Follow Underground Columnist Ralph Welch on Twitter.
Crippler ready for December return
Of all the drug-related controversies of the past 12 months, there was perhaps none more emotional than the fall from grace of UFC middleweight slugger Chris Leben.
Whereas athletes such as Alistair Overeem and Cris Cyborg have been suspended in the belief that they sought to gain a synthetic advantage over their opponents, Leben openly admitted to a serious painkiller addiction following a positive test for oxycodone and oxymorphone following his loss to Mark Munoz at UFC 138. In many ways, the only person Leben had been cheating was himself.
Having seemingly overcome previous controversies with steroids and alcohol, Leben’s match-up with Munoz could theoretically have been the springboard back into title contention for a ten-year veteran whose resume includes impressive wins over Patrick Cote, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Mike Swick and Wanderlei Silva. Instead, it threatened to be his last appearance inside the Octagon.
Leben’s very public mea culpa led to an outpouring of support from the MMA fanbase who had long admired his willingness to throw bombs at whoever the UFC matchmakers put in front with him. Whilst some of his contemporaries began to rely on strategy to scheme their way to victory, Leben fought primarily to inflict pain – a move that found favour with the populace.
Whilst his do-or-die approach didn’t bring gold, it did bring him a number of of-the-night bonuses. More importantly, it also earned him a healthy dose of respect from the UFC office, who delighted in the fact that Leben consistently delivered entertainment. They promised to support Leben during his suspension and it seems they’ve delivered on their pledge as Leben announced in an interview with BJPenn.com that he had signed a new four-fight deal.
“Joe Silva said I will be on one of the four cards scheduled in December," said Leben.
“I did a little stint in rehab and since then I’ve focused on my treatment and counselling. I was forced to come face to face with some of these issues I was battling with. I’ve also given my body a chance to heal. I started getting massages and acupuncture instead of popping a pill to be able to train through the pain.”
A healthy, happy Chris Leben is a welcome addition to a UFC roster that is creaking under the weight of a packed schedule. If and when he does return this December, we’ll all be watching - and we’ll all move a little closer to the edge of our seats.
Askren aiming to win fights, not fans
One man who can only dream of the kind of universal popularity that Leben enjoys is the reigning Bellator welterweight king Ben Askren.
Askren (10-0) has built his career on a solid base of Olympic-pedigree wrestling. Whereas Leben’s crash-bang-wallop style piques the interest of the casual fans – whose engagement is key to securing the PPV viewing figures - Askren’s scientific style polarizes opinion.
To the more empathetic viewer, Askren’s grappling excellence is another enjoyable feature in MMA’s rich tapestry. To those who watch combat to satisfy a more primal bloodlust, Askren’s bouts are often unappetising.
Whether Askren will ever have the opportunity to mix with the exalted company of the UFC welterweight division is doubtful. President Dana White, not known for masking his emotions, has publicly savaged Askren’s style and it seems unlikely that he’ll be competing in the Octagon anytime soon.
But the 28-year-old from refuses to budge from a strategy that has brought him winning paychecks and title glory at a relatively early stage in his career. He is in pole position to benefit from Bellator’s new partnership with Spike TV, a deal which should improve their profile and profitability.
It may be a new year, and a new beginning for the burgeoning Bellator brand, but Ben Askren won’t be doing anything different, as he revealed to MMA Junkie this week.
“Am I going out there looking for the knockout ever?" asked Askren. "Probably not. I doubt I’ll ever do that. I’m smart enough to stick with what I do well. I know I wrestle and use my offensive jiu-jitsu better than almost anyone in MMA. So I’m going to stick to my guns.”
Askren should be applauded for having the courage to stand by his convictions. Doubt is the enemy of a fighter, confidence is his friend. Askren has found a formula that he believes offers him the best chance of success.
It is up to the rest of the Bellator roster to prove him wrong.
Belfort steps out of the sauna into the fire
If you believe the oddsmakers, the controversial Jon Jones/Vitor Belfort match is a fight in name only. The Brazilian veteran has been saddled with the sort of unflattering odds that greeted James “Buster” Douglas when he faced Mike Tyson in Tokyo.
That night, Douglas famously capitalised on the poor conditioning and preparation of a man who had - in hindsight - already passed his peak.
Belfort won’t have that luxury when the cage door closes in Toronto. He may have the support of the crowd, but it will require something more substantial to derail the most dominant young talent this sport has ever seen.
Jones has emerged from the wreckage of UFC 151 a more hardened character, embracing the hate on social media and refusing to accept the blame for the first-ever event cancellation in UFC history. The bad news for Belfort is that when “Bones” enters the arena in Canada to a cacophony of boos, it will only motivate him further to deliver a performance that will silence his army of critics.
Belfort has one believer in nutritional guru Mike Dolce. The former TUF alumnus, a key member of Belfort’s backroom team, has become one of the most influential characters in the sport thanks to his appliance of science to the art of weight cutting.
For many professional fighters, the battles with the scales are as strength-sapping and painful as anything they endure in the cage. Right now there’s no one better in the game than Dolce, the man responsible for boiling down Chael Sonnen into fight shape, when it comes to physical preparation for the weigh-in.
Dolce eschews long-held suppositions about weight-cutting, preferring to focus on natural foodstuffs and individually tailored diet plans rather than the traditional sauna-and-starvation mindset.
“The Monday before the fight he’ll probably weigh between 210 and 212," said Dolve. "Our goal is to have him at 208. We know his body and he performs best around that 210-pound range. I’m shooting for 208 pounds because he doesn’t have to be BIGGER than Jon Jones – he just needs to be FASTER. He’s faster than Jon at 220. At 208 Vitor is faster than most lightweights.”
Time will tell if Dolce’s diligence can help Belfort pull off one of the biggest upsets of all time. If he does, we may all be dining on humble pie.
Two weeks have passed since the seismic events of UFC 151, yet even now indignation flows across the information superhighway.
Scanning through the forums, which are still filled with aggression and accusation, it feels like we could all do with a renewed sense of perspective. Thankfully, this week brought some truly heartwarming news from the family of UFC brothers Dan and Jim Miller.
For those who don’t know, the Millers have faced significant personal tragedy. Dan lost his first child in 2009 and in late 2011 appealed to the MMA community for help upon learning that his son Danny Miller Jr. was born with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease.
The response was overwhelming as donations, pledges and messages of support flowed in from across the globe.
This past week Danny Miller Jr. had a successful kidney transplant surgery in Philadelphia, much to the relief of his parents. This would not have been possible without the support of fans worldwide who gave up their hard-earned dollars to give this young boy a fighting chance.
Sometimes keyboards can be a force for good.
*Find out more about how you can help Danny Miller Jr. by clicking here.