Chris Leben lost his last fight inside the Octagon, a listless performance against promotional newcomer Derek Brunson in the first fight of the UFC 155 main card.
That’s the result that appears on his record, the one that reads 22-9 overall, and 12-8 in the UFC since breaking into the organization as a member of the inaugural cast on The Ultimate Fighter.
The tepid affair in Las Vegas last December is the last recollection people have of Leben in the cage, and it’s not one that casts “The Crippler” in a favorable light. He tired quickly, had trouble stuffing takedowns, and when he connected with punches, they lacked the snap to do much damage.
What gets lost between the replays of the fight and results as they stand on his record is that just by bouncing out to the cage as “Love Rollercoaster” pumped through the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Leben has already scored a far more important victory.
“I did find a road back to doing what I love to do,” says the charismatic middleweight, speaking to FoxSports.com. “Everybody looks at the last fight and jump to all these conclusions, but they don’t stop to look at the big picture. I think Eminem said it best, man, `Until you walk a mile in my shoes.’ It’s been a long road.
“Regardless of my last fight, these last 16 months have been the best of my life. Yeah, I’ve had some struggles and I’ve had some battles, but that’s what life’s about. It’s about struggling, battling, and getting back on the horse. That’s what a fighter does. I’m a fighter in and out of the cage.”
A lot changed for Leben in the 13 months leading up to his UFC 155 bout with Brunson.
Following his second-round loss to Mark Munoz at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England, Leben failed a post-fight drug test for the second time in his career. Rather than drop the repeat offender from the roster, the UFC suspended him for a year, and sent him to rehab.
He started seeing a psychiatrist, and began down the path towards living a sober life.
“Coming off some time off and struggling with being newly into this sobriety thing, and dealing with stress,” Leben starts, shifting to an adjoining, but different answer in mid-sentence, something you get more and more used to the longer you talk with him.
“One thing that I’ve really gotten better with over the last six months is my stress and anxiety management. I was having a hard time, looking for new healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety, and there was some of that before the fight. I think I was paying a little too much attention to what people were saying.
“I’ve realized now that people are going to say whatever they’re going to say, and there is nothing I can do about that. I just have to focus on me, on my game plan, and doing everything right. I can’t change what’s going to happen on Saturday night. No matter how much I think about the fight, I can’t do anything about it until Saturday night.”
By his own admission, Leben is once again in the process of re-inventing himself. While last year was spent building a clean, healthy life, the current focus is on maximizing the time he has left in his career, a process that has brought him to San Diego, California and Alliance MMA.
“The gym is just fantastic,” Leben says of his new digs. “I feel like with all the other things that were going on in my life, it was time for a change and some people that didn’t know the old me. I’m really working on re-inventing myself – again – and it’s been a good experience.
“It was a little hard in Hawaii because I did make the switch over to clean and sober living. It was hard because everybody knew “The Old Chris Leben,” and everybody was just waiting for that guy to come back. When he’s not coming back, it changes things. I lost a lot of friends; they’re still my friends, but we weren’t hanging out because we’re doing different things. I’m not out on Saturday night any more.”
With his wife set to enter law school in the fall, the Leben family set about finding a location that would meet both their needs.
San Diego was their first and only stop.
“I love Hawaii, and I miss Hawaii – it’s my home in a lot of ways – but man, why didn’t I do it sooner?” he questions with a laugh. “I had some good coaches and stuff in Hawaii, good training partners, but nothing like out here at Alliance. They’ve got such a phenomenal team; such a great, supportive group of guys that are pushing me physically, helping my technique a ton.”
“You hear guy say all the time, `I’ve never trained like this before,’ but Chris is real, real genuine, and he’s had his troubles outside of the cage, and I think he’s just trying to find himself,” adds Eric Del Fierro, the head coach at Alliance. “ He’s just been really focused and really dedicated. That’s all we can ask from the guys.
“By his own words, he’s always run his own camps; he’s never put trust in anybody to let them run his camp,” continued Del Fierro, who counts UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, and Ross Pearson among his charges. “In Oahu it’s a different lifestyle, and from what he’s told us, he’s pretty much been the big dog in camp, whereas here, he’s got every size of fighter and every level of fighter, from world champions to top contenders, and he’s really feeding off that.”
Saturday night at UFC 162, Leben looks to start the next chapter of his career when he shares the cage with Andrew Craig in the final bout of the preliminary portion of the card.
Back in the summer of 2010, Leben earned consecutive stoppage victories over Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama, fighting on back-to-back events with only 12 days between bouts. It was his best run of success inside the cage since he burst into the division with five straight wins coming off the first season of TUF, and it’s those types of performances that he wants to try an tap into as he makes one last run at things, starting this weekend in Las Vegas.
“I don’t want to be Dan Henderson or Randy Couture; I don’t want to be fighting when I’m 40-something years old,” he says with a laugh. “For these next few years while my wife is out here for school, let’s push it and see how far we can go.
“The one thing I feel like I always robbed myself of is – I look back and I go, `Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,’ and I don’t want to end my career like that. I want to push it as far as I can go, and see what my peak, my pinnacle, my max is, and I haven’t reached that yet. With the switch – with being out here with Alliance – I feel like they’re going to be able to help guide me and drive me in that direction.
In just three fights, the 27-year-old University of Texas grad has become a fan favorite for his resiliency and willingness to step forward, two characteristics that make him an ideal dance partner for Leben this weekend.
“Andrew Craig is for sure a scrappy, in-shape, athletic kid,” offers Del Fierro. “He brings a lot to the table. He’s been in the UFC for three or four fights now, and he’s had great showings every time. He doesn’t get tired, and he brings the fight to you, so we have our hands full.”
“It’s somebody that’s going to fight,” adds Leben. “I know Andrew Craig is a phenomenal athlete, and he’s definitely hard to put away. He just keeps hanging in there and that’s great. It sounds to me like we’ve got the perfect recipe for a great show.”