cards in its history. Aside from minor names like Alex Caceres and Alex Garcia, this Fight Night card features basically unrecognizable talent; however, at the top of the card sits an intriguing clash between the newly dethroned Michael Bisping, and the best guy-should-be-welterweight-fighting-at-middleweight Kelvin Gastelum.
A card this weak in terms of talent and name recognition should re-spark that perennial debate about the direction the UFC is headed. We could once again point out that aside from the main event, a card like this is basically indistinguishable from a regional promotion. We could make a case that most of the fighters who will be competing in Shanghai are superfluous and needlessly water down the quality of the product. These arguments are absolutely warranted but have fallen on deaf ears time and again. It seems prudent then to move on to another issue that has been made emblematic by former Middleweight Champion Michael Bisping’s quick return to the cage.
Just 19 days after losing his title to George St. Pierre, “The Count” will re-enter the octagon to face yet another highly skilled opponent. Bisping’s return raises some serious questions about turnover, fighter safety, and general promotional difficulties.
It has often been the case that fighters who come away victorious and uninjured after extremely short bouts get rebooked in a matter of weeks. It is understandable in these circumstances — maybe after a sub 1-minute KO win, for example — to be put back in action in such a short timeframe. Indeed, these athletes are able to extend their camps by a matter of a few days and by doing so remain in peak mental and physical condition. The same case too can be made for a fighter who has lost a fight via a quick submission.
At UFC 216, Walt Harris lost to Fabricio Werdum via arm bar in a minute and five seconds. Shortly afterwards Harris was rebooked for a bout 28 days later. Werdum was also rebooked after that fight and made his turnaround in 42 days. In both cases the defining criteria is the amount of perceived damage absorbed. Their UFC 216 bout was largely a grappling contest that resulted in a marginal amount of, if any, strikes being landed and virtually no indication of any trauma being inflicted. The UFC then made the proper decision to rebook both fighters because neither party received substantive damage and both were willing and able.
The UFC appears more willing to grant fighters who have lost via submission quick turnarounds – at least in comparison to those who have lost via KO. The idea here is that fighters who have been submitted suffer less blunt force trauma but this is by no means a categorical precept. If a fighter is submitted following a 4-round battering no sane person can argue they should return to action in a matter of weeks. However, the UFC seems to have adopted a similar rationale for the making of UFC Shanghai’s main event.
In their fight at UFC 217 Michael Bisping absorbed a total of 59 significant strikes (courtesy of Fight Metric). He was knocked down by a left hook and then absorbed several of GSP’s total 19 ground strikes – many of which were extremely powerful elbows. Ultimately the Brit was choked unconscious, but that ending has allowed the UFC to paint his return in a particular light.
UFC brass will say, “Bisping lost by submission, he wasn’t knocked unconscious or TKO’d but submitted”. The fact that he received numerous concussive blows and was knocked down will not enter into the narrative. By framing his loss as a quick and painless, the UFC is able to reinsert The Count back into the mix at 185lbs. This of course doesn’t mean the Englishman is without any agency – he understandably wants to get back into the deep end of pool – but one has to ask whether or not the UFC truly values the safety of its fighters when they put a 38 year old, likely concussed fighter, back into the cage just 19 days after a traumatic loss.
The damage Michael Bisping absorbed at UFC 216 may play a crucial role in his fight with Gastelum on Saturday. He could be less durable, more gun-shy, and in the worst case suffer an increased susceptibility to serious brain trauma. Ultimately it is the UFC’s internal responsibility to allow their athletes to compete. Hopefully UFC Shanghai will give them a reason to take a closer look at how they operate but historical precedent indicates that it may take some tragic occurrence before change can be made.