Chris Leben baring it all in fight career comeback
At 39 years of age, after a remarkably accomplished professional MMA career, and a heart condition that stalled a previous comeback attempt, UFC veteran Chris Leben is still fighting. The longtime middleweight contender returned to competition last year with a TKO win over Phil Baroni under a “bare-knuckle” boxing ruleset.
On Saturday, April 6, Leben fights again, this time as a part of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) 5 pay-per-view card being held at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi. To the outside world, Leben has little left to prove in combat sports.
Still, “The Crippler” is drawn to the ring. “One, it’s what I do,” he tells us this week, shortly before he and his team head to Mississippi from San Diego, CA where Leben coaches at The Arena MMA gym. “Two, I got it taken away from me. The last part of my UFC career I dealt with a bunch of issues that were affecting my performances. I tried to come back but couldn't come back because of health issues. I got to go back and address those issues, I’ve been able to overcome those issues, and I’ve stayed busy with coaching and refereeing.
“But I want to do what I love and hopefully – I don’t want to say ‘right some wrongs’ – but I would like to show the world what I’m capable of. I want to go out and make a statement, and ultimately bring some money home to my family.”
Before his comeback fight last year, Leben said publicly that a health regimen including natural supplementation aimed at strengthening his heart – which he’d stated previously doctors had told him was near failure – had surprised his doctors with reassuring results. The fighter says he’s physically healthy now, as well as psychologically centered.
“I’m performing better now than I ever had. Also, before I had a lot of negative stuff going on. I was going in the wrong direction. Now, my focus is better, my energy is better. I’m looking at this as something I get to do,” he explains. “I’m really trying to embrace it this second time around. I’m enjoying every minute – training camp, diet, the lead-up to the fight, flying out with my coaches.”
As a young, star fighter, it may have once been easy for Leben to let life and his career fly by without much reflection or appreciation. Now, the warrior says he’s more thoughtful in every respect.
“You don’t appreciate something until you have it taken from you,” he continues. “When I was in the UFC I thought I was going to be fighting forever. After every fight I was rich until I spent it, until I spent all of my purse. I wasn’t planning for the future, I wasn’t looking ahead, I wasn’t realizing that my career was passing me by.
“Then, all of the sudden it’s over and you think, ‘well, s***, that was an amazing run, but I didn’t stop to smell the roses. I didn’t enjoy it at all.’”
Though Leben says he’s enjoying his return to active competition for its intrinsic value now, he is no less competitive than he was coming up the ranks.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he admits. “I’m a nervous fighter. People may not believe that but I am. Ultimately, some people need to be real relaxed, some people need to be angry, some people are more nervous than others – as a competitor you just need to find the right fit for you.
“There is a level of anxiety there as I am making this comeback. I want to accomplish these things and be better than ever. I certainly want to win. For me, it’s never been just about getting in there and having fun. I never understood that way of thinking. This is my life, this is my livelihood, this is the sport I’ve dedicated years and years to perfecting my skills and fine-tuning my abilities to. I’m not trying to go out there and have a bad fight.”
To that end, Leben says he and his team have adjusted their striking training to prepare him for the throwback dynamics of fighting in “bare-knuckle” boxing. A great deal changes when it comes to coverage, range, and useful technique when adjusting from and to different rulesets, after all.
“It makes a substantial difference if you’re wearing boxing gloves or wearing MMA gloves, or wearing no gloves. With boxing gloves, for example, you’ve got about four inches of extra reach, whereas with an MMA glove you have an inch or two," he explains. "So, when you’re training, when you’re hitting mitts, there’s some calibrating that needs to be done. In my last fight I ended up busting my knuckle when I hit Phil on the top of the head. That’s not usually a place you want to hit someone. Luckily, I ended up knocking him out, but it’s still something to work on.
“Punching placement, focusing a little bit more on calibration, and also patience, have been important. Also, utilizing the jab. The jab is very effective in bare knuckle boxing. In regular boxing, you might land 50 or 100 jabs. If you land 50 or 100 jabs in a bare-knuckle fight, you’re knocking the guy out. Also, brawling. I’ve got the brawling part down (laughs). I don’t need to brawl out there. I’m eager to show what I’ve learned the past three and a half years working at The Arena when it comes to footwork, angles, and striking. We’re really focused on that, at least we have been before the fight. Once the fight happens – you know how it is – you can’t predict what will happen (laughs).”
About the author:
Elias Cepeda writes a regular column for The UG Feed; you can find Elias on Twitter @EliasCepeda.