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Chris Leben - From Gatekeeper to Contender

"I know that he’s gonna refuse to lose, so I’m gonna have to put him away.”- Chris Leben

UFC middleweight Chris LebenYou can admit it – it’s always been nice to think of Chris Leben as the guy who missed his cab to the airport, sprinted to the gate, got on the plane to his fight, ran off that plane, and then showed up in just enough time to put his gloves on and scrap.

But he’s not that guy. In fact, he never was, but there was always the idea that The Ultimate Fighter season one cast member didn’t put too much thought behind the other parts of being a professional athlete, that he was all about the fight, and nothing else, and from that end of things, he rarely disappointed.

But these days (and maybe before as well, but he’s finally going on record about it), Leben makes it clear that to be successful in this sport, being tough ain’t enough.

Take his trip to England for this Saturday’s UFC 138 main event against Mark Munoz for example. Stuck with a hellacious trip from Hawaii to Birmingham, Leben made it a point to get on site last Thursday to make his final preparations for the fight, a key decision for a number of reasons.

“One is your sleep schedule,” said Leben. “That’s a big one, so we came over a little bit early to get acclimated. Two, when you’re dealing with such a long flight and so much travel time, especially when you get on that plane after training hard, the blood settles down in your legs and your feet swell up a bit, so getting your body moving and getting it back to normal after the travel, that’s another one. And three, the food is a little different than it is in Hawaii, so we had to make the proper adjustments to my diet plan, figuring out what we were gonna have access to and what we needed to bring with us. You have to make all those different calculations.”

Yeah, this is the same Chris Leben we all know and love. So let’s just call it a refined version of “The Crippler,” one who has learned that to make the most out of his career, he had to look at himself and be honest in his subsequent assessment.

“You have to know yourself, and one thing I know is just how much to trust myself and just how much I can’t trust myself, and that’s part of the reason I bring coaches out now for over a month before my fight, and it’s also part of the reason I leave a little early,” he said. “I get out and get my head cleared and get ready to go to battle.”

Against Munoz, he will be in for a battle, and one scheduled for five rounds, the first time ever in the UFC for a non-title bout. And while most expect the bout to end far before 25 minutes are up, given the styles and knockout power both men possess, in this sport anything is possible, so Leben has made sure to prepare to go the distance, which is yet another wrinkle added to his training camp that has forced him to prepare not only physically, but mentally.

“The day before I left (for Birmingham), I did five fives with fresh guys, and it takes a lot more to get ready for,” he said. “The hardest part is that you’re training and conditioning as hard as you possibly can and then they say, ‘get ready for ten more minutes,’ what do you do differently? So there has been some gameplan restructure and some changes in my diet to help bring my cardio up another notch and help me maintain a consistent pace through a 25 minute bout.”

Thankfully, Leben has had a full training camp for this bout, which follows his 27 second knockout of one his fighting heroes, Wanderlei Silva, in July. Given the method of victory and his admiration of Silva, the win was an emotional one, which makes you wonder whether it was difficult for him to recharge the batteries for Munoz.

“It hasn’t been hard because I’ve been real motivated,” he said. “Especially after a good win streak and then a tough loss against Brian Stann, winning against Wanderlei reminds me what I can accomplish if I put my mind to it, and how dangerous it is to let your guard down in this sport. I did that a little bit against Stann and I paid for it, so with Munoz, we’ve definitely been training harder than ever, we’re coming out here early to get prepared, and the nice thing about coming out here early is that it gets me away from my life. It’s just me, my team, and we’re here to fight, so I have nothing from now until fight day but to focus on that 25 minute bout.”

And getting back into the Octagon for the third time this year was an important thing for Leben, who was 2010’s Comeback Fighter of the Year for snapping a 3-5 stretch with three straight wins over Jay Silva, Aaron Simpson, and Yoshihiro Akiyama, the latter two bouts coming within two weeks of each other. This year, he is currently 1-1, and looking to make it 2-1 this weekend. And when it comes to preparation, he has no complaints.

“I wanted to make sure I had proper time to prepare for my next fight,” said Leben of the time following the Silva victory. “I didn’t want to jump right into something and I definitely didn’t want to have another Akiyama situation come up. But at the same time, it’s important for me to stay active; otherwise I would have let myself go too far.”

Every little bit counts against a fighter like Munoz, a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion who has developed a sound striking game that makes him dangerous wherever the fight goes. But when you’re talking about Leben, he’ll only go to the ground if necessary.

“He’s a tough wrestler,” said Leben of Munoz. “His hands are coming along. In the WEC he was more of a wrestler, and now we’re seeing more of a martial artist. But I think he’s still probably got a little bit of a ways to go, and I hope to exploit some of those holes in his game. But the biggest thing about Munoz is his heart and determination. I’ve seen him get rocked and I’ve seen him stay in it and come back from being close to out and win those fights. I know that he’s gonna refuse to lose, so I’m gonna have to put him away.”

Now that’s the old Chris Leben talking, and for all his attention to detail in the lead-up to this important battle, he is still that guy who grits his teeth, puts his chin down and swings for the fences when the bell rings. The only difference is that he knows that the more times he can walk out of the Octagon with his hand raised, the more he will establish himself as a contender and not just as an entertaining gatekeeper. And if he has his way, this fight just may be the one to do the trick.

“The UFC sometimes viewed me in the role of the gatekeeper, and I hate that,” he said. “I’d like them to view me in the role of a number one contender, especially after taking this first five round (non-title) fight. If I go out there and win in decisive fashion, that’s five (wins) out of six (bouts), and I feel I definitely should be the number one contender. And if they give me that fight, I’d be pretty happy about it for sure.”