Chris Leben, the Cat-Smashing "Crippler," returns after a year-long, forced hiatus to face Strikeforce crossover Derek Brunson, who's replaced Karlos Vemola on short notice. The middleweight affair will lead off Saturday's UFC 155 pay-per-view event from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, which is headlined by the rematch for the UFC heavyweight championship between Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez.
Were there an individual trendsetter for the inebriated shenanigans and smack talk that have -- for better or worse -- gone hand in hand with The Ultimate Fighter reality show, it might stem directly back to Chris Leben (22-8). His caveman bravado offered gems like the ritual of pillow spritzing, the heated rivalry with Josh Koscheck, the traditional 1st-round TKO of the sacrificial doors in the house, and, what is perhaps the defining theme of a young Leben's brash personality, the catchy proclamation: "I'll show up smelling like strippers and cigarettes and still put the stamp on kids."
Though proving his resilience, Leben was picked off on TUF by future superstars in Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian, but that only fostered what would be the defining sequence of his career in the Octagon. Leben would go on to rattle off 5-straight wins, most of which entailed legit competition like Patrick Cote (split decision), Jorge Rivera (TKO) and Luigi Fioravanti (decision), and earn an ill-fated shot at a debuting Anderson Silva, who proved that Leben's chin was indeed mortal.
After a rousing knockout of the respected Jorge Santiago, Leben started to slip. He lost a pair, won a pair, then lost another pair; all against decent opposition, but his lack of consistency dulled the luster. The sparkle returned in a 3-fight sequence in which Leben got on back on track with a decision over Jay Silva, hammered Aaron Simpson by 2nd-round TKO and ignited onlookers everywhere by submitting Yoshihiro Akiyama in a short-notice bout just 2 weeks after he'd finished Simpson. The see-saw effect rose again, as Brian Stann would vanquish him on the feet in the 1st, and Leben dealt that same fate to Wanderlei Silva before dropping a gutsy loss to Mark Munoz and suffering a year's exile for banned painkillers.
Since the only noteworthy fights for UFC debutante Derek Brunson (9-2) were losses -- a split decision to Kendall Grove and a quick and definitive beating at the hands of Ronaldo Souza in Strikeforce -- it's easy to understand why he's not a popular pick as a late replacement. However, Brunson was an All-American wrestler at the D2 level and will enjoy the guidance of MMA's best strategist, Greg Jackson, which could prove invaluable against a predictable brawler like Leben.
The 28-year-old North Carolina native dove right into MMA training after his collegiate wrestling stint, setting up shop with Renzo Gracie and the Jackson/Winklejohn empire. He blasted off to a 6-0 start with 5 wins via strikes and a submission, all of which transpired in the 1st round. The momentum was substantial enough to warrant a Strikeforce contract, where it continued threefold with a pair of decisions (Jeremy Hamilton, Nate James) and another rear-naked choke (Lumumba Sayers). Brunson's record has now been capped off by the aforementioned losses to Grove and "Jacare."
Surprisingly, the betting odds for this scrap are more balanced than I imagined with Leben getting a slight bump at -140. In fact, that's a baffling value considering that Brunson's had 2 weeks to prepare and fallen to the only top competition he's faced, when Leben has held his own with premiere talent for the last 7 years. From a strictly status perspective, it seems Leben should be a heavy favorite, as he's defeated better strikers, wrestlers and submissionists.
However, I can drum up a few viable options for Brunson, the most obvious being the clean and classic counter-striking strategy for Leben, who entirely embodies a wild, aggressive, sloppy and ever-stalking headhunter with myriad holes to exploit. Brunson isn't what I'd call a highly polished kickboxer, but he does have skill and punching power, which is a suitable lump of clay for Greg Jackson to mold into a workable sculpture.
Of course, being a Division 2 All-American wrestler always presents the horsepower to stifle an incoming and ever-stalking striker. The catch with that alternative is that Leben has an obscenely under-rated guard game -- because he's exceptionally more technical and defensive-minded off his back, Leben's submission grappling might actually be more formidable than his stand-up. He has some of the best hips from his guard, with an uncanny ability to explode for armbars and triangles, which are his best weapons on the mat.
Since being immersed in Leben's active guard is still a dangerous spot, that leaves the concept of Brunson applying his strength and wrestling as a means of controlling Leben. This could be imposed through gritty clinch encounters and takedowns, as long as he's cautious of his posture and keeps an escape route for the latter.
Still, since Leben has been a handful for established takedown artists like Munoz, Simpson and Akiyama, Brunson would be wise to cull from his diversity by employing each of the previously mentioned options in unison: alternating between slicing straight and precise punches through Leben's porous defense on the feet while circling into open space, launching takedowns and imposing methodical top control when Leben presses forward too hard, and stifling his whirlwind of haymakers by tying him up in the clinch.
While that cumulative suggestion is well within Brunson's capabilities, it doesn't seem likely -- especially if Leben gets a handle on harnessing his aggression, adopts some semblance of standing defense other than using his chin as a deflector shield, and simply draws upon more technique and less raw brutality. Realistically, even an inherently primal Leben should have the fight-ending clout to put him away.
My Prediction: Chris Leben by TKO.