On a windblown but sunny southern California afternoon at The Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach, Michael “The Count” Bisping displays his penchant for bellicosity by bloodying the face of his luckless sparring partner.
Bisping’s life as a combatant goes back to his youth in northwestern England, fighting for the first time at the tender age of 10. Later, he went on to become the British Sport Jiu Jitsu champion and a five-time national kickboxing champion, not to mention all the “just-a-case-of-growing-up” street brawls that punctuated his journey to professional pugilism.
The street fights are now a distant memory, but his innate aggression still fuels his ferocity in the cage as well as in the gym. “You’ve got to train the way you fight. Some people are lazy when they train and then they go out and fight hard and they gas. Sometimes it works out, they might win quickly in the first round, but if they get dragged into deep water, it’s not going to work out too well for them.” It’s a method that’s proving successful.
S&C trainer, Scot Prohaska, who joined the Bisping team two years ago, develops his explosiveness and power. Tiki Ghosn serves as the jack-of-all-trades MMA coach, pulling all of Bisping’s striking skills together to package them up appropriately for the cage. Lastly there’s Brady Fink, a Paulista BJJ black belt responsible for “The Count’s” ground game. Like any quality camp, they bring in world-class strikers and grapplers to prepare for every fight.
There’s no doubt about Bisping’s skill in the striking department. His quickness coupled with his technical boxing skills have been a challenge for every fighter he’s encountered. While pundits have questioned his ability to deal with top-level grapplers, according to Ghosn, “Michael Bisping is a complete martial artist. A lot of people underestimate that because he’s had such success as a striker. There’s a whole side of Michael Bisping no-one’s ever seen, and it’s his grappling side. He’s right up there with all the top guys.”
Fink, the verbose and friendly grappling coach, enthusiastically agrees, “Mike’s grappling is good. No doubt about it. He’s keen to [be aware of] every position, every move, and he knows when you’re tricking him. We do two hours of grappling practice every morning and a structured wrestling class a few times a week. We bring in top-tier wrestlers from all over, guys competing in the Olympic trials and things like that, and they can’t take him down. Mike is a professional athlete and he trains like one. Period.”
Still, while his coaches recognise that his ground game is solid, they know it’s what he can do with his fists that will keep him winning fights.
“In Mike’s fights he gets these guys to back up, gets them on the fence and then batters the living shit out of them and they can’t do anything about it,” says Ghosn. “There’s a reason this is happening, a method.”
Ghosn takes “The Count’s” already supreme striking skills and then fine-tunes them for MMA, adjusting his footwork and punching for optimal positions to either shoot his own takedowns or to effectively evade them. “Boxing footwork works in MMA, but it has to be modified. You have to take into consideration getting kicked in the leg, getting shot on, your footwork could be wrong in that you could be stepping right into position for getting taken down.
“You cannot turn the side of your leg toward your opponent. Your front foot has to be pointed at your opponent at all times. I’ve argued this with boxing coaches time and time again. They say, ‘No, it’s going to take all the power off your hooks, your jabs and your cross.’ Go ahead: generate all the power you want. But when I kick your fucking leg off or I take you down, what are you gonna’ do? There’s no two ways about it. You cannot turn your foot.”
Ghosn and Bisping do three-to-five five-minute rounds on the pads at a high-intensity pace four or more times a week and, depending on who Bisping will be fighting, they’ll adjust their methods.
“If he were to fight a wrestler, I’d incorporate takedowns into the pad work. I tend to get more involved. I’ll throw the shin guards on, I’ll punch him, I’ll kick him, I’ll force him to move. If it’s a day when he’s going to spar it’ll be more interactive, other days he’ll just kill the pads for cardio.”
The lessons delivered during striking sessions are intended to translate into the cage, as each day of pad work precedes an evening of sparring. On Mondays, it’s boxing padwork then sparring. Thai pads are used on Wednesdays for kickboxing sparring,and come Friday, everything is fused together for MMA.
Every morning before heading to grappling practice at the UTC, Bisping wakes up and runs three-and-a-half-to-five miles to start the day.
It’s actually something S&C coach Scot Prohaska has toned down, saying that cardio was the main area where Bisping would overtrain. Rather than long-distance pavement pounding, they’ve turned up the dial on sprints and intervals.
“I always give him sprints to do after each workout starting at 10-second sprints with a 50-second jog. I add five seconds to the sprints and reduce the jog by five seconds every week,” says Prohaska.
When Bisping is in the gym, he heeds to his belief in training the way he fights.
“Every time I train it’s with five five-minute rounds. If I were working with a strategy coach, it would be five five-minute rounds of intense, hard work after a warm-up of high-intensity pads. I’ll be doing wrestling one day with three or four guys around me trying to take me down.
“We do rounds and rounds and rounds and I’m the guy in the middle. As soon as I deal with one person, boom, the next one’s in. That builds endurance.”
Explosive Power Will Win Fights
“The key with him – and I think the future of the sport – is explosive lifting. With all other things being equal with tactics and technique, the guy with more strength and power will win,” opines Prohaska.
“We’ve found that when he gets more explosive in the gym, he gets way more athletic and powerful in the cage.”
Prohaska’s S&C program is scheduled around the lead-up time to Bisping’s fights, going through two separate phases of four weeks each.
While there’s a set plan, it’s malleable and can be adjusted based on Bisping’s performance and overall health.
“The first four weeks we do full-body lifts, focusing on lower rep ranges to build strength and some functional hypertrophy [usable strength].
“The next four weeks we start getting explosive with his lifting. I switch him to an all-lower-body on Tuesdays and an all-upper workout on Thursdays. This allows Michael to focus on the area I want exploding while allowing me to manage his fatigue, his soreness and his nervous system much easier.”
On upper body days Prohaska makes it a point to finish with Cuban presses, external rotations with cables or other rotator cuff exercises for increasing punching power. “Rotator cuffs are important because they’re the decelerator of the punch. The stronger they are, the more you can take advantage of the strength you build.”
“Leg days consist of three-to-five leg exercises and we always finish with a lot of core anti-rotational stuff, like a Dragonfly, where he’s got to stabilise his hips against pressure I’m putting on him.
“If he’s able to brace his torso on his hips and not get turned, that’s the key with trying to get off the ground.”
Prohaska uses what he calls “contrast training” to peak Bisping and to translate his strength gains to functional performance in a fight.
“Contrast training is where he would do a heavy weight or an isometric pull and then go right into an explosive jump, and that way he’s able to use his strength and express it in the movements of the sport.”