According to the dictionary, a gatekeeper is “a person who is in charge of a gate and controls who may pass through it.” I am sure that most of you were aware of that before opening this article. And if you didn’t, you probably have the reading level of a fourth grader.
But we are not talking the English language here, we are talking MMA lingo. When speaking in MMA circles a gatekeeper is something different. They are a second rate fighter who is just good enough to make the big show, but just does not have the ability to realistically contend for the title, but still is better than the rest of the guys below him.
The role of gatekeeper is an important one for the sport. Typically these gatekeepers will face off against either up-and-coming fighters just entering a big time promotion or against big time fighters coming from another promotion that get a “warm-up” fight before taking on a big time opponent.
Now I am no fighter, I’m more of a lover, but I imagine being considered a gatekeeper is not what anyone wants to become when they start out in combat sports. It is something a fighter happens to fall into. By looking at a fighter’s history and who the big bad Dana White schedules certain guys against, it becomes clear over time whom the gatekeepers are.
With that said, Middleweight Chris Leben is not only prototypical gatekeeper, but he is awesome at it too.
Almost everyone who follows MMA, even the casual fan, is aware of who Chris Leben is. He is the crazy guy with the Dennis Rodman hair who looks like he just got done filming an episode of Jackass. He looks like he would be friends with Steve-O. Good friends.
But that is precisely what makes him such a good gatekeeper for the promotion, because if he looked like a normal human being, he would not be nearly as well-known. Most gatekeepers are relatively unknown fighters, rarely do they have a following like Leben has.
While his record of 12-6 while in the UFC is nothing to scoff at, all evidence shows he has hit his ceiling. He is as good now as he will ever be. Every time he has won a couple of fights against some non-contending fighters and stepped up the competition, he has lost.
He has shown he just cannot hang with the likes of Anderson Silva (not that anyone can), Brian Stann, Michael Bisbing. For whatever reason he is just a notch below them.
But now lets look at something that makes Leben unique, so that no one cares that he is just a GATEKEEPER.
He is exactly what Dana White is looking for at the middleweight division. Everyone knows three things about Mr. Leben; He is tough, he is going to bring it every time he enters the cage and he is a crazy S.O.B.
Lets start with the latter; as I have said before, he looks the part. If someone did a line up that consisted of GSP, Anderson Silva, and BJ Penn alongside Leben and asked me who was the cage fighter in the group, take a guess as to who I would pick. This makes him marketable on a marginal level. They can line him up against a new top level fighter (Silva, Stann) and he is just good enough to not have viewers think the fight sucks. He gives the illusion that he can hang with them even if he cant.
He was recently matched up against a washed up Wanderlei Silva, and somehow that was considered a possible “Fight of the Year” candidate before the fight even happened. A washed up fighter and a just-above-average fighter were getting that type of pre-fight hype? Why you ask, well Silva’s reputation didn’t hurt. But Silva teamed with Leben and his appeal made this fight something many fans looked forward to.
Also, they can match up against an up-and-comer like they are soon with Mark Munoz and know that if Munoz gets by him that he may be ready for the big show. He is just another possible stepping stone for Munoz. It is just another day in the life of a gatekeeper.
The last factor that makes Leben so great in this position is the type of fights he puts on. You know that if someone walks out of the cage having beat Leben (especially if they finish him) that they are a tough dude. Leben brings it, no doubt about that. He has won “Knockout of the Night” three times and “Fight of the Night” twice. This guy is here to knock some skulls. Win or lose, you learn something about his opponent about someone who fights Leben.
Chris Leben is awarded the UFC’s Official Middleweight Gatekeeper by none other than myself.
Feel differently? Take a look at his record, what is his best win? Akiyama? Jorge Rivera? Wandy? That is not a top-level fighter’s resume.
He is a solid fighter, a great watch, and a seemingly cool guy, but that’s exactly what he is, a solid fighter. Chris Leben is closer to being a better version of Chris Lytle than champ, and that is okay because by golly he is one hell of a watch if you ask me.