UFC middleweight Chris Leben has come along way since his days as a hard-partying, heavy drinking, out of control contestant on season one of The Ultimate Fighter way back in 2005.
“The Crippler” has grown up as a man and a mixed martial artist right before our very eyes. That’s not to say he hasn’t had his ups and downs, but how many of us haven’t gone through our own peaks and valleys?
Most of us are allowed to mature without the pressure of having our every move ridiculed by members of an ever growing media, and a boss who does not like to see the sport or the organization embarrassed in any way.
Leben has stepped his game up in a big way over the past 18 months. He is now preparing to headline UFC 138 against surging contender Mark Munoz on November 5 in Birmingham, England.
The last time Leben fought in the UK he lost a unanimous decision to Michael Bisping at UFC 89 back in October of 2008. After the bout Leben tested positive for steroids and received a nine month suspension. He returned at UFC 101 where he was choked out by Jake Rosholt.
Something must have happened when Leben woke up after the fight with Rosholt because since then he has gone 4-1 with wins over Jay Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama. The UFC is so happy with Leben that they have chosen him to be part of the first non-title fight that is scheduled for five rounds when he faces Munoz.
“I think it’s awesome to be part of this fight,” Leben told Bleacher Report. “It’s a good thing all-around, not just for the fighters, but for the fans as well. I’m prepared to go five rounds. This is going to be a huge point of separation for the main event guys in headline bouts.”
Leben is taking this opportunity extremely serious and is working as hard as ever. Leben only knows one speed and that’s straight ahead as witnessed in his wars, especially his Fight of the Night against Akiyama at UFC 116. He will need to pace himself better against Munoz or risk losing steam in the championship rounds.
“We’ve been training for a few weeks now, but we are really starting to pick up some steam,” Leben said. “Everything is going really good so far and now is the time where we can start to formulate a game plan.”
Munoz is about as tough as they come. He has power in both hands and uses his amateur wrestling background to try and take his opponents down where he can beat them with his savage ground and pound. Ever since making the drop to middleweight back in August of 2009, he has amassed a 6-1 record.
“We are going to bring in some guys in from outside of our camp, fighters like Ed Herman who I used to train with at Team Quest,” Leben admitted. “Most likely I will bring in some of my coaches from Oregon, like Greg Thompson. The key is having guys here who are familiar with me and can help me prepare for Munoz’s style of fighting. I know we are going to bring a few wrestlers in as well.”
The only loss Munoz has had since he began fighting at 185 came against former No. 1 contender Yushin Okami. His growth and maturity have shone through in wins against Kendall Grove, C.B. Dolloway and, most recently, Demian Maia.
“Munoz has been very impressive and has come along way since he began in this sport,” Leben explained. “He started off like many of the other guys who have similar backgrounds, as just a wrestler. He has really grown into a well rounded fighter, but what impresses me most is his heart.”
On top of preparing for a five round fight, Leben has to deal with the flight overseas, the time change and other obstacles that come along with fighting in England. Then there is the memory of losing to Bisping and the subsequent suspension that can now be looked at as a blessing in disguise.
“I actually love being over there, I get real pumped to fight in the U.K.,” Leben said excitedly. “The fans and the atmosphere are great. The one thing that really bothers me is the food. It really sucks. Here I am trying to eat healthy and cut weight, yet all they bring you to eat are these sandwiches. All I can say is it’s not as bad as being in France.”
The biggest news in the sport has been the deal made between the UFC and Fox. Fans will now be treated to four cards shown on the main Fox channel, while FX & Fuel TV will now carry The Ultimate Fighter and all of the UFC Unleashed shows. It can only be seen as a positive from the fans point of view, what really matters are how the fighters feel about it.
“I mean I guess we’re supposed to be happy about it,” Leben said. “Everyone seems to be all excited about and maybe I will be too, but my focus right now is on my fight with Munoz. I can’t allow outside distractions to take me away from preparing for this bout. My one and only priority right now is to train for Mark Munoz.”
Leben is the main coach at ICON Fitness MMA Gym in Hawaii, something that he has always said he thoroughly enjoys. He also opened up a gym with Steven Saito in Oahu back in January. With his outgoing personality and love for coaching, it would make perfect sense to see Leben as a coach on an upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter.
“I would love to get an opportunity to coach on the show,” Leben said. “It would give me an opportunity to maybe work with a fighter who has the talent, but needs to harness it, maybe someone like myself when I was on the show. If the timing and the situation was right, I would jump all over it.”
Most fans can appreciate the turnaround Leben has done since coming off his suspension and loss to Rosholt. It was a never a question of Leben’s talent or his heart, but many wondered where his head was at. He has had some arrests for drunk driving, but, for whatever reason, he has done a complete 180 and given all of us some of the most exciting fights we have seen over the past 18 months.
“For me I always knew what type of fighter I could be,” offered Leben. “I knew I had the physical tools and the heart, but truthfully my biggest enemy has always been me. When I am right and focused I don’t see anyone beating me. The biggest difference has to be doing the right thing. It has to do with more of a focus on training and taking better care of myself.”
In Leben’s last fight, he knocked out MMA legend Wanderlei Silva in just 27 seconds. It was a vicious knockout that saw “The Axe Murderer” fall face first onto the canvas. Afterwards, White suggested that it was maybe time for Silva to call it a career. Being such a huge fan of Silva for so many years, Leben had his own take on that situation.
“I feel like it should be the fighter’s call and that they themselves should know when it’s time to hang up the gloves,” Leben explained. “Wanderlei Silva has done so much for this sport. I think he still has some good fights left in him. Anyone would have gone down if they were hit as hard as I hit him. If Silva wants another fight I believe Dana owes it to him.”
Now that Leben has his life and career surging full steam ahead, has he given any thought on how and when he would like to end his career? He just turned 31 this past July, but he has been in his share of battles. Since beginning his career in 2002, Leben is now preparing for his 30th career fight.
“I am going to take a wait and see approach to that question,” Leben offered. “As long as I am healthy, I’d like to think I can compete for another four or five years. As long as I can be competitive and enjoying myself then we’ll see where this ride takes me.”