When Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) teamed up with Spike TV for a third season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), it was clear from the onset that British import Michael Bisping, undefeated at 10-0, was one of the early favorites to win it all.
And "The Count" made sure to remind us every episode.
Headlined by "The Final Chapter" between head coaches Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, who have long since been put out to pasture, Bisping needed just two wins to advance to the live finale, taking what was widely considered the path of least resistance.
The Wolfslair product, debuting as a light heavyweight, was paired off against thirty-something Canadian Kristian Rothaermel in the elimination round, finishing the aging journeyman by way of first-round technical knockout on episode four.
Bisping was then expected to face rival Matt Hamill in the semifinals; however, "The Hammer" was nailed in his victory over Mike Nickels and sent to the hospital, earning a season-ending medical suspension in the process.
Enter Ross Pointon.
"The Gladiator" was already bounced from the tournament by Kendall Grove when "Da Spyder" choked him out on episode three. Fortunately for him, UFC President Dana White needed a replacement for Hamill, and no other fighter was up to the task.
There was just one problem: Pointon had already been submitted by Bisping in his final fight before joining the combat sports reality show. Their rematch would yield similar results, as the hapless Brit was once again tapping around the two-minute mark.
Next stop: TUF 3 Live Finale, which took place on June 24, 2006 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Waiting to greet him was the sentimental favorite, Josh Haynes. "Bring the Pain" brought the tears early in the season by showing a picture of his son Thor, who was diagnosed with a brain cancer and forced to endure multiple surgeries by age two.
A hard-fought decision win over Tait Fletcher in the elimination round, followed by a submission win over Jesse Forbes in the semis, sent the former nightclub manager to the live finale to face off against "The Count." A natural welterweight, the undersized father of three entered the bout as a whopping +425 underdog.
Here's what happened.
The former Team Ortiz sparring partners shake hands to get it started and Bisping towers over his fellow finalist. Haynes lunges in with a combination and they tie up. The Brit backpedals with hooks and dumps his foe to the floor.
It's still early and Haynes retains all of his faculties, so it's no surprise to see him scramble to his feet and come up firing. Bisping creates some space and the Team Quest product lumbers forward with wild punches and once again they tie up -- but this time remain upright.
The next 30 seconds are spent trading knees against the cage.
Bisping gets fed up and pushes off. Haynes tries to make magic happen with a wild overhand right -- only to get rocked by "The Count's" blistering 1-2 combination. He instinctively ties up and leans on the fence, but a British knee dumps him on his ass.
Too bad it was illegal.
Haynes had both knees on the mat and Bisping is deducted a point by referee "Big" John McCarthy. The boo birds sing in disapproval.
"Bring the Pain" only spends a minute recovering and the action is restarted. Bisping opens with a high kick that's caught, but the shorter opponent can't do anything with it and finds himself getting tossed to the ground instead.
Bisping laughs off an armbar attempt and delivers short elbows. He briefly takes his back and looks for the choke, but Haynes powers out and they reset. A few exchanges on the feet and "The Count" takes it south and softens him up from mount before taking his back yet again.
Haynes escapes at the buzzer.
Round two gets underway and Bisping charges out of the gate with a flying knee and somehow inadvertently stabs Haynes in the right eye with a finger. They tie up and go to the fence and the victim is shouting at McCarthy to no avail.
The Portland power-puncher fights his way off the cage and Bisping looks frustrated. He uses momentum to send Haynes to the floor and he quickly follows, securing a gruesome-looking arm lock but loses it in a scramble. He takes his back and hunts for an armbar but Haynes reverses and gets on top.
His inexperience from that position allows Bisping to escape.
Haynes tries to follow him to his feet but is about two seconds behind and gets dropped with an uppercut. "The Count" starts unloading punch after punch but can't put him away. He switches to an Americana and then back to ground-and-pound and incredibly, the wounded fighter gets back to his feet.
Not for long.
His face bloodies and his eyes glazed over, Haynes takes a pounding as McCarthy screams at him to defend. His legs eventually give out and when Bisping follows with two more on the floor, the fight is mercifully brought to a halt.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new TUF champion.
Following the victory, Bisping would string together three straight wins, including a hotly-contested split decision over Hamill in the fight that should have taken place during TUF 3. His ensuing loss to Rashad Evans sent him down to 185 pounds, where he sports a 9-3 record.
And perhaps number 10 earns him a shot at the middleweight strap.
Can Bisping overcome this last hurdle and finally get his crack at the crown?