For 23 seconds it all came together for England's Michael Bisping (25-6) at UFC Fight Night 48 in Macau on Saturday; he unleashed a glorious combination of 20 strikes that could have been lifted directly from an MMA textbook. None of them alone was enough to finish opponent Cung Le (9-3), but the cumulative effect was staggering. In the end all Le could do was propel himself backward to the mat and pray for the referee to intervene.
This was Bisping at his best, albeit against a 42-year-old movie star who seemed to think increased musculature would solve the aging process for him.
It did not.
"This is what I’m capable of," Bisping told UFC announcer Kenny Florian after the fight, which he won via TKO in the fourth round. "And believe me I’m capable of better...I want to be world champion. I know I have the tools.”
Despite his best attempts to convince us otherwise, this win puts Bisping back into the ranks of middleweight contenders. While Bisping talked a big game about title fights to come, I suspect few were buying into the 35-year-old's resolve.
Instead, it was a fight that confirmed exactly what we already knew about Britain's top MMA star. With 15 wins in 21 UFC appearances, Bisping has always made light work of the world's Cung Le's. That he's the last to realize that's not quite enough for a run at the top is exactly what makes him such a compelling figure.
For years Bisping has been one of the sport's great villains, a man who has mocked the disabled, literally spit on opposing cornermen and made a habit of insulting the LGBT community. But he also has a sly smile and genuine wit. He's a master of the pre-fight battle of words, often getting underneath opponents' skin by finding their weak spots and picking away at wounds before scabs can even form, let alone heal.
But being a compelling figure isn't enough for a run to the top. If it was, every UFC event would feature a Ken Shamrock vs. Don Frye match and BJ Penn would still be lightweight champion of the world.
Sure, Bisping can beat up the flat-footed and ancient Le. Likewise Brian Stann and fighters on that level. But, against the very best in the world, he fails to meet the challenge. Twice he's been a single win away from a title shot.
Both times he's come up short.
Bisping is a very good MMA fighter. And when you are exceptional in one facet of the sport, sometimes "very good" is enough to climb all the way to the pinnacle. But Bisping is exceptional nowhere.
His slick striking is negated by a lack of power. He moves well and strikes crisply, but his opponent can often change the tenor of a bout with a single blow. He doesn't have that gift. His wrestling is mostly defensive in nature, and his jiu-jitsu is best described as competent.
All told, it's a pretty impressive package—for a gatekeeper. It's not the skill set of a true contender. And, at 35 years old, this is as good as it gets.
And you know what? That's OK. Only six men have ever been UFC middleweight champion. That Bisping is not among them is no great crime.
In mainstream sports, failing to win a championship is the ultimate mark of shame. We create a false binary where an athlete is either great or terrible, with no in between. There are just two positions in this worldview—champion and loser. Lesser lights are able to openly mock greats like Charles Barkley and Dan Marino because they were never quite the best in the world. But there's something to be said for coming close.
Bisping has been the face of MMA in Britain for nearly a decade. He's performed admirably in that role, creating interest and a body of work he can be proud of. He might even be a UFC Hall of Famer.
But he'll never be a world champion.