NEW YORK — Insults and humorous trash talk have been lobbed back and forth between Michael Bisping and Alan Belcher for months as they prepare for their pivotal fight Saturday in the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight division.
But ask Bisping to get serious and analyze Belcher’s career, and he quickly blurts out a one-word answer.
Bisping says despite all the denigrating he has done through the media and in various online videos about his opponent at UFC 159 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., he realizes Belcher is a highly skilled fighter.
But something seems to be keeping Belcher from taking his career to the next level.
“He’s good. He’s really good. I just think he folds under pressure,” Bisping said Thursday during a media session at Madison Square Garden. “The physical tools are there. But there are a million gym fighters across the world that are so good in the gym, and you think, ‘This guy could be a world champion.’ Then you put them on the big stage, and they don’t perform. I think Alan Belcher is a good gym fighter.”
Those skills led to a great deal of hype when Belcher was starting his UFC career. His combination of top-level jiujitsu and judo to go with an explosive striking arsenal had him pegged as a can’t-miss prospect.
But that inconsistency — and several unfortunate injuries — have limited his progress.
The Arkansas native, now living and training in Mississippi, missed a fight because of bronchitis early in his career and suffered a spinal injury last year. The biggest setback was a detached retina in his right eye that required two surgeries to repair.
And when he has fought, there have been issues. Belcher lost two decisions against Yushin Okami and a controversial one against Yoshihiro Akiyama, along with puzzling stoppage defeats against Jason Day and Kendall Grove. It all adds up to a 9-5 UFC record despite all of Belcher’s talent.
The 29-year-old acknowledges he has not fulfilled expectations. He puts much of the blame on the injuries, which have kept him from getting into a routine.
“I had so many injuries the last few years, it was kind of like, ‘When’s this bad luck going to stop? When am I actually going to be able to train for a year, get three fights in and be injury-free?’ ” he said. “That’s what I really need to do.
“It’s been very frustrating at times, so you get that mental battle going on at the same time. I’m just happy I went injury-free between my last fight and this one. I feel great, and I kept my weight down. This fight should be good.”
Belcher maintains he still has plenty of time to fulfill his promise, saying he is entering his prime and is training and eating better than he ever has.
He didn’t worry about that when he was out of action from May 2010 to September 2011 for the surgeries on his right eye. At the time, fighting was the least of his concerns.
His doctor was hopeful he could save Belcher’s sight in the eye but wasn’t optimistic that he would fight again.
“He said, ‘You’re going to be basically blind in your right eye, and if your left eye were to get hurt, you’re dealing with not only having trouble fighting but having trouble driving down the road or walking,’ ” Belcher said. “I kind of had it in my head that I was done, and I was trying to figure out what to do next.
“Once my eye started healing up and my vision started coming back, I started to come up a little bit, but I had let myself get terribly out of shape. The worst part was just getting out of shape mentally. It took me a long time to get my head back in it. Even my comeback fights, I was just trying to find that same drive and desire.”
He hopes to have it Saturday for what he says will be the biggest fight of his career. Bisping returned to the bluster to confirm how big the spotlight will be for Belcher.
“A win over me for Alan Belcher will be by far the biggest win of his pathetic career,” he said.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.