Chris Leben Knows His Back is Against the Wall Heading into UFC 168

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor INovember 25, 2013

USA Today

It's often said the journey far outweighs the destination.

The saying is meant to shed light on how the path navigated is supposed to provide more meaning when the person gets to where he or she is going—how the miles that roll beneath one's feet hold a greater importance than the place one eventually ends up.

Chris Leben's path through life has come with its fair share of peaks and valleys, but the 33-year-old is still standing tall. Storms of both the personal and professional varieties have been weathered and "The Crippler" is looking forward to completing his mission of getting everything back on track.

The TUF 1 alum's public battle with opiate addiction has played out in plain sight, and after two years of ongoing recovery, he's winning the battle of sobriety. That said, with his past three showings inside the Octagon ending in defeat, there is an urgency surrounding his ability to get back into the win column.

This is a pressure that isn't lost on Leben, but as a man who understands how to traverse the difficult terrains of life, it's something he's come to handle in his own way. Leben understands how important his fight against Uriah Hall will be at UFC 168 on Dec. 28, but there is only so much of the process he can control. And it's these parts he's going all in on.

Jul 6, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA;  Chris Leben and Andrew Craig during their Middleweight Bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
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"I really feel like I have something to prove right now," Leben told Bleacher Report. "My last fight was a bummer. I fought Andrew Craig and he fought tough. He fought great and got two judges where I got one. That sucks.

"With everything that has happened and having that be my last fight, I kind of feel I really have something to prove coming into this fight. But what can I do about it? The only thing I can do about it is train my ass off, toe the line, stay straight and sober and work as hard as I can. I have to brush off the haters and the cobwebs and just keep moving forward. That is what I'm focused on doing.

"My mindset right now is obviously that this fight is super important. I want to win more than anything; so how do I do that? How do I do that without over-stressing myself? I can't worry myself to a victory, and that is something I've learned over the years.

"The only things worth worrying about are those things I can affect. Right now, the way I can affect what is going to happen on Saturday night, Dec. 28, is to stay focused when I'm in the gym training and on my diet outside of the gym.

"Those things right there are what I'm focusing on," Leben added. "It's a stressful, scary spot to be in right now, and the one thing I've done before is gotten myself in trouble because I've stressed out about things and handled them the wrong way. I've had to learn how to deal with it. The way I've learned to handle it is to focus on what I can affect right now."

Coming into the bout, both fighters are in similar positions. Both have struggled to find victory in recent outings and—because of that—are faced with the reality of losing their places in the UFC. Where Leben has been a staple with the organization for the better part of the past decade, his battles outside of the cage and stumbles inside have brought him to a place where he's walking a thin line with the organization.

The same rings true for Hall. After being heralded and praised for his performance on the 17th installment of The Ultimate Fighter, the California transplant has failed to produce under the bright lights of the Octagon. His inability to claim victory has lead to UFC President Dana White questioning his heart, and he is undoubtedly in a make or break situation with the promotion.

"After what Dana said about his last fight, Hall is definitely in a must-win situation," Leben said. "We both kind of are, and that's what makes this fight exciting. It seems like this is one of those fights where the winner stays, and the loser walks. It feels like that kind of a deal.

Dec 29, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Derek Brunson (left) and Chris Leban (right) during UFC 155 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

"This is definitely a matchup for the fans. We are polar opposites, Uriah Hall and I. He's athletic. He's fancy, but when the going gets tough, sometimes Hall gets going.

"I'm the dead opposite. There isn't anything fancy about my game. I'm not the most athletic fighter in the world. I've won so many fights I should have lost on sheer grit alone. And I know that. I know that coming into this fight it is going to be straight punches and basics that win this fight for me.

"It's going to be moving forward and forcing this guy to continue to fight and hopefully somewhere along the line we are going to break him. We are going to get him out in that deep water, and he's going to fail to keep his head above."

As Leben prepares to face Hall at UFC 168 in Las Vegas, he will continue to make the adjustments he's been in the process of making for the past two years. While he fights a daily mental battle against inner impulse, he also has to tweak the way he treats his body as well. 

After 11 years of competition and 32 fights—21 of which that have come under the UFC banner—the Team Alliance fighter has been forced to alter the way he approaches his craft. For Leben, those alterations have made all the difference and are allowing him to feel more productive than ever before.

"I absolutely have had to make adjustments," Leben said. "I think I'm training harder at 33 than I ever did at 23. That alone is a huge difference. Nowadays, when it comes time for team practice, I'm the first guy in the gym. I'm in there 45 minutes to an hour early because I need to stretch. That is something I didn't do at all before.

"I used to roll out of bed, throw my shorts on, race to practice, jump on the mat and start swinging. Now, it's not like that. I have to get up a little earlier. I have to go through a process before I leave the house, then go to the gym to do my stretching and warming up.

"After that, I'm ready to work out with everybody. I do things that way so I don't get hurt and to make sure I'm not so sore afterwards that I feel terrible. Ultimately it does pay off.

Jul 5, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA;  Chris Leben during the weighs-in for his UFC fight at the Mandalay Bay Event Center. Leban takes on Andrew Craig at the MGM Grand Garden Arena July 6. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

"You learn that the hard way really isn't the hard way and the easy way really is the hard way," he added. "It's about priorities. I have to prioritize and over the last two years I've gotten a lot better at that. Where I'm going and who I'm hanging out with have been big changes for me.

"There is also the realization that this fight isn't as important as my life or as my sobriety. Those are on different levels, but the thing I've really learned to do is prioritize. That's what I was missing before."

Regardless of how his record has shaped up where wins and losses are concerned, Leben's fighting spirit has endeared him to a passionate fanbase. The Oregon native's ability to press forward through the fire and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat have made him one of those fighters fans mark the calendar to see compete.

Where his skill set has surely grown over his career as a mixed martial artist, the way Leben is wired makes him dangerous at every point of the fight. He knows he's not the most technical or athletic, but in his mind, you are going to have to dig deep to defeat him.

"After so long you just realize what you are going to do," Leben said. "I know that if I get hit or get rocked, my instinct is not to back up and cover. Any sane person, that's probably what their instinct would be. 'Oh sh** I'm rocked, let me cover and regain my composure.'

"But that's not how I'm wired. My instinct is to go forward, and over all these years of fighting that has never changed. I don't see it changing anytime soon.

"I think it's just something you are born with, and you have to recognize that. Your coaches have to as well. Coaches have to recognize the type of fighter they are coaching. My coaches understand how I am and the kind of fighter I am.

"They approach the game plan and how to make things work the best they can for the fighter I am. You're going to have your guys that fight safe, and you're going to have your guys who go out there and lay it on the line. The best thing you can do is tailor their games to that because it will never change."

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.

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