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Chris Leben - The Return of The Crippler

"I think I’m more excited for this than any other fight in my life." - Chris Leben

UFC middleweight Chris LebenChris Leben hasn’t fought under the bright lights in the UFC since last November. He hasn’t had his hand raised inside the Octagon since July 2, 2011, when he knocked out one of his heroes, Wanderlei Silva, in just 27 seconds at UFC 132. Instead of competing in the cage, the 32-year-old has spent the last year striving to earn daily victories over an opponent he’s been battling for years.

For as long as Leben has been in the spotlight, his struggles with drugs and alcohol have been a part of his personal narrative.

Before there was Junie Browning and drunken, shirtless competitors shouting, “Let me bang, bro!” inside The Ultimate Fighter house, there was Chris Leben.

The resident loose cannon on the historic first season of the UFC’s long-running reality TV competition, Leben set the standard for genuine chaotic behavior prior to each season featuring at least one episode where someone has too much to drink and “goes crazy.” By the end of the first season, he had become one of the show’s breakout stars, beginning his run as a lovable rogue fans stood by through the highs and the lows.

Unfortunately for Leben, every high point in his career came with an accompanying low. Quality wins were paired with ugly defeats, his mischievous grin coupled with a disheveled mugshot and a DUI arrest. His first headlining appearance in two years ended in a loss to Michael Bisping, and was followed by a nine-month suspension after Leben tested positive for a banned substance after the bout. What should have been a triumphant return to the cage in his hometown of Portland, Oregon resulted in a lethargic performance and a third-round loss to Jake Rosholt.

Leben won four of his next five, including two fights in three weeks in the summer of 2010, his only loss in that span coming against heavy-handed contender Brian Stann. He returned to England and the top of the marquee for a matchup with Mark Munoz at UFC 138. The fight ended before the third round could begin, a nasty cut over Leben’s left eye bringing the bout to a close. Three weeks later, it was announced that Leben had once again tested positive, this time for the painkillers oxycodone and oxymorphone.

Many thought the UFC would sever ties with the troubled fighter. Instead, Leben was suspended for a year, and the organization sent him to rehab to help the popular fighter stare down his toughest opponent. After 13 months dedicated to figuring out his life, “The Crippler” is ready to return, and start paying back the UFC and the fans who stood by him throughout his rollercoaster career.

“I think I’m more excited for this than any other fight in my life,” admits Leben, who will step into the cage against late replacement Derek Brunson at UFC 155. “It’s been a long road. For me, it really hasn’t been a year off; it’s been a year really dealing with other things, but to finally be able to get back to work – get back to what I do – and now to be doing it in such a different mind frame, it’s exciting.

“It certainly is a lot different now because it’s been very easy for me to focus on what I want to do, and what my goals have been for the last year,” Leben continues, readily opening up about his growth over the last year and the old struggles he’s having to find new ways to cope.

“Now with the fight coming up, all of a sudden, a lot of these old emotions, and that anxiety about how I’m going to perform and wanting to be your best – all that stuff is starting to come up again. Right now it’s about trying to find new, better ways to deal with and manage that pain or that emotion, and I think I’m doing pretty good.”

He sees a counselor on a weekly basis, and the two lay out a game plan for the days ahead the same way Leben would map out his strategy before stepping into the cage. Just like in his fights, sometimes it works to a tee; other times, not so much, but every week, they discuss the good points and the bad, and what they can do to improve things moving forward.

“My wife – she goes with me to every one of my counseling sessions – so she knows everything that I’m going through. She’s part of the game plan too,” he adds. “Stress management has been something I’ve been missing my whole life – just how to deal with stuff when it comes up. That’s something that I feel like I’m doing better (with). I still need some work, but everything is really good right now.”

Those good feelings extend over to Leben’s preparation for his return to the cage, even if he’s had to make a few last minute changes in the wake of his original opponent, Karlos Vemola, being forced to withdraw due to injury.

For the first time in a very long time, the devilishly charismatic cage fighter is already in tremendous shape, something he credits to the team he’s assembled in advance of this fight. He repeatedly praises them, deeming the ensemble the best group of coaches and training partners he’s ever worked with, which is saying a lot considering he cut his teeth in the sport as a member of the legendary Team Quest alongside the likes of Randy Couture, Chael Sonnen, and Matt Lindland in the Pacific Northwest.

Building a team with good chemistry and a singular focus on his performance was imperative for Leben, who says his training camp for his UFC 138 meeting with Munoz in Birmingham, England was rife with issues. Like everything else in the last year, paring down the group of people that he works with has been a struggle, but one that the returning middleweight already believes has made a serious impact on his career.

“My last camp, my coaches were fighting with each other. I really didn’t feel like my performance and me personally were certain people in my camp’s main priorities. That, for me, is huge. Right now, I have – guaranteed – the best camp and the best people that I’ve trained with around me, and I’ve really paid so much more attention to who I’ve surrounded myself with. It’s been a very hard, very difficult process. Some of that filtering was people that I care about, and that to this day I respect and like, but I had to really choose what kind of people I wanted around me. Now, being six weeks out from this fight and having this core group of people that I have, there’s not a price I could put on it.

“Honestly, I would say (I feel) so good that it’s really scary,” laughs Leben in response to the standard training camp, status check question. “I mean, I’ve got some really great coaches. I’ve got the best set of coaches and training partners I’ve ever had around me. Obviously with my head being clearer, I didn’t realize how much a lot of the things I was doing were affecting me. Now when I go out and train - last Saturday is a perfect example: I had four guys that are 220, top-level guys, college wrestlers, and I crushed every one of them. All of them were gassed by the time I was tired. I know that’s a performance that I never would have had this far out from the fight.

“The old Chris Leben would never been where I’m at right now – not even close. The edge is there. That sharpness is there, and at this level, having that edge and that sharpness – yeah, I might be a year older, but I feel quicker, I feel sharper, stronger, and younger than I ever have.

“I think that the year off may have added five years to my overall career. I have been able to go back and work on some of my technical deficiencies that I wouldn’t have been able to work on when I’m getting my “A” game ready to go in there and compete. Sometimes when you’re fighting (every couple of months), you don’t have time to go back and change the fighter that you are because you’re not going to be able to complete that process. There have been several things that I was able to take a look at and improve. I really do believe that the time off has been priceless.”

The time away from the cage has done something more important than give Leben the opportunity to fill some of the holes in his game and refine his technique: it’s given him perspective and a very different set of motivations heading into this fight.

There are myriad reasons why these athletes step into the cage, and they run the gamut from altruistic to entirely selfish. For most, they shift over time, evolving with every win and loss in unison with life outside the cage. Some are chasing records. Others crave the competition. For some, it’s as simple as earning a paycheck in order to provide for their families.

After starting out looking to prove something to himself and others, Leben is now motivated by the desire to motivate others, and repay the tremendous debt of gratitude he feels he owes the UFC and all those who remained in his corner over the years.

“When I first started out, my first couple of fights, I just wanted to prove I was tough. Over the years, my reasons (for fighting) have changed. The motivation for this case – for this fight in particular – it isn’t about me; it’s about me wanting to go in, and put myself in a good place where I can support and take care of my family the way that I want to. And then it’s also for my company, to go out and show them that I appreciate they did for me, and that I’m going to do the absolute best that I can to repay them.

“It means so much that Dana White, Joe Silva, and the Fertittas have helped me out,” continues Leben. “They sent me to rehab. I really feel like now I just want to do nothing more than make them happy – to just go out and put on a good show. Go out and show them that I’m the fighter that I believe I can be, and the fighter that I believe they believe I can be as well because they have kept me around.

“I also want to show the kids that train at my gym – I have a lot of amateur fighters – that if I can do it, they can do it. I go to the jail here in Hawaii every week and talk to the youth, and they know that I’ve been through similar things, and I understand, and I think that more than anything gives them the strength to continue.”

While the motivations have shifted, Leben’s approach once the cage door closes has not. Though switching from Vemola to Brunson brings a few minor tweaks, the basic approach remains the same, just as it has throughout his 10-year career.

“I know what my coaches want me to do, but I’ve fought enough times that I know what happens when I get hit,” Leben admits, the laughter starting before he can finish the sentence.

“I really believe that to be a martial artist you need to be able to adapt and shift, fight any type of opponent. The majority of my training goes into what I want to do anyway. I’m not a guy who necessarily trains to react to my opponent; I kind of want to go out and lead the dance so to speak, so that has been my training mindset, which makes the shift not a terrible thing.

“On the bright side, we’re changing a wrestler for a wrestler; it’s not like I’m getting a K-1 kickboxer now, and I’ve been working on my wrestling defense for months. The one glaring thing is that he has a different lead, so now I’m facing a southpaw. More than anything, I’m just really happy that the UFC was able to come through and give me another opponent. It would have been terrible to put all this work in and not be able to get out there, do what I love to do, and make that money.

“Luckily they had an option for us, and we didn’t try to play any games with `No, we don’t want this guy’ or anything else. In my position right now, beggars can’t be choosers, and I just need to get out there and put on a good show for the UFC and the fans. I think they deserve that out of me, and deserve for me to not complain, and just go out there and do my job, so I’m just happy to be able to do that.”

The candid 32-year-old knows that as his fight draws closer, a lot of emotions and feelings that have been dormant for the last year will be stirred up again. Even though the UFC 155 fight card is stacked with big names and compelling fights, the return of the fan favorite some undoubtedly see as a “two-time loser” will be another challenge Leben will have to tackle head-on.

As he’s done with his counselor every week for the last year, “The Crippler” has already laid out a game plan for how to deal with fight week.

“I know a lot of eyes are going to be on me this fight. I know a lot of people are going to be very judgmental, so it’s about believing in myself, overcoming that, and knowing that I put in the work. I know I’m a great fighter. Dana White, UFC, the Fertittas, they know I’m a great fighter. Doing everything right is going to make a difference.

“I can’t go in there worried about ring rust. I need to go in there knowing I’ve got more fights than anyone in the division. I’ve been here before. As Randy Couture used to tell me, “Hey Chris – the hay is in the barn,” meaning the work is done. Now when that time comes, I can’t allow all the emotion of the past year to come down on me, at least not until after my hand is raised.

“It’s going to be interesting. There is definitely going to be a lot of emotion. Just the fact that I’m back is a winning feeling, but at the same time, I’ve still got a job to do, so I’ve got to put all that away until I can go back after the fight and deal with it. My focus has to be on Derek Brunson.

“I don’t think that my psychiatrist will think this is the healthiest thing, but I’ve got to put it away,” Leben continues with a laugh. “I will have to disassociate to some level, and then go back after the fight to deal with the emotion. I know that when it comes to fight day or fight week, and I’m starting to do all the interviews, the weight cut – there are going to be a lot of eyes, a lot of judgment, and I’m going to have to deal with that. I have to remember to stay strong, and what my goal is, and that is that you can get through all this. You can come back.

With a checkered past that has played out in the media, Leben knows his backstory will always remain a part of the narrative before his fights, but that is what makes Saturday so important to him. After a year away confronting his demons, getting sober, and learning to deal with the struggles of life without his previous vices, the candid knockout artist is ready to start writing the next chapter of his career at UFC 155.

“I was actually just talking to my wife about this, and that is why there is a little more stress for this one. I’m actually dealing with life on life’s terms, and facing the emotions that come with going into a big UFC event. That being said, the last year has truly been a blessing in disguise. It has allowed me to make a lot of shifts and changes in my life, but it was a lot slower pace – very mellow, very centered. With everything picking up, I feel like (everything is building to a crescendo) and December 29 is the shift.

“There are a lot of things we’ve changed since we both go sober – there are a lot of shifts being made in my life right now, and this fight marks the beginning of that – the starting new. Change can be scary. Though it’s good, and it’s probably going to be for the better, it can be a little overwhelming and a little scary.”

That’s why returning to familiar territory – striding back into the Octagon and kicking off the pay-per-view – are so important to Leben. Now that he’s undertaken the daunting task of dealing with his issues outside the cage, this is his next test, and he’s been preparing for it for the last 12 months.

“It’s an honor,” Leben says of getting to compete on the annual New Year’s Eve event. “I think the 4th of July and the New Year’s show are the two biggest shows of the year, and the fact that I have been moved to the pay-per-view does two things: (1) a little more money for my sponsors, which is always nice, and (2) I’m on the meat-and-potatoes, kicking off the big card. That’s where the fights that people want to see are. More than anything, though, I’m just thankful that I have somebody tough I can get in there and put on a show with.”

And that’s precisely what he intends to do on Saturday night.

“My skill set has steadily improved over the years, and in particular over the last year, and I have faith that I’ll be able to cleanly out-strike him. I would like to showcase a little bit of my progression as a fighter. If I get cracked real hard, I think we all know what’s going to happen, and what mode I’m going to switch into, but I don’t think there’s a problem with going out and starting the fight by fighting clean and technical.

“I’m not going to be Michael Bisping – running backwards and jabbing,” he adds with a mischievous chuckle. “I’m going to be pushing the fight, definitely.”

At this point, the outcome doesn’t really matter. The fact that Chris Leben is happy, healthy, and once again preparing to entertain the UFC audience with his personal blend of charisma and crushing blows means he’s already won.