Who Takes It? Michael Bisping vs. Thales Leites

This week’s edition of “Who Takes It?” visits Glasgow, Scotland for a match-up of two of the UFC’s top middleweights.

It’s the first trip north of Hadrian’s Wall for the UFC — and they brought one of their most-loved (and, in other circles, most-hated) characters in the game, England’s Michael Bisping.

It seems everyone has an opinion on Bisping, and everyone has a vivid memory of him. A striker who learned to grapple, “The Count” has headlined shows the world over, scoring devastating wins over popular attractions like Cung Le in 2014. He’s also sustained losses, but always at the hands of the world’s best — like Dan Henderson at the historic UFC 100, or his headliner against Luke Rockhold last year in Australia.

Since winning The Ultimate Fighter’s third season, Bisping been one of the UFC’s most active fighters; in fact, he’s tied with Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture for the fourth most wins in the promotion’s history.

The one thing he hasn’t done in an almost ten year UFC career at both middleweight and light heavyweight, is earn a title shot. For that matter, “The Count” hasn’t counted two straight victories since 2011.

His opponent, Thales Leites, has somewhat quietly enjoyed an excellent MMA career in his own right, boasting a 25-4 record including ten wins in the UFC — but he’s just not as well known to the fans. However, Leites is the one who earned a title shot: back in 2009 against UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in Quebec.

I had to re-familiarize myself with Leites, so I took a long look back at his career this week — all the way back to his fourth pro fight ten years ago in Hawaii. That night, at the seventh show from the Penn family’s MMA promotion Rumble in the Rock, Leites fought in the first MMA bout of the evening – long before his more heralded stablemate at Nova União, Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro.

Leites took wrestler Adam Roland down quickly, and finished with remarkable fluidity to an armbar from mount. Referee Troy Mandaloniz, who would later enjoy a successful fighting career of his own, stopped the bout due to tap out at 0:49 of the first.

(Well wishes to Mandaloniz, who is still recovering from injuries sustained in an accident last month. Fight on, “Rude Boy!”)

Leites notched several more victories in Hawaii and Brazil before entering the UFC with a 9-0 record to face the always-tough Martin Kampmann in 2006. A look at that fight’s film shows Leites mostly struggling to impose his jiu-jitsu on Kampmann, who shrugs off most of his takedowns easily — while striking effectively from distance and the clinch. As Mike Goldberg on commentary keeps yelling, “The Dutch love their kickboxing!” (Of course, Kampmann is Danish and not Dutch, but whatever…)

Goldberg also noted that it was BJ Penn who recommended Leites to UFC brass, which makes sense.

Leites had his moments that night too; scoring a knockdown off a counter right in the first round and a nice throw late in that stanza. But the strikes, particularly leg kicks, accumulated – and he would lose a decision.

Over the years, Leites developed better striking and wrestling. Against Bisping’s countryman Tom Watson in 2013, he showcased tighter punching combinations before working for his takedowns. A left hook opened an ugly cut on Watson late in the bout, and Leites enjoyed a dominant win.

Last year, Leites was a slight underdog against Francis Carmont, who always seemed gifted but strangely hesitant in his UFC run. Their bout began with a typically tepid Carmont first round. The Frenchman was backed up by Leites’ overhands to begin the second. The Brazilian followed a right with a big punching combination sent Carmont crumbling to the mat at 0:20 in the stanza.

Leites finished another tough opponent in Tim Boetsch earlier this year. Boetsch earned the early advantage — staying in the pocket with uppercuts and hooks, and traded – eventually knocking Leites to the mat. But Leites finally got a takedown, and scored the win with an arm triangle.

This fight is a tough one; and not just because both guys are ranked similarly. It’s hard to believe, but somehow Bisping hasn’t really faced anyone with a similar a style as Leites, and vice versa.

I’m looking for the better boxing and long kicks of Bisping to present problems for Leites. Sure his striking has improved, but that’s against brawling “come forward” types like Watson and even Boetsch – who he “hung in there” against before getting the takedown and submission. The volume that Bisping brings, at range, is something else.

But can he do much with it? Three years ago I would expect Bisping to be able to follow up and keep Leites at a disadvantage. But unfortunately I think he has slowed in recent years while Leites is reaching a peak late — enjoying eight straight wins since October 2010.

It’s a pick-em. But I’m impressed by Leites’ momentum enough to predict him to eventually find a way to win here. I’ll call it for Leites by submission – call it an arm triangle — in round four.

As always enjoy the fights!