MICHAEL Bisping is aiming to be the first Briton to win an Ultimate Fighting Championship world title.
The 30-year-old from Clitheroe has been promised a shot at the mixed martial arts organisation's middleweight crown if he comes through his clash with Dan Henderson in Las Vegas on July 11 and wins again at the M.E.N. Arena.
Bisping has also been given a major boost after a Government minister offered backing for his title bid, adding to the legitimacy of a sport which was heavily criticised - and in some cases banned - when it was first introduced here.
"Michael will fight Henderson at UFC 100 in Vegas, and the winner will get a world title shot," a UFC spokesman said.
"And if that winner is Michael, we intend to take the fight to Manchester, just down the road from where he lives.
"Not only would Michael be the first Briton to win a world title but the first from outside the US, Canada and Brazil."
That news was welcomed by sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe, who said: "Like boxing, mixed martial arts can reach people who may not be interested in the more mainstream sports.
"In the right environment and with proper supervision, it can be an exciting, technically demanding sport that combines many complex disciplines including boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and wrestling.
"It is not only physically demanding but can teach important life lessons about discipline and commitment.
"Mixed martial arts is a rapidly growing sport with a truly international profile. Stars like Michael Bisping and Paul Taylor are world class athletes and an inspiration to young people who want to take up martial arts."
But before Bisping, known as "The Count" can start dreaming of a sell-out M.E.N. Arena crowd, he has to win in Vegas, where he will be cast as the villain, due to the popularity of 38-year-old Henderson, who has twice represented the US as an Olympic wrestler.
Former karate ace and kickboxer Bisping is a major star in the States, where UFC has outstripped boxing and pro wrestling in television pay-per-view sales, and is seen as the man to open up the market over here.
And there are already signs that it could become a major attraction in Britain - his last fight at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena beat the box office and merchandise records held by Amir Khan for his clash with Manchester's Michael Gomez last year.
Bisping has been coaching the UK team against their US counterparts in the TV series Ultimate Fighter - with Henderson in charge of the Americans.
The clash with Henderson is on a major bill at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, which was a 12,500 sell-out within a minute of going on sale and is expected to generate 1.8m sales on pay-per-view.
That show will also feature the world heavyweight clash between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir, and the world welterweight clash between Canada's Georges St-Pierre and Brazilian ju-jitsu specialist Thiago Alves.
UFC has already developed a huge following in Britain, since cleaning up its act from the days when it was widely criticised, and called a "human cock fight" by one US senator.
Sweeping rule changes have given it a better safety record than boxing, and the sport now attracts blue-chip sponsors.
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