It was something you had a feeling was coming, but to hear Chris Leben officially announce his retirement from fighting at the age of 33, it was still a bittersweet moment for fans of “The Crippler,” who have been thrilled by his Octagon exploits since 2005.
On one hand, the announcement, which Leben made Monday on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Hour show on MMAFighting.com, comes after a 0-4 stretch in his last four bouts, most recently a stoppage at the hands of Uriah Hall at UFC 168 last December. But on the other, knowing that Leben won’t be pulling himself out of the ashes, guns blazing for yet another miracle comeback, does make it a sad day for the sport which the Portland, Oregon native began competing professionally in back in 2002.
In those days, MMA wasn’t even close to being as popular or mainstream as it is now, but for hard-nosed competitors like Leben, who often fought more for the love of the game than the money because there was no money back then, the UFC was still the goal.
“I was fighting in the WEC and from well before then my goal was to fight in the UFC, whether there was gonna be a show or not or even whether the UFC was gonna be a big thing or not,” Leben told me in 2010. “I knew that training and fighting was what I wanted to do, and that was my plan regardless of the popularity of the sport. I was gonna take this road one way or another.”
Yet after wins in 10 of his 11 fights on the local circuit, including stoppage victories over Mike Swick and Benji Radach, Leben’s road to the Octagon got a lot shorter when he was chosen to compete on season one of a new reality series called The Ultimate Fighter. Leben wouldn’t win the show, but he made an immediate impression, much like his peers Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Stephan Bonnar, Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck, and Swick, all of whom became UFC staples over the years.
Yet while Griffin and Bonnar became Hall of Famers and Sanchez, Florian, Koscheck and Swick top contenders, Leben’s impact was that of someone who always showed up to fight and who was never out of a fight. A free swinging brawler who fought with little regard for his own safety, Leben tore out of the gate in the UFC with five consecutive wins before running into an Octagon newcomer in June of 2006 who just happened to go on to be considered the greatest fighter of all-time, Anderson Silva.
“I got a little overzealous, tried to swing too hard and tried to look for the knockout right off the bat,” said Leben in 2006 of the Silva fight. “I left myself heavy on my feet. His footwork was real good and he moved very well, he cut an angle and landed some good shots right on the chin, and that opened me up. It was my fault, I made some key mistakes, and at that level, if you make a mistake for just a split second, your opponent’s able to capitalize on it and that’s it. Just like when Randy (Couture) slipped a little bit with Chuck (Liddell). Chuck capitalized on that one small opening and that’s that.
“He (Silva) rung my bell pretty good,” he continued. “I do remember the first time he knocked me down, going ‘Okay, I’m going to get up.’ But I knew that after I got up I was gonna be so punch drunk I wasn’t going to have any sort of way to defend myself, but I figured, he caught me clean, he deserves a clean knockout, so I stood up for him and let him hit me a few more times.”
After the last comment, Leben laughed, proving once again that his good humor and down to Earth nature were two of the reasons why the fans and media liked him so much. He was as serious as you could get in the Octagon, but outside of it, he never took himself too seriously. Fighting was his job, and when he was off the clock, he was just Chris.
And the Silva fight wouldn’t be the last we heard of “The Crippler.” Two months after the defeat, he picked up Knockout of the Night honors against Jorge Santiago, and added two more identical awards for his wins over Terry Martin and Alessio Sakara. Four losses also found their way to his resume from late 2006 to 2009, the most costly being a decision defeat in 2008 to Michael Bisping that saw him test positive for Stanozolol after the bout.
It wasn’t the last time out of the Octagon issues would hinder Leben’s career, but each time he owned up to his infractions and made a concerted effort to straighten things out. And if you followed his journey for any extended amount of time, you realized that as he got older, he was no longer the hellion on a self-destructive downward slide, but a young man finding his way with every intention of doing the right thing.
One of my favorite examples of this came after Leben’s Knockout of the Night win over Aaron Simpson in June of 2010. At 6am on Saunday morning, just hours after his fight, Leben was standing on the taxi line at The Palms in Las Vegas, waiting to catch a ride to the airport to go to his home at the time in Hawaii.
As he waited to load up his bags, he was approached by a couple who appeared to have had too much to drink the night before. The woman asked for a picture, and Leben obliged with no hesitation. The man asked the middleweight contender if he could fight him later.
Leben, having been in situations like this before, simply turned and opened the cab door, saying “I did my work last night.”
“But that was your jobbbbbbbbbbbbb,” came the response.
The cab sped away, and soon Leben was on his way back home to Hawaii. I asked Leben before his next fight – which happened to be exactly two weeks later against Yoshihiro Akiyama – if the “old” Chris Leben would have let that comment go like he did. He laughed.
“The old Chris Leben would have still been at a club.”
2010 would be a stellar one for Leben, as he went 3-0 with wins over Jay Silva, Simpson, and Akiyama, the latter bout earning him Fight of the Night honors and only the second submission win of his UFC stint.
Times got rougher for Leben after that, as he won only one of his final six bouts, but that one victory was pretty special, as he knocked out one of his fistic heroes, Wanderlei Silva, in just 27 seconds at UFC 132 in July of 2011.
That win will probably be the one Leben looks back at most fondly, but with 22 pro MMA victories, five post-fight awards, 22 UFC fights (putting him in a tie for fifth all-time), and the number one spot for most total strikes landed in UFC middleweight history, there’s plenty for him to reflect back on and smile. Not bad for a guy who once chalked up his success not to natural talent or technique, but to good ol’ fashioned hard work.
“One thing about my character is that I am a hard worker, and regardless of the ups and downs, the success that I have had is solely because of that and not because of natural ability or anything else,” he said. “It’s solely due to just working hard.”