This is the eleventh in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and features veteran UFC middleweight, Chris “The Crippler” Leben. Leben was a competitor on the original season of The Ultimate Fighter and has been a fan favorite ever since. He is always a great interview, introspective and honest, and he certainly does not disappoint this time around.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Chris Leben: I can't remember my first time being exposed to martial arts. I must've started with karate in kindergarten, then wrestling in third grade, followed by boxing in middle school. So I've always done some sort of combat sport. One of my friends from middle school always likes to remind me that in the seventh grade I was telling him I was going to be a UFC fighter. As for me, it was after my first fight that I knew I wanted mixed martial arts to be my job.
JB: Your first professional MMA fight was back in 2002. What memories stand out most from that submission victory?
CL: I remember stepping into the cage and everyone had told me how hard my opponent hits. After the second exchange or so, he landed an extremely hard shot that dropped me to one knee. As I came back to, I saw him stepping in to finish me off, so I did the first thing that came to mind and punted him straight in the balls. He took his five-minute injury timeout and I was able to regain my composure and come back to finish with the arm bar.
JB: You had an impressive career before you came to prominence on the original season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). You were 10-1, with a knockout of Mike Swick to win the WEC middleweight championship. What do you think of that part of your career in retrospect and what did that championship mean to you at the time?
CL: Gosh, looking back, it was really a whirlwind. You know everything was happening so fast. I was training every day. It's just amazing memories that I'll always have. Definitely the knockout over Mike Swick was huge for me. I got the chance to meet Dana White and Chuck Liddell after my victory. They both congratulated me on my fight and that put me on cloud 9. It definitely lit the fire for me to fight in the UFC.
JB: Your story on TUF, I believe, was just as responsible for the eventual success of the UFC as the Griffin-Bonnar fight was. It was your story that got viewers to continue to watch TUF and eventually be interested in the fights at the finale. It might seem like a long time ago now, but how do you feel about that time in your life surrounding your entry into the UFC?
CL: That time in my life was extremely exciting both in and out of the cage. I definitely learned a ton as far as training goes - being on the show, living in the house, training every day. But also, I learned a ton about myself. In hindsight, that was really the time I realized I had some battles to face outside the cage as well. Before the show I didn't realize it wasn't normal to get piss-drunk every night. The show definitely put that into perspective.
JB: You were part of Team Quest in a legendary period of its development. What did the training there do for you and who, in particular, helped your evolution as a fighter?
CL: Training at Team Quest in the old days was amazing - amazing we all made it out alive. We all used to beat the crap out of each other. There were so many awesome people that were a part of the team: Randy Couture, Matt Lindland, Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman, Chris Wilson, Evan Tanner, me, Nate Quarry, and many others. Just knowing I could survive a practice gave me the confidence to step in the cage with anybody.
JB: You entered the UFC and went on an amazing run of 5-0 in your first five fights before welcoming Anderson Silva for his first fight in the octagon. Since then you have gone a very respectable 7-7 against some of the best middleweights in the UFC. What has been your most satisfying performance in the UFC thus far and who, if any, are the opponents that you would like to rematch?
CL: Definitely the most satisfying win is always the most recent one. LOL. But if had to pick one, I'd have to go with my Terry Martin fight. I was probably down all three rounds and he had me all but completely knocked out when I somehow landed a huge left hand to secure that win. I had lost my previous two fights, so I needed it more than anything. As far as rematches go, hindsight’s always 20/20, and I'd love to get back with any of the guys that have beat me. But definitely my last fight against Derek Brunson. There's nothing worse than losing a fight because somebody doesn't want to fight, and not having a single injury. You know if someone knocks you out, OK they beat me, but the way he beat me makes me so upset and I'm also disappointed in myself for some of the decisions I made. I would love to have another opportunity to knock him out.
JB: The middleweight division of the UFC continues to be very deep. Who are some of the fighters that you would like to be matched up with and who are the fighters that you respect most in your division?
CL: There are a lot of good guys in the division right now. More importantly, I'd like to be matched up with someone who's gonna fight. I respect Vitor Belfort, Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman, just off the top of my head. But anyone that made it into the UFC is a tough guy. I get the motivation when I know the UFC is matching me against a fighter that can hurt me. Wanderlei Silva is a perfect example. There is only one outcome, SOMEBODY will get hurt and I'm going to fight for my life. So I truly hope my next opponent will be another great fighter who is coming to fight!
JB: You are only 32 years old, but you seemed to have overcome a great deal of adversity in your young life. Who and/or what has supported you and helped you to be who you are today?
CL: There's a list of people too long to name. I may have had a rough upbringing, but I really have had an amazing support group in my adult life. In particular, the last few years, meeting my wife, and some of my friends here in Hawaii have been so supportive and truly have inspired me to change.
JB: You are already an icon in MMA, with a long highlight reel to support your legacy. What do you want to accomplish during the remainder of your fighting career and what are you plans and goals for the future outside of fighting?
CL: Every day I train and I feel as though I'm getting stronger and my skills are getting sharper in the gym. As far as my career goes, I view myself as a martial artist, not just a fighter, and my game is continuing to progress. As long as I feel I'm becoming better, I'm going to continue to want to test my skills. The sky's the limit. As far as life goals, I feel as though I'm a good fighter, but a great coach. Coaching is something that I definitely plan to do until I'm too old to walk.
JB: Last question, Chris, and thank you so much for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
CL: For me, being a fighter is a lifestyle. It's something that defines me. It's more than just stepping in the cage. It's every day at the gym, struggling with techniques, continually working to improve my skills, coaching, helping other people improve their skills. Finding self-confidence and helping others do the same. Facing my fears and taking life by the horns. Fighting has given me the strength to conquer so many obstacles in my life. Fighting saved me. Fighting is a part of me and I absolutely love this sport, I love everything about it. I don't know what I would've done if it wasn't for mixed martial arts. Thank you very much for taking your time to check up on me, and I hope all is well. Aloha
Thanks so much for reading and please follow @cripplerufc and @jackjohnbrown on Twitter.
Special thanks to @KirikJenness for @theUG
And keep checking the UG for the next Jack Brown Interview, with UFC welterweight, Tarec Saffiedine.
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