Leon Tabbs, beloved cutman and a seminal figure in the history of the UFC from the early days to the modern era, passed away Friday at the age of 86.
The original UFC cutman, Tabbs was a fighter’s first and last line of defense in the Octagon, whether wrapping their hands before a bout, or keeping them in a fight while treating their battle wounds between rounds. And though he was a familiar sight to fans for nearly two decades, there was more to him than what was seen on fight night.
An amateur boxer, Tabbs saw his career interrupted by a stint in U.S. Navy during the Korean War. When he returned home, he became a police officer yet also kept his love of the sport going through his work as a boxing trainer and cutman.
In 2004, the New Jersey native led Michael Stewart to a pair of world title shots against Sharmba Mitchell and Ricky Hatton, but he may be best remembered in boxing for his work with future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins.
But to MMA fans, Tabbs was always the man in the corner, soft spoken but no nonsense when it was time to work. The fighters knew it, too, and with a man of his experience and expertise on their side, it removed a layer of stress because they knew if something went awry, he would be there to right the ship and give them a level playing field to win the fight.
On a personal level, Leon was one of those people who you could talk to for hours and never get bored. His knowledge of the fight game – and of life – was endless, and there were several long stays in the airport made considerably more pleasant thanks to his company. And while I was introduced to him through his work with the UFC, I did get to see him in a different light as part of Team Hopkins when the longtime middleweight champion was preparing for his bout with Oscar De La Hoya.
Matching wits with Hopkins’ trainer Bouie Fisher, Tabbs worked the corner of Hopkins’ nephew, Demetrius, as the two pugilists sparred, and the gym in Upper Darby, PA went silent, with the only sounds being those of battle and of Tabbs and Fisher. It was something to see, and it was clear in that moment that combat sports wasn’t a job for Tabbs, but a lifelong passion. And it explained his longevity in both boxing and MMA.
In 2012, Tabbs, a cancer survivor, retired after a career to remember, and in 2013, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the sport at the Fighters Only World MMA Awards.
Fighter. Trainer. Cutman. Husband. Father. Friend.
It was an honor to know him.