When Chris Leben steps into the Octagon on December 28, it will be his 22nd fight with the UFC. Since his appearance on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, Leben has compiled a record of 12-9. Leben has had an up and down career with the UFC, but he's never before found himself wading in the murky waters he finds himself in heading into his next fight.
Leben is mired in the first three fight losing streak of his career, and it would not be out of line to suggest that he will be fighting for his UFC career when he faces Uriah Hall at UFC 168. That fact is not lost on the 33-year old fighter, "What I tell myself is that I'm just going to prepare. I'm going to do everything that I can do, and I'm going to worry about what I can handle right now. But that worry is definitely there.
The UFC is all that I've known for the last ten years, and it's going to be a heartbreaker when I have to walk away, and if losing this fight is what does it, that's definitely going to be hard.
Anybody that says they don't worry about those types of things has to be a liar. So, I do the best I can to block it out and to try and what I can effect and what I can change and not worry about what I can't, but that comes creeping in sometimes."
Leben is preparing for the bout against Hall, his 33rd career fight (22-10) by training with Alliance MMA in San Diego, "You've got top level fighters in there every single day. It seems like every month four new guys come in to train for their fights, so I've always got this great rotating crew of top-level guys to train with. I can't see many places in the world where the training would be more conducive."
Leben spent a great deal of time earlier in his career living and training in Hawaii. That locale had its benefits, but it also had its fair share of drawbacks when it came time to prepare for a fight, "I had some great coaches in Hawaii, but as far as training partners went, it was really hard for me to put together a good camp. In Hawaii when the surfs up, the gym's empty. It was always hard. Not to mention, if I flew anyone out to Hawaii, well, they were in Hawaii, and they had other things they wanted to see too."
Leben said it's a totally different scenario in San Diego, the fighters at Alliance are completely focused on improving their skills, "It's eat, sleep, train. That's what these guys live to do. That's why they're here. It's a lot more nose to the grindstone, hardened environment."
Today, Leben seems fully entrenched and accepted by the team at Alliance. However, when he first made the call informing Alliance head coach Eric Del Fierro that he wanted to train at the gym, the red carpet wasn't exactly rolled out for Leben, "Coach E is the head coach, and I called him and talked to him ahead of time and said ‘Hey, I want to come down. I want to train. I want to be part of Alliance.' He kept it short and sweet and said, ‘Why don't you just come out and train and we'll see how it goes' and that was it. I thought, ‘Wow, I've got a name', I thought he'd be a little more happy that I was coming out, but I understand that everybody's going to have some reservations about me until I prove myself."
Leben was quickly able to erase any doubts that Del Fierro and the Alliance team had about him, "After the first month or so of being there, after everyone realized that I was legit about what was going on with me and that I was serious about fighting, that I trained hard and had a good work ethic, everyone lined up behind me."
Leben's somewhat checkered past most likely lead to Del Fierro taking a wait and see attitude when it came to fully integrating Leben into the Alliance team. The long-time UFC Middleweight has had a tumultuous career with the UFC, marred by arrests, questionable personal choices and most recently a failed post-fight drug test that earned him a one-year suspension and landed him in rehab.
For his part, Leben has never shied away from talking about this part of his personality. When asked if he has any regrets about his past missteps, Leben became a little philosophical, "I have learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I think regret is a tough word. There are some things I look back on and I shake my head. I look back, and I'm not proud of, absolutely. I don't know. Would I be where I'm at today if it wasn't for those things? Would I be going down this positive route if I hadn't gone through some of those things? Is there some master plan, and I was meant to have to go through all these struggles for the man I'm going to be in the future? I tend to believe so. So, from that standpoint I had to go through it, it had to be the way that it was."
In the past, Leben carried a kind of black cloud around him. He's shed that aura and seems to be in a much better state of mind, something that was evident before his most recent fight, a split decision loss to Andrew Craig at UFC 162. Despite that setback, and the possibility of fighting for his UFC career in Las Vegas at the end of December, Leben couldn't be happier with where his head is at right now, "My mindset is real good right now. I don't know if that's going to help me fight or not.
Obviously, I want to win, so I'm doing everything I can as far as training goes. I‘ve pulled out every single stop. I felt like my last fight I pulled out every stop, but I didn't get the victory, so I had to go back and work and say, ‘what else can I tweak? What else can I add?' Now I've got the altitude tent. I'm getting my meals delivered, so I am eating perfect. I'm spending more time with my hands coach. I've really tried to break down the problems I had in my last fight, like not finishing the takedown off the cage. I've really tried to work out those problems.
At this point, I'm going into this fight with the attitude that I've done everything that I can do. I'm going to be as prepared as I can possibly be, and fate is really going to decide this one.
Leben opened his UFC career with a five-fight winning streak. That streak came to an end when he faced Anderson Silva in the main event of UFC Fight Night 5. That fight, Silva's UFC debut, ended in 49-seconds, beginning Silva's UFC record run of 16 consecutive wins with the promotion.
After the loss to Silva, Leben's longest winning streak were the three fights he won during 2010. "My career has always been a little bit of a rollercoaster. I go out and beat somebody that I should lose to, and then I lose to somebody I should have beat, and part of that's been my failure to prepare properly, and the other things going on in my life that have distracted me from real goals."
In the past Leben would take his losses extremely hard, but that seemed to change a bit with his loss to Craig, while not exactly upbeat after the defeat, he did seem to look at the split decision loss more as a learning experience, "I still take a loss hard. It was still tough to get two judges to vote for him (Craig), and one to vote for me.
In my mind, that's the worst kind of loss you can get because I was out there trying to finish the fight. Sometimes when you push it like that, I've gotten the surprise submission or knockout in the end, and this last fight that didn't happen and that was hard. But that's something I've been working on, and continue to work on, how I move on from that and handle that and move on in a healthy and positive way, as opposed to a self-destructive way."
One thing that has hampered Leben throughout his career is the fact that some fighters seem reluctant to engage him in his style of fighting, a straight ahead, throw them bungalows style. Unfortunately for Leben, his upcoming fight is against an opponent that has shown a major reluctance to engage in his last few fights, "My nemesis has been these guys that have been longer than me fighting me going backwards.
It really is a tightrope walk between figuring out how to close the distance without over engaging. Those have been the two problems that I've had. If they run too long, I over engage trying to close the distance and that's when they're able to land their shots, so I've really had to overcome that urge to just rush in when guys don't want to fight me, but at the same time he is longer than me and I am going to have to win this fight on the inside."
Another thing that Leben's style brings with it, that is when his opponents do decide to fight him on the inside in a brawl, is a whole lot of damage. With all the attention that brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) are receiving these days, Leben said he has thought about how his fighting style will affect his future life, "It's funny, now with this whole getting older and growing thing, it's something that's been starting to cross my mind a little bit more. Before, I never thought about it.
It's not how old you are, but how long you've been doing it, and I've been doing this for a while. So, there's some nicks and dings there that weren't there before, and you only get one brain.
That's why I say my dream come true would be just to have a great run, and put together a couple winning streaks over the next two and half years and then bow out. That would be my perfect finish. Obviously, Uriah Hall stands in the way of that right now.
Leben knows that the storybook end of his career exists only in his mind right now, but he's doing everything in his power to make that fantasy a reality, "That's the dream, but I'm not dreaming right now. Right now, I'm focused on what's in front of me.
The vision down the road doesn't help you; it doesn't help you win tomorrow. I need to win come December 28, so dreaming about what would be nice isn't going to do me any good. The only thing that is going to do me any good is reminding myself every second that I'm in the gym to pay attention, to push a little harder, to work a little harder, to get those extra reps in because every little thing I do like that adds to me getting my hand raised."
The reason Leben has set a two and a half year plan for himself is because that is when his wife will graduate law school, and that's when Leben hopes he will be able to step away from the fighting aspect of the sport and move on to the next chapter of his career, "I know that my athlete stage was just that, just a stage in my life. I want to make a transformation. When my wife graduates law school and hopefully gets a job, then that'll give me a little bit more freedom to pursue some other options like travelling and doing seminars, maybe picking up a full time coaching spot."
Leben admits that until he turned 30, "I didn't even think about the future. Saving money, paying taxes, living like a regular citizen, I was worried about making it through that day.
Every year is a transformation for me, but in particular these last few years I feel like I've really made the shift to being a real law abiding citizen, so it is different. I do find myself thinking about the future. Me and my wife talk about our plans, our five-year goal, all this crazy stuff that wasn't on the table a few years ago."
One man that has seen his fare share of Chris Leben's "crazy stuff" is UFC president Dana White. White has always had a special place in his heart for Leben and the other fighters from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. That fact is not lost on Leben, "Dana's great. He's taken a liking to me, and thank God because I've given him more than enough excuses to give me the boot.
Dana has really been a huge support for me. It was Dana that was behind getting me into rehab and getting me another shot. Dana's always been fighting in my corner. He's always kind of protected what's going on with me, and my hat's off to him for that. There's nothing bad I can say about the guy at all."
Leben's stint in rehab began when he was popped for having both oxymorphone and oxycodone in his system following his UFC 138 loss to Mark Munoz. When asked how things are going on the recovery front, Leben responded, "I've been over two years without taking a pain pill, which was my hugest issue. I don't drink any more. I have made a couple mistakes on drinking, but I'm a non-drinker now, and I don't (drink).
I just take it one step, one day at a time. I've really had to make some huge changes about who I surround myself with and who my friends are, who I reach out to for support. The guys at Alliance all know what's going on with me, and everybody's been so supportive of where I'm at with that."
In large part, Leben has been defined by the missteps he made during the course of his UFC career. Due to those missteps, it would be easy to paint a picture of Chris Leben that is less than positive, and many have done just that in the past.
Deep into a UFC run that has seen Leben defined by people that only know him from what they see on television, I asked the Leben, ‘Who is Chris Leben?', "I'd describe myself as someone that's compassionate, a little bit more sensitive than people would think. I think that's been one of my biggest problems, I've allowed my emotions to dominate my actions and that's why I've made so many mistakes. I'm a lover, and I'm a fighter, I'm one of those guys that lives life fully, every minute of every day I'm involved in life 100 percent.
I'm just a lot of energy and a lot of emotion, and that can be a really positive thing, but also there's some ability to have some actions happen when you have all that power rolled up."
On December 28, Leben will look to roll that power and emotion into a victory over Uriah Hall at UFC 168.
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