Fighting in front of his home country in London, Bisping (28-7) defeated the former middleweight champion in a hard-fought, back-and-forth five-round decision. The 185-pound bout headlined UFC Fight Night inside O2 Arena.
All three judges scored the fight for Bisping, 48-47. It marks his third victory in a row and could propel him into a title fight for the first time in a UFC career that dates to 2006.
Bisping, 36, who first targeted Silva when he dropped from the 205-pound weight class to 185 in 2008, bowed to Silva after the results were read. Silva, widely considered the greatest of all time, holds the UFC record for consecutive title defenses with 10.
"I've wanted this fight my entire life," Bisping said. "I worship this guy. He's the greatest martial artist of all time. That's why I'm so emotional. This has been a lifelong quest. The respect I have for [Silva], it inspired me. When I started, I was a young, cocky kid saying things I regret. The whole time, I was looking at him saying, 'I want to be like that guy.'"
Silva (33-7), who was fighting for the first time since January 2015 due to a one-year drug suspension, stated in his native Portuguese he felt he won the fight. ESPN.com scored it the same as the judges, 48-47 for Bisping.
"Brazil, what can you do?" Silva said through translator Ed Soares. "I thought it went differently. The mission was given and I thought it was completed, but I guess not."
Silva, 40, arguably scored the most significant offense of the fight, but was prone to long stretches of inactivity.
The bout took a twist at the end of the third round, when Silva dropped Bisping with a flying knee just as the bell sounded. The shot landed as Bisping was looking toward referee Herb Dean and indicating his mouthpiece had fallen out.
Silva immediately started to celebrate and even jumped on the top of the cage. Dean promptly informed both middleweights the bout wasn't over, that Bisping had been saved by the bell. Bisping's nose was opened up by the shot and he bled the rest of the way, but managed to recover quickly.
Prior to that flying knee, Bisping was mostly in control. He dropped Silva with a pair of left hooks in the second round and refused to buy into the Brazilian's mind games. Silva tried to hug him after the first, but Bisping shoved him away. The next round, Silva stood in front of him with his hands down waving him forward, but Bisping backed off.
Despite badly hurting Bisping at the end of the third, Silva took most of the fourth round off. He came on strong again at the end of that round, hurting Bisping with an uppercut and a left hand, but Bisping was the far busier fighter.
Overall, immediate cageside stats had Bisping slightly out-landing Silva in total strikes, 100 to 92. Bisping attempted one takedown in the final round, but came up empty.
Silva came on more in the fifth, landing knees to the body and a nifty front kick to the face as Bisping's back was to the cage. Silva might have been more fatigued than he looked, however, as he threw almost nothing in the final 90 seconds -- even though it appeared Bisping was vulnerable.
Bisping already has a loss to current middleweight champion Luke Rockhold (15-2). The two met in November 2014, with Rockhold coming away with a submission win in the second round. Rockhold is expected to defend his title against Chris Weidman in June. Silva remains winless since October 2012.
Middleweight veteran Gegard Mousasi (38-6-2) cruised to a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 39-28) over Thales Leites (25-6), good for his third win in his past four appearances. Mousasi shut down the offensive wrestling of Leites, and the rest was basically history. Leites was massively overmatched on the feet, as Mousasi picked him apart with jabs, inside leg kicks and the occasional right hand. Leites landed a few hard left-hook haymakers in the third, but Mousasi survived and took him down. Mousasi is now 5-3 in the UFC. Leites drops his second bout in a row.
Welterweight prospect Tom Breese (10-0), of England, managed a decision win (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) over Keita Nakamura (31-7-2), in a much closer fight than anticipated. Breese, 24, came in as an 11-to-1 betting favorite, but Nakamura did well in non-stop grappling exchanges -- at one point even threatening Breese with an omaplata. Breese controlled a better portion of the fight, however, and out-landed Nakamura in strikes, 26 to 6. It's the first time Breese, who improved to 3-0 in the UFC, has gone to a decision.
Bantamweight Brad Pickett (25-11) scored a much-needed split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29) over Francisco Rivera (11-6). ESPN.com scored the 135-pound contest for Rivera, 29-28, although it was close. Rivera knocked down Pickett with a left hook in the first round, but Pickett grew stronger as the fight went on and scored several big takedowns in the second and third rounds. Pickett, 37, snaps a three-fight losing streak. Rivera falls to 1-4 in his past five.