The tweet has since been deleted—replaced with the story that Leben acted out because he’d lost his dog—but interest in the original message’s meaning has only snowballed. Ex-UFC fighter and fellow Ultimate Fighter alumni Nate Quarry chimed in with his own criticism of the UFC’s practices. Some fans blame Chris Leben for engineering his situation by making his own mistakes—including drug addiction and failure to pay income tax—while others question the promoter’s responsibility to former fighters.
Talking to former UFC champion Frank Shamrock uncovers stark realities about the life of a retired MMA fighter.
“I don’t think some guys realize that at some point, physically, they’ll be done, and at some point, their drawing power will be done,” says Shamrock. “In fact, they will literally stop overnight. There’s no backup, no union, no protection, no pension—there’s nothing to help them move to the next career.”
In January, Leben—loser of four straight fights in the UFC—announced his retirement from the sport. He’d played a pivotal role in the resurgence of the UFC as a contestant on the first season of Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). During his professional career in the organization, he racked up numerous “Fight of the Night” and “Knockout of the Night” awards, but when he quit the sport, the bonus checks and the limelight abruptly faded away.
The size of Leben’s purses has been a matter of debate, but a fighter can have problems regardless of their career earnings. Fans need look no further than boxing superstar Manny Pacquaio to witness an example of a fighter earning multimillions in purses and falling victim to reckless spending and tax woes. Or the infamous Mike Tyson, who had $300 million in career earnings, but declared bankruptcy with $38.4 million in debt as of 2004.
Chris Leben’s salaries as a mid-tier fighter with the UFC likely represent the spare change floating in the recesses of Pacquiao or Tyson’s couch cushions. There was never any question that Leben would require a job to see him past his career as an MMA fighter, just as so many other prominent retired fighters have worked positions in broadcasting, coaching, running their own gyms or even selling luxury cars.
Says Shamrock, “At the end of the day, I’ve always made the bulk of my money teaching martial arts.”
When he retired, Leben told the public he was working as a coach at Victory MMA in San Diego, California. While Leben could have used his own earnings to get counseling or even reached out to UFC president Dana White via private channels, he chose to make his incendiary post on Twitter instead.
Leben’s actions are controversial in that the number one rule of being a member of this Fight Club is to never criticize the promotion in the public eye. UFC fighters know that discretionary bonuses, title shots, employment with Zuffa/FOX, continued employment with the UFC and other perks come down to earning the favoritism of the Zuffa brass. According to Leben's Twitter account, Dana White and the UFC reached out to help him after he made his attention-grabbing Twitter post, although Leben's management has been unresponsive when it comes to interview requests.
Frank Shamrock believes it’s in the promotion’s best interests to provide support to former fighters, especially exciting stars like Leben who contributed to the UFC’s financial success, “You look at the value that Leben has brought to the company and the money he has brought to the bottom line. You want to protect guys like that in the future, or at least pretend like you’re protecting them so the next generation will line up and do the same thing for you.”
Times have changed since The Ultimate Fighter debuted in 2005. TUF has shown continually diminishing returns in the ratings column and rarely produces fighters of the same caliber that the earliest seasons did. Spike TV had a nasty breakup with the UFC in 2011 and now broadcasts competing promotion Bellator. Three out of four of TUF’s first season finalists—Kenny Florian, Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin—are retired from the sport.
Yet Chris Leben has yet to fully break away from the past. To paraphrase from Donnie Darko, he was born with tragedy flowing through his veins. On the UFC 89 Countdown show, he revealed that alcoholism ran through his family and outside of stints in the Army and jail, he’d never been sober for longer than two weeks straight since he was 13 years old.
“A lot of people who go into fighting aren’t well-adjusted,” says Shamrock, who revealed his own struggles coming from a broken home, dealing with alcoholism and time spent incarcerated in his autobiography Uncaged.
With his controversial tweet, Chris Leben pointed the finger at Zuffa for his troubles. In actuality, the UFC just ended up being a mechanism whereby the majority of fighters abandon the normalcy of typical jobs—like driving a truck—for the glamor of the stage. That they incur brain damage, lingering injuries or other hazards is about on par with professional sports like the NFL minus the benefits professional sports organizations often bestow through their players associations.
On paper, the UFC’s obligation to Chris Leben is no different than a casino’s responsibility to its patrons. Betting your life on hitting it big and expecting the prize to solve all your problems is a losing proposition for the vast majority of both casino patrons and fighters. The only one who consistently comes out ahead is the house—in this case, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the majority owners of the UFC. Fighters have to be smart in using MMA as a platform for their own advancement rather than blindly believing that there is a plan to take care of them in the future.
The question now--is the UFC morally or socially obligated to pay for Chris Leben’s counseling? Offer him further advice to deal with his tax situation? Spring for rehab when stars need it like the WWE does? Is Leben entitled to financial assistance beyond the purses and bonuses he earned?
No matter what the UFC does, the organization has its back up against the wall: there are many more UFC fighters who will be retiring over the coming years, and the organization simply cannot address all of their personal or professional issues. As Nate Quarry has stated, the UFC is just a business that puts its own interests first and foremost.
Fighters have to be aware of what the current arrangement is, period.
“If you’re out there risking your body—your physical health—you’ve got to be compensated,” says Shamrock. “It’s got to be worth it to you and everybody else. And if it’s not, then don’t do it.
At the start of his career, one can imagine Chris Leben thought about winning the title and fulfilling the dream of standing on the top of the mountain, applause and accolades raining down. Now that his situation has changed for the worse, where is the light at the end of the tunnel?
“There’s no light in this industry because nobody has sparked it and maintained it,” says Shamrock. “There is a light in getting healthy personally.”
When the curtain falls, the performer must confront painful personal truths. Bright lights—dark shadows.
Brian J. D’Souza (@Thracian_Books) is the author of the recently published book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here