The life of a professional fighter is filled with uncertainty; their successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see.
When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begin, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated, the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins.
What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place.
This is what the climb looks like.
This is the fighting life.
The places we come from and the circumstances that surround us often play tremendous roles in the people we become. Those variables shape and bend us in various directions, but it is up to the people themselves to ultimately submit to those circumstances or rise above them.
Chris Leben has been fighting battles his entire life.
Whether those clashes play out at close distance, where violence is a fast-twitch muscle reaction away or out of the spotlight where the battle is waged in the darkness of solitude, the fight always continues.
The greater problem lies in the fact Leben has always known he is durable. Through the hard knocks of his upbringing to the wars that have made him famous inside of a cage, Leben is a survivor. The engine turns over, the sparks fly, and for better or worse, he will trudge forward through the storm.
But what happens when the rain doesn't subside? For Leben, the choice was simple: he was either going to drown or fight harder than he ever had.
Long before he was known to the fighting world as "The Crippler," the now 32-year-old fighter was simply a kid looking for an outlet, and one phone call change his life forever.
"I was a big fan of the UFC as a kid," Leben told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I remember watching the very first UFC fights. One of my old friends always reminds me that when I was in sixth grade I was telling him I was going to be a UFC fighter.
"I wrestled in high school. After high school, if you don't go onto college, that is the end of competition for most people. For me, about two years after high school it turns out my brother calls me and he's selling cars out of this car lot U.S.A. Auto Wholesale. He calls me and says, 'Hey...Matt Lindland and Randy Couture are in the back of this building beating the s*** out of each other.' I flew down there to see for myself, and that was at the very beginning of Team Quest.
"I liked the camaraderie, seeing the same people everyday, and it was fun. But the switch kind of turned after my very first fight. I invited everyone I knew and I was super-nervous. I ended up winning and that was it, man. There was nothing else in the world that existed after winning that first fight and having that feeling. I was hooked."
Under the tutelage of future legends and spurred on by the angst of youth, Leben hit the regional scene like a hurricane. He tore his way up and down the west coast, leaving a path of victims in his wake. On the strength of his performances, Leben began to build a name as he won 10 out of his first 11 outings.
Everything appeared to be building up to something larger. When the UFC cast Leben on the inaugural season of its new reality show The Ultimate Fighter, his childhood dream became a reality.
What came to pass on the first season made reality show history. A volatile Leben mixed with the antagonism of Josh Koscheck made the series something fans couldn't miss on a weekly basis. It was an experience that would forever change the lives of all involved, and it's something Leben reflects upon fondly.
"Being on the show was pretty much one of those life-changing times in my life," Leben said. "We were filming the show and none of us knew whether or not that season was going to air or not. At that age, I certainly didn't understand. Hell, I don't know if any of us understood the impact that regular TV like that has.
"For my personal life, it was huge. It definitely marked that shift. People were recognizing me wherever I went in the world. As far as the UFC goes, that was my entire goal. Throughout my life, even before the show, my one goal was to make it to the UFC."
Leben emerged from the show with a fan following and his performances right out of the gate only elevated his status. The UFC pitted him against a host of seasoned veterans to test his mettle, and with grit and determination, Leben found victory. Despite not winning the six-figure contract awarded to the show’s winner, Leben quickly proved he deserved to be on the sport's biggest stage.
"The way they started me out was good because they put me on the Fight Nights, which were smaller shows," Leben said. "That was good for me as opposed to throwing me into a big MGM type of pay-per-view type of event. There were only a couple thousand people there and while it was still a bit overwhelming, I think it was good for me.
"In the early part of my UFC career, I was a pretty confident individual. I think it had to do with my age more than anything. But if there was any moment when I really had that feeling that I really deserved to be here it was the victory over Patrick Cote.
"Dana came in the Octagon to shake my hand and he said, 'Hey buddy, your stock just went up.' Just having Dana say that to me, and having beat Cote, who we saw give Tito a run for his money. When we were on the show in the house, we watched that fight. For me to actually fight someone I've watched on TV, fighting on a big stage, I think that was really the moment when I realized I was where I needed to be."
The hype behind Leben was at an all-time high, and it was a perfect match for his confidence. With brick hands and an iron chin, he was smashing through everyone the UFC put in his path.
Leben's streak of five consecutive victories placed him within reach of a title shot, but before he would be able to step up to the No. 1 contender slot, he would have to face a fresh face in the UFC named Anderson Silva.
"The Spider" was well known in the mixed martial arts world for the skills he displayed in the Pride organization in Japan. Silva was by all means a monster, but it wasn't enough to dissuade Leben from taking the fight.
Stepping back just isn't in his genetic make up, and he stepped into the Octagon ready to welcome Silva to the UFC is punishing fashion. Unfortunately for Leben, things went south quickly and ferociously.
"We knew Silva was going to be tough," Leben said. "My head coach at the time was Matt Hume, who was the head judge for Pride, so obviously he was familiar with Anderson Silva. We knew he was going to be tough going into the fight, but at that time I kind of felt it was a big opportunity for me regardless.
"That is the only fight Matt Hume ever recommended to me not to take. But at the time, I assumed I would win. I figured I would be able to catch him at some point, and obviously that just didn't happen. I was on such a roll. To be honest, going into that fight I really felt invincible."
Following the loss to Silva, Leben hit a rough patch. He would find victory in only one of his next three fights and appeared to be well on his way to losing three in a row before a scoring dramatic knockout over fellow slugger Terry Martin late in the final round of their fight.
The victory seemed to reinvigorate Leben, and he punctuated the fact by earning a TKO over Alessio Sakara in the first round of their meeting at UFC 82.
With two solid wins under his belt, the UFC matched him up with Season 3 TUF winner Michael Bisping. "The Count" had recently been pinned as the poster boy for the UFC's "British Invasion," and with their scrap at UFC 89 taking place in Birmingham, England, Leben knew he would have to do his best work behind enemy lines.
While he would ultimately come out on the losing end of a unanimous decision, the loss was not the worst thing to happen that night.
Shortly after the loss to Bisping, the news became public that Leben had tested positive for stanozolol, a banned performance-enhancing drug. For the failed test, Leben was issued a nine-month suspension and forced to forfeit a third of his fight purse.
The dark clouds began to gather above Leben's head. The suspension, coupled with a DUI from a year prior, began to paint an ominous picture that Leben was adrift in dangerous waters.
Leben remained out of the public eye for the duration of the suspension. He worked hard on refocusing his life and preparing for his return to the cage.
As the end of his sentence neared, the UFC announced the heavy-handed fan-favorite would face then undefeated middleweight Aaron Simpson. Leben knew he had something to prove to the world, but a personal grudge between the two fighters had Leben fired up and ready to go.
"In this sport you are constantly trying to re-invent and prove yourself," Leben said. "At that time I felt I needed to go out and show the world I deserved to be there. I had to prove it was where I was supposed to be.
"When I went to fight Simpson he was undefeated at the time, and was also responsible for tearing out Ed Herman's knee, who is my best friend. I was definitely motivated for the fight and when I go back and watch it, I would say it is one of my best, if not the best performance I've had in my career."
Before Leben could relish the grudge match victory over Simpson, he agreed to step in to replace an injured Wanderlei Silva opposite Yoshihiro Akiyama. With only two weeks to prepare for another opponent, Leben dove back into the gym. There wasn't much time to put together a game plan, but Leben knew if it came down to who wanted it more, he was going to win that fight every time.
When the fight got underway, Akiyama immediately set about picking Leben apart. It was a high-paced affair and despite the beating he was taking, Leben managed to remain competitive. Going into the final frame and down two rounds on the judge's cards, Leben needed a finish to earn the victory.
As the fight entered the final minute, it appeared as if all hope was lost, but with 20 seconds left, Leben sunk in a fight-ending triangle choke and secured the victory. In doing so, the Ultimate Fighter alum had done the unthinkable—defeating two high-caliber opponents less than three weeks apart.
"I felt great," Leben admitted. "The entire thing was honestly such a whirlwind. Going into the fight with Akiyama, I didn't have much time to think. It was almost like deja-vu. All of a sudden I was right back in camp just two weeks after my last fight.
"I suppose after the wins I could recognize it as one of the crowning moments of my career. I was pretty happy and I probably celebrated and enjoyed myself a little too much. But it was definitely good for me, my bank account, and everything else in my life.
"The one thing I will say about the Akiyama fight is that my preparation for the Aaron Simpson fight was a huge factor. I kind of feel like since the two fights were so close together, everybody always focuses on the Akiyama fight. Granted, it was an exciting fight, but honestly, I don't feel I performed as well.
"I think part of that is due to the fact you really can't peak twice in that short of a time period. It's also hard to develop and execute a game plan in two weeks after you have just spent a few months training for a completely different style of fighter.
"Don't get me wrong, the Akiyama fight was absolutely amazing. One thing I do remember is walking back to my corner and asking my coach if that submission came about halfway through the second round. He replied, 'No Chris, that was at the very end of the third round' and I honestly had no idea.
"Obviously it was a great fight, but performance-wise I didn't fight as clean as I would have liked. I think honestly I could have made shorter work out of Akiyama if I would have had a full camp to prepare for him."
Pulling off the amazing feat put Leben front and center in the spotlight. He was the man of the moment and once again seemed poised to climb the divisional ladder.
This, of course, didn't slow Leben's love for the fast lane down as he was once against arrested, this time for suspicion of driving under the influence following an incident were he crashed his truck. Leben was released after posting bail and returned to his regular regiment.
With the spotlight burning hotter, his status still on the rise, and Leben still firmly positioned in the fast lane, he was quick to accept his next fight against the heavy-handed Brian Stann.
With the entire buzz surrounding Leben's amazing back-to-back victories over Simpson and Akiyama, the fans wanted more of the unique brand of violence Leben had to offer. It was something he fully intended to deliver, but the circling storm that had been closing in for years was finally catching up to him.
Rather than the clench-toothed, fired-up Leben the crowd was used to seeing, a drawn out and sluggish fighter entered the cage instead.
In his typical fashion, Leben attempted to go toe-to-toe with the decorated Marine, but quickly found himself crumpled on the canvas at the end of a Stann flurry. It was a humbling moment for a fighter who had spent a career depending on a cast iron chin that suddenly wasn't there.
"My hat's off to Brian Stann; he's an amazing competitor," Leben said. "I hate even talking about this. Prior to the fight I was backstage and they called my name for me to be on deck and I was in the bathroom on the toilet having diarrhea and puking between my legs. I was trying to warm up and couldn't get a sweat going. I had the cold chills and when I went out there, things just weren't the same.
"The punches didn't feel right and I'm not sure if it was because of the dehydration or not, but there were a lot of other things going on leading up to that fight which came together to get me sick. That ultimately reflected in my performance."
The loss to Stann put Leben down, but not out. His spirits were low, but when Joe Silva called to offer a bout with his long-time hero Wanderlei Silva, the fire was reignited inside. He once again hit the gym with new-found determination, and come hell or high water, he was going out there to give his idol everything he had.
Leben did just that, leveling one of the most dangerous fighters in the history of the sport in just 27 seconds.
"When I got the call from Joe Silva and found out I was going to be able to fight Wanderlei Silva, I literally broke down in tears," Leben said.
"When I found out I was slated to fight Wanderlei Silva, that to me was one of those moments in my life where it all came together. I grew up watching this guy, idolizing him, and that fight hit me like wow, I'm really here and this is real.
"Knowing these things gave me the drive to prepare. That and the fear of a coma gave me the motivation to train harder than I've ever had before. I went out there, got the job done and it felt amazing."
The impressive victory over Silva once again put Leben back into the mix in the middleweight division. He was open to all comers and the UFC paired him with Mark Munoz in the main event of UFC 138.
This appeared to be another step in Leben's run to the top, but when the bout got under way, it became painfully clear the unhealthy version of "The Crippler" had shown up to fight. After suffering a cut in the second round, the fight was waived off, and Leben was handed the eighth loss of his career.
Several weeks after the loss to Munoz, Zuffa released information that Leben had failed his post-fight drug test due to a mixture of prescription painkillers. The news once again cast Leben into the darkness, and the one-year suspension he was handed placed him in purgatory. But rather than wallow in self-pity, Leben used the situation as the catalyst he needed to seek help.
"When the news of my failed drug test went public, it was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me," Leben said. "It's no secret I've had a lot of battles in my personal life and with basically fighting for over 10 years without ever taking a break off, I developed a pretty strong habit for pain medicine.
"Not only did it help with the pain, but I was also self-medicating for anxiety. I had a lot of issues and it's kind of hard when you grow up the way I grew up and the next thing you know you are thrown in the public eye.
"I had some personal relationships that hit me and damaged me pretty hard. Because of that, over the past few years I really developed a habit for pain medicine. In hindsight, looking back it was all self-medicating because I was having a difficult time living in my own skin.
"What happened happened, and my performances in my fights showed I wasn't healthy, physically or mentally. Dana White, the Fertittas, and Joe Silva were all so awesome. Obviously I got suspended for a year and it has been hard trying to balance everything financially, but the UFC helped get me into a rehab. Me taking that time to get away from everything, go to rehab and counseling, and now it's gone full circle.
"Now I go to a youth correctional facility every week. Every Tuesday I'm up there for a couple of hours working with the kids, and I'm working very hard to speak out against prescription medicine abuse and drug abuse in general; overcoming some of the issues I've dealt with in my life and what are the right and wrong ways to handle those things.
"Where I'm at now, the person I am now, I can actually look in the mirror and be comfortable. Had my issue not come out and been public, who knows what would have happened? I certainly know my career would have been cut a lot shorter and my life would have only gotten worse.
"Now my life is 100% sober and things are better for me than they've ever been regardless of the fact I'm broke and I've had to deal with a lot of people saying less than nice things about me. Honestly, being able to take care of this issue has meant everything. The UFC recognizing I have a problem and I'm not a bad person, helping me take care of that issue is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Following the announcement of his second positive test, parts of the UFC fanbase voiced their opinions on how the organization chose to handle the situation. Where other fighters seemed to have been released on far lesser charges, Leben was seemingly getting opportunity after opportunity.
It is a situation Leben certainly isn't blind to, but rather than dwell in the negative, he chooses to be thankful for the organization giving him the opportunity to get sober and return to being the type of fighter fans want to see.
"The UFC has every ground to cut me or kick me out," Leben said. "They've been the best organization and stood behind me and for that I'm grateful. To be honest, I've asked myself that same question and the only thing I can say is thank God there are people behind me. It just shows me not everybody in this world is out to get you. There are people who have my best interest at heart and they are out to just be good people. It's an amazing feeling truly and honestly.
"It is hard when you live a life where every move is dissected. Nowadays I don't get on the Internet. I don't read interviews. When my students come in the gym and try to tell me about what someone has been saying about me, I tell them I don't want to hear it. I don't care because that's not part of my life.
"What you think about me is none of my business. That is the standpoint I've had to take on things of that nature. After rehab and counseling and self-work, I've really realized what is important to me and what's not important. My wife manages my Facebook and my Twitter for the fans, but if you don't have my number and you don't know where my gym is, I probably don't need to talk to you."
In the time away, Leben invested heavily into digging deep into his soul to find out what was at the root of his problems. In the case of most addicts, drugs are a way of covering up a greater problem and this is certainly true in Leben's case. He knows there is still so much work to be done, but he has a foothold on the path that will continue to lead him towards peace of mind.
With the darkened skies beginning to clear, a ray of hope broke through when the UFC announced Leben would be returning to action later this year at UFC 155 against Karlos Vemola. It was the perfect reward and came at the perfect time for a man who has dug down deep to battle his demons, and is once again standing tall.
"It's so exciting to be coming back," Leben said joyously. "I think I'm already driving my coaches nuts. I want nothing more than to just be training every minute of everyday. When I run into people I haven't seen in a while, they always tell me that I look one or two weeks out from a fight. They say I don't look like that out-of-shape, unhealthy-looking Chris Leben we are used to seeing three months out from a fight.
"Hearing that, finally having a date, and after everything I've been through this past year, it's awesome. I've had so much time to look back and reflect to realize just how much I love this sport. To realize just how much a part of my life it really is. Now I have a date and I'm going to be able to get back in there to compete and showcase my skills. For me, where I'm at, I couldn't be happier. I'm so excited.
"The best is absolutely yet to come. Where I'm at right now I'm pretty much crushing everybody. In the nicest way possible, everybody who used to give me a hard run for my money, I'm crushing them. Normally it would be a few weeks out from my fight when my coach has to bring in extra people to alternate rounds but we are already doing that.
"I feel the time off and change of lifestyle, instead of taking a pill and training through the pain; I've really been working hard. My strength and conditioning coach has me working on my flexibility and range of motion. I've been working on my body mechanics getting massages and acupuncture. I honestly feel 10 years younger. I just can't wait to get in there and see what my performance is going to be like."
Over the course of 19 fights inside the octagon, Leben has given fans around the world a reason to love the sport. He is a fighter who comes to meet his opposition in the middle of the cage. In a flurry of fists and heart, he is willing to find out who is the better man and who wants it more.
Leben knows that warrior is still inside of him and if the circumstances arise, the instincts that made him a fan favorite will once again arise.
"I would like to tell people they are going to see a leaner, more in shape, more technical, more mature fighter but if this guy whacks me really hard we'll see if I don't just revert to the old style where I'm standing in the pocket and throwing heavy.
"I wouldn't exactly say I'm comfortable standing in the pocket and at close range. But it is just something that is in me. Everyone reacts a certain way when they get hit but for me, that fight or flight mode is different. Something clicks when I get whacked where I just start swinging and I hope they fall own before I do.
"As far as fighting goes, I really draw from my corner and my camp. The people that are around me and are in my life are very special to me. When I get in there to fight, I always remind myself, even though I'm the one in the cage and everyone is watching me, it's just not as simple as me versus my opponent.
"There are a lot of people who had to make a lot of sacrifices and had to put a lot of effort into helping me out. When I fight, I'm scared to let them down. I know how hard they worked and I want more than anything to get a victory for the people who stand behind me.”
Through the shadows and back to fight another day, Chris Leben is a man who no longer fears the road ahead. Now, he simply looks to enjoy every moment, every step of the way.
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