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A little more than a week ago Michael Bisping was the UFC middleweight champ, headlining one of the year’s biggest pay-per-views in Madison Square Garden. A little less than two weeks from now, he’ll step into the cage to do the UFC a solid as a replacement opponent against Kelvin Gastelum in a UFC Fight Pass-only event in Shanghai.

If this isn’t the very definition of coming full circle, you have to admit it’s impressively close. From company man to champion and back again, and the last stage of the transformation seems to have happened in record time.

You can understand why. Bisping (30-8 MMA, 20-8 UFC) is closing in on 40, both in age and number of professional fights. He also has a bit of a bad taste in his mouth after getting dropped and choked out in the biggest fight of his life, and the only cure he knows for that particular hangover is a little hair of the dog that bit him.

So why not, right? There are worse gigs than filling in for Anderson Silva, who got scratched from the UFC Fight Night 122 main event when he failed his second drug test in less than three years.

For Bisping, there’s also a sort of poetry in that. After years of telling us he was one of the division’s best clean fighters all while we told him that he’d get murdered by an all-time great like Silva, it’s Bisping still standing (then getting knocked down, and then standing again) in the USADA era of the UFC.

And now that he’s free of the shackles of the middleweight title, he can go back to being his true self: a hard-headed bloke who likes to step up, scrap, and get paid. Because you don’t win 20 fights in the UFC if you prefer staying home on the couch.

But something about this one feels different. For one, there’s the insanely quick turnaround that seems almost purposely designed to remind us all how completely un-seriously this sport treats its own safeguards. If all goes as planned here, the guy who got a 30-day medical suspension after getting flattened by a Georges St-Pierre left hand and then put to sleep by a choke will go just 21 days between professional fights.

Then there’s the giant step down. Gastelum is a quality fighter and legit potential contender at middleweight, but facing him on short notice like this, and on the lowest tier of UFC programming, is typically journeyman work. It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect of a man who was king of the division earlier in the same calendar month.

It’s also not without risk. Gastelum (13-3 MMA, 8-3 UFC)? He can hurt you, especially if you come in still sore – physically and mentally – from a beating whose bruises are still fresh. Losing this fight would also pose a risk to Bisping’s legacy, especially since his time as champ wasn’t exactly overflowing with glory.

But then, how concerned do you expect him to be with stuff like that? Fan perception, the physical tolls rapid-fire bouts, these are all things he’s willed himself to ignore over more than a decade in the UFC. He’s not about to change now, not when he’s so close to the end.

That end must be near, as even Bisping has acknowledged off and on in recent months. After losing his belt to GSP, he said he couldn’t retire on that kind of ending. Turning right around for a Fight Night bout three weeks later makes you wonder what exactly he’s after.

Is this just a quest for one win – any win – so he can end on a high note? Is it just about scooping up paychecks before they stop falling from the sky? Is there some specific destination that Bisping is actually trying to get to in his post-title era, or is it more about where he doesn’t want to go, namely riding into the sunset as a former UFC fighter.

For some fighters, there’s no cure-all quite like signing that next bout agreement, and not just because it gives them something to look forward to, but also because it doesn’t ask them to look too far ahead.

For more on UFC Fight Night 122, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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