For a while, Chris Leben’s move to Hawaii in 2007 was the ideal situation for the Ultimate Fighter season one veteran. Forget the weather and idyllic views; “The Crippler” appeared to be at peace after a series of ups and downs in his career and life.
And he was. For a time. But after losses in three of his last four fights, bouts with painkillers and alcohol, and the reality that being married means give as well as take, he decided a change was in order earlier this year when his wife decided to look at law schools on the mainland.
First stop, San Diego.
“As soon as we started looking at different schools, I spotted that there was one that was interested in her in San Diego,” said Leben. “We flew out to check it out, I went to Alliance gym because I know Brandon (Vera) and some of the guys at the gym, and I trained with them one day.”
Turned out that the Alliance MMA gym, home to the likes of Vera, Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Alex Gustafsson, and a host of world-class fighters, along with coach Eric Del Fierro, was a perfect fit. So perfect that Leben and his bride moved even earlier than planned.
“We weren’t planning on leaving until later, but with the limited time that I was there and was able to meet everybody, I realized that it was such a good experience that I said ‘you know what, where I’m at in my career, I need to be training with the best.’ And as lovely as Hawaii is and as wonderful as a lot of the people out there are, sometimes when the surf’s up I don’t have any training partners. (Laughs) It gets a little tough getting the guys in the room all the time to train, and at Alliance that’s just not a problem. I’ve got several UFC guys on the mat every single practice. I’ve been out here now for nine weeks and I haven’t missed a practice. I’ve had two practices a day for the last nine weeks with the team here at Alliance, and it’s been absolutely phenomenal. I said why didn’t I do this a long time ago. My game has exploded through the roof.”
That’s not to say the initial move wasn’t scary for Leben. As a veteran of nearly 11 years as a pro, and with a 1-3 record in his last four, taking reckless chances isn’t advisable. What if Alliance wasn’t a good fit, or what if he didn’t gel with the coaches and the team because of assumptions about his past? Then he’s in trouble before one of the most pivotal fights of his career on July 6 against Andrew Craig.
“When you’re at my level, and with a career like mine, finding a gym where they’re going to be open and accepting and they’re going to be at your level, there’s a lot of things going on there,” he said. “I’ve already got some stuff I’ve gotta overcome, pre-conceived notions about me, this and that, and I also need to find people who are on my same wavelength or at my level with training. So it is difficult and it was definitely a major worry, and that’s why we said we’re gonna take our time, fly out, check out the gym, check out the neighborhood before we settle on any gyms. It just so happened that my first choice was San Diego. We went there first, and Alliance was phenomenal, and they were open to me, they welcomed me. At first, particularly with coaching and stuff, I think it was a little bit of a trial period. And I think now, I’ve gotten on their good side, he (Del Fierro) realized that I am a hard worker, and that the shenanigans with me are a thing of the past.”
These days, it almost feels like the old days for Leben, back when he and the gang at Team Quest in Oregon were tearing through various MMA promotions, including the UFC.
“It does feel like that, and I got away from that,” he said. “I was kinda doing the lone wolf thing out there in Hawaii. Again, I had some great coaches and everything, but not guys that were fighting on my level with me. Here, I’m just another fighter on the mat, and there’s the camaraderie and everybody helping everybody out. Because a gym is more than the coaches; it’s so much in the fighters, and as iron sharpens iron, so one man another. Every day I’m learning from Phil Davis; I just spent 45 minutes with Dominick Cruz working on my standup right now, and it’s really impeccable training.”
And impeccable timing, as Leben doesn’t just need a win at UFC 162 against Craig, he needs a Leben-esque performance after a dismal decision loss to Derek Brunson last December. Leben has lost fights before where it was an all-out brawl before the end came. Not at UFC 155.
“It was absolutely terrible,” he said. “There were a couple things going on there. I don’t want to take anything away from my opponent in that fight; I just did a horrible job. I was working a game plan for a guy (Karlos Vemola) who comes out and brawls, my opponent gets switched ten days out from the fight, and I went from a brawler to a left-handed wrestler (Brunson). I hadn’t fought in a year and I was so tentative. I didn’t want to make any mistakes, and he didn’t want to engage, and I didn’t cut off the ring and chase him down like I needed to. And what happened was just an absolutely terrible sleeper of a fight that is the exact kind of thing that I don’t want to be known for. I don’t want people to see that and think that that’s me. I’m really gonna look to push the pace in this next one. We’re gonna be in this guy’s face.”
Now that’s “The Crippler” we’ve all come to know and love, and despite the rocky road he’s traversed at times, he’s still here and still standing. It’s probably not what you may have expected in 2005, when he was the wild child of TUF1. Yet from that cast of 16, only Leben, Mike Swick, Josh Koscheck, and Diego Sanchez remain active UFC fighters. That’s a pretty impressive run. So what’s the secret?
“I think it’s the way that you look at the sport,” said Leben. “I look at this as my life’s calling, and I look at myself as a martial artist, and by that I mean that I’m always trying to grow and I’m always trying to improve. I love going to the gym, I love the camaraderie, the teamwork, learning and trying to develop new skills, I love coaching, and maybe it’s that I don’t have anywhere else to go (Laughs); I don’t have any other options. Fighting is my life, it’s really what I’ve based my life around, and I couldn’t be more happy that I have because even though I’ve had ups and downs, it’s shown me the world and brought me to be the person that I am now, which I never would have been without this sport, so I’m extremely grateful.”
He’s also happy again, and ready to unleash a new and improved Chris Leben on the world.
“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. It’s solely due to just working hard. But now with the new gym, with sobriety, and with these cards falling into place, you add the work ethic on top of that and the sky’s the limit. I obviously gotta get through this fight first, but I really feel like the world’s gonna see a completely different Chris Leben.”
New City, New Team, New Leben
"I look at this as my life’s calling, and I look at myself as a martial artist, and by that I mean that I’m always trying to grow and I’m always trying to improve." - Chris Leben