Exit Plan

By John Hoven Dec 31, 2013
Chris Leben has 22 UFC fights under his belt. | Photo: Sherdog.com

LAS VEGAS -- For perhaps the first time in his career, Chris Leben should really stop moving forward.

Known for an aggressive standup style that usually includes him constantly walking towards his opponents, it is now time to pause and reflect on the next step. An adjustment in his game plan is necessary at this point, yet we are not talking about his footwork inside the Octagon. After 10 years as a professional fighter and having achieved a level of popularity few have reached coming off “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, Leben’s bout with Uriah Hall at UFC 168 on Saturday proved that the time has come for him to call it a career.

While it can be difficult for fighters at this level to come to grips with the decision to retire, the writing has been on the wall with Leben for quite some time. Although top-tier athletes consistently push through adversity during their athletic careers, eventually there comes a point when enough is enough.

Even outside the gym and away from the sport he loves, fighting through life has been a common thread for the 33-year-old southpaw. Interestingly enough, that number also finds its own theme in the story. In the 33rd bout of his career, he landed 33 strikes against Hall. It was not enough, though, and that should be part of the concern at this point.

“I think it’s a good fight for Leben,” UFC President Dana White said in the days leading up to UFC 168. “When Chris Leben has his head right and his life [together] outside of the Octagon, he does great. He started his school, [and] he’s been with this girl who he cares about for a long time; things are going great. Everything in his life could be great as long as he stays on the right path.”

Over the years, White has given the “Do you want to be a fighter?” speech so many times it has become part of the fiber of the sport. That issue also plays into his love for Leben, as the middleweight openly boasts the any-time-any-place attitude. Even through his constant praise of the veteran fighter, the UFC boss was also starting to drop hints that Father Time may be catching up to the man known as “The Crippler.”

“Leben might be at that point where he’s winding up his career,” White said. “[He’s] had a great run. Imagine Season 1 of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ without Chris Leben.”

Fortunately, nobody has to imagine it. His exploits will live on forever in digital form and endless reruns. While Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar had the fight everybody remembers from the show’s debut run, it was the constant feud between Leben and housemate Josh Koscheck that helped propel him to stardom. Proving he was more than just a hard-partying brawler with heavy hands, Leben went on to win his first five UFC fights, running his record to 15-1 in 2006 and putting himself one fight away from a shot at then-champion Rich Franklin. Looking back, what came next may have actually been the beginning of the end.

“When Anderson Silva first came into the UFC, he fought Chris Leben,” White said. “That was [Silva’s] first fight, and Chris was undefeated in the UFC at the time. He had a chin of granite. Nobody could knock him out. And what Anderson Silva did to him ... Chris Leben was 100 percent confident he was going to beat Anderson Silva that night.”

Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

“The Crippler” has a fan in White.
Of course, that is not what happened. Silva burst onto the scene with pinpoint punches and some brutal knees, knocking out Leben in just 49 seconds. “The Crippler” went on to lose four of his next seven fights. However, his three wins were all spectacular, as he earned “Knockout of the Night” bonuses with victories over Jorge Santiago, Terry Martin and Alessio Sakara.

In January 2010, Leben began his last successful run. His hand was raised in four of his next five fights, culminating with a first-round knockout of legendary slugger Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132. During that stretch, he was named Sherdog.com’s 2010 “Comeback Fighter of the Year.”
However, his stock would never be so high again.

Leben made history in 2011, taking on Mark Munoz in the UFC’s first five-round non-title fight. Not only did he lose the bout, but he also tested positive for oxy-morphine and oxycodone. It was his second suspension for banned substances, as he had been caught with Stanozolol in his system following a 2008 decision loss to Michael Bisping. An 11-month layoff did not seem to help much, either. Leben suffered two consecutive decision losses after returning to action in December 2012, so entering UFC 168, he desperately needed a win.

Things did not get off to a good start.

Hall knocked down Leben right away with a flying knee. Back on their feet, Leben landed a few punches, including a hard left. As usual, he stalked Hall from one side of the cage to the other. He seemed to be having trouble finding his distance, despite nearly landing a huge overhand blow on two occasions. Then, in the final minute of the round, Hall dropped Leben with a crushing right hand to the face. Once on the mat, Hall pounced on Leben and fired away with blow after blow. The horn sounded to end the round, as the crowd cheered wildly. Just like they did for Mark Coleman at UFC 100, those in attendance were determined to somehow will one of their favorite sons to a final victory.

However, to the surprise of nearly everyone in attendance at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Leben took a different path. The man known for slugging it out to the very end decided he had endured enough abuse. While so many before him have been knocked out of the sport with one final drop to the canvas, Leben seemed to choose to leave on his own terms. He told his corner he was done and then walked out of the cage with one final wave to the fans. Leben was already in the back by the time the official decision was announced.

“Chris is a tough guy, and I know how bad he wanted to come back and how bad he wanted to fight,” White said. “You know how tough Chris is, and for Chris to quit on the stool, he was hurt.”

White would not say it was Leben’s last scrap inside the Octagon, but a tweet from the fighter several hours later seemed to indicate things are heading in that direction. It read, with slight grammar corrections: “Making the drive back to [San Diego]. Time to start a new chapter. I’ve landed the most strikes in the UFC. It was a good run, wouldn’t change a thing.” A second tweet demonstrated some of the class he has often shown his opponents: “Way to go @UriahHallMMA. Next generation of this sport; real athletes. Days of winning on toughness alone are over. Good job buddy.”

Despite the uncertainty over what the future holds, Leben continues to draw praise from the most powerful man in the sport.

“Chris Leben’s had a great run, one way or another,” White said. “He’s a guy who I will always respect and be there for in one way, shape or form.”


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