Chris Leben file photo | Sherdog.com
Sherdog’s Comeback Fighter of the Year
By Todd Martin
With a minute left in his UFC 116 bout against Yoshihiro Akiyama, Chris Leben fired desperate punches from his back. Knowing that he faced a possible decision loss if the round expired, Leben needed to do something to leave the fight with his hand raised.
In a sudden movement, Leben wrapped his right leg around the Japanese star’s head and secured a triangle choke. With less than 30 seconds left, Akiyama was forced to tap out and the live crowd at the MGM Grand erupted. On one of the best night of fights in UFC history, Leben stole the show. It completed a remarkable turnaround for Sherdog’s 2010 Comeback Fighter of the Year.
“[I feel] overwhelmed,” Leben commented after the fight. “It’s been a long road and a somewhat bumpy one for me. This is just huge. My career and my life are in better places than they have ever been.”
Leben’s long and bumpy road to that point played out dramatically in front of the public eye.
Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar have consistently received effusive praise for the role they played popularizing MMA on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” But while Griffin and Bonnar turned heads with their exciting battle at the TUF finale, it was the feud between Chris Leben and Josh Koscheck that dominated the first TUF season and sent ratings on an upward trajectory.
The Ultimate Fighter presented Leben as a complex and flawed human being. He was depicted as a hothead who liked to drink and infamously urinated on the bed of another fighter. But in the show’s most dramatic moments he was reduced to tears as Bobby Southworth and Koscheck maliciously exploited his emotional vulnerabilities. Leben didn’t win the Ultimate Fighter, but he emerged as one of the show’s biggest stars.
Following his tenure on the show, Leben won five fights in a row and established himself as a contender for the UFC middleweight title. A 49-second destruction at the hands of Anderson Silva quickly changed that. Subsequent losses to Kalib Starnes and Jason MacDonald pushed him to the middle of the back.
Things would only get worse for Leben when in April of 2008 he was arrested for allegedly violating his probation on a previous DUI. Leben was sentenced to 35 days in jail. He lost his next bout to Michael Bisping and allegedly tested positive for Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, following the fight. After serving a nine-month suspension, Leben lost his return fight via submission to Jake Rosholt. Going into 2010, Leben appeared to be one loss away from being cut by the UFC.
A losing streak in MMA can be devastating to the career of a fighter. Many fans perceive fighters to be only as good as their last performance. Legends are quickly dismissed and great fighters written off. Leben had to deal not only with the criticism and scrutiny that comes from losing, but also past problems with alcohol and the stigma of cheating. His career appeared to be in a downward spiral.
There was no shortage of obstacles for Leben to overcome, but 2010 would be a year of redemption.
The year started inconspicuously with a decision win over the lightly regarded Jay Silva. For the first time in his UFC career, Leben’s bout wasn’t broadcast on television. That win set up a more high profile bout with the undefeated Aaron Simpson. Leben was a heavy underdog against the wrestling standout with big punching power.
Simpson demonstrated his wrestling skill by taking Leben down multiple times in the first round of their bout. But by the second round Simpson appeared to be fading. Leben started landing his punches. As a dazed Simpson staggered across the ring to avoid additional punishment, the referee stopped the bout. Leben won knockout of the night honors and returned home for what he figured would be a period of rest and relaxation.
Leben’s plans were quickly foiled. Joe Silva called him up the next day. Wanderlei Silva had to pull out of a semi-main event bout against Yoshihiro Akiyama. A short notice replacement was needed. Leben agreed to take the fight. It would be his second fight in just two weeks and he was again a solid underdog.
Taking two fights so close together might be viewed as a disadvantage by some. However, prior to the fight with Akiyama, Leben pointed to that as a positive.
“It’s really quite a blessing because the hardest part about fighting is getting throughout training camp without injury,” Leben said. “I made it out of my last fight luckily with a couple bumps and bruises but no injuries. For me to look at that fight as a hard sparring day and my real fight is in two weeks, I truly feel better than I ever have in my entire life.”
The year 2010 was filled with classic fights. But few packed the excitement of the spectacular contest between Leben and Akiyama. They traded heavy strikes on their feet and scrambled for submissions on the ground. At the beginning of the third round Leben stood to his feet and raised his hands in the air to encourage the already boisterous audience.
All three judges had the fight scored 19-19 at that point. The third round would decide the fight. Akiyama took Leben down and maintained top position. Leben was active from his back but judges often give the benefit of the doubt to the man on top. There was only one way for Leben to guarantee himself victory and he pulled it off by stopping the fight with the late triangle.
When the year started, Chris Leben was a forgotten fighter. At the year’s conclusion, he found himself once again a contender in the middleweight division. He earned himself a semi-main event position in 2011’s first card and was mentioned as a potential coach for the Ultimate Fighter. It was a remarkable turnaround for a fighter who has had a particularly tempestuous career.
“I’m working hard in and out of the cage,” Leben said prior to his UFC 125 bout with Brian Stann. “Anyone that’s around me knows I’m a far different person than I was five years ago.”
Success in MMA, as in life, can often be fleeting. An arrest on suspicion of DUI in October demonstrated that Leben’s past demons have not entirely disappeared. Leben’s high profile bout with Stann went on as planned but the episode reopened questions about Leben’s behavior outside the Octagon.
Inside the cage, Leben’s 2011 started off as the polar opposite of his 2010. He demonstrated typical heart and determination trying to fight through an onslaught of offense from the underdog, but succumbed to punches late in the first round. The attention shifted to Stann as a new potential contender at 185 pounds while Leben found himself again looking to recover and rebound.
Past triumphs can quickly fade from the memory following a first-round knockout loss. But for a fighter who had fallen so far, 2010 represented a remarkable comeback for Chris Leben.
Continue Reading » Page Three: Beatdown of the Year