2016 ESPN.com fighter of the year: Michael Bisping

Michael Bisping's storybook year in 2016 saw him capture his first UFC title at age 37. Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

In terms of fighter of the year candidates, 2016 might have legitimately produced the strongest class in history.

Even then, UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping stands out as the clear choice.

Coming into 2016, Bisping was one of the most successful fighters in UFC history, but the "what ifs" and "almosts" of his career followed him everywhere he went.

Somehow, after nearly 10 years of competing in the UFC, he had never fought for a title. His legacy, it seemed, would be built around consistency but failure to win in the crucial moments. Bisping could definitely sell a fight, and he never failed a drug test. He was a fan favorite but never a champion. In fact, he was never even a challenger.

When the UFC booked him to fight an all-time great in Anderson Silva, it was almost like, "Good for Mike. It's basically tragic he'll never fight for a title, but at least he finally gets his Anderson fight -- and in London too!"

It isn't that Bisping was on his last leg -- he wasn't -- but when it came to a title shot, it just felt like it wasn't in the cards for him. There were too many younger, more dangerous guys ranked ahead of him. A lopsided loss to Luke Rockhold in 2014 felt like proof that he couldn't compete with the absolute top anymore.

But after Bisping defeated Silva in a fight of the year performance in London, fate stepped in. An opportunity emerged for Bisping to accept the first title shot of his career at UFC 199 in June when Chris Weidman pulled out with an injury. Bisping accepted a short-notice fight against Rockhold, who went on to win the title after dominating Bisping less than two years before.

Again, there was that feeling of something like, "Good for Mike! He got his title shot! He's walking into a guaranteed loss, but at least it happened for him!"

Even Bisping admits feeling that way initially.

"When I got the fight against Rockhold, it was such a bittersweet moment," he said. "I just remember thinking, 'This is so typical of my career. I finally get a title shot, and I get it with two weeks' notice. I'm almost destined to fail.'

"Here's a guy who was training for a title fight, and here's me, on a damn movie set two weeks before the fight. I was thinking those thoughts when I went on a run, and by the end of the run, I had come to terms with it and felt a lot more positive about the situation."

As a significant betting underdog, Bisping knocked Rockhold out in the first round to win the UFC championship at age 37. He then went on to avenge the most embarrassing moment of his career -- a knockout loss to Dan Henderson at UFC 100 in 2009 -- by defeating Henderson in a title defense in October.

During the promotion of that fight, Henderson dropped a line in which he said, "You can't rewrite history."

That's true, but Bisping challenged that claim in 2016. His entire career will be viewed through a different lens because of what he accomplished this year. Those key moments in which he had previously fallen short in, the ones that kept him from competing for a UFC title, were once tragic, but now they play into a bigger story.

"I'm a realist, and I do think down the line I would have been very bitter about never getting a title shot," Bisping said. "You see guys get questionable title shots in questionable circumstances. People get them off losses sometimes, and here's me, with more wins than anybody, and I could never get one. I think later in life, I would have been very bitter about it. Fortunately, that isn't the situation."

Cody Garbrandt is a 25-year-old breakout star, and his win over Dominick Cruz at UFC 207 was arguably one of the top-three performances this year. Conor McGregor made history in half a dozen ways and won his second world title with ease. Amanda Nunes terrorized two female pioneers of the sport in Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey and headlined two of the year's biggest events.

But Bisping, with his unlikely championship victory on June 4, 2016 -- 20 days before the 10-year anniversary of his UFC debut -- and his two fight of the night victories against Silva and Henderson, the latter of which crowned Bisping as the all-time leader in UFC career wins? He is the 2016 fighter of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Dominick Cruz, UFC, bantamweight

  • Cody Garbrandt, UFC, bantamweight

  • Conor McGregor, UFC, lightweight

  • Stipe Miocic, UFC, heavyweight

  • Amanda Nunes, UFC, bantamweight