On Saturday night, when Chris Leben goes into UFC's Octagon for the 20th time in a career that started with the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show, he'll move into a tie for seventh place on the all-time list of most fights in company history.
But in many ways, he's hoping his fight with late replacement Derek Brunson (9-2) will be the first fight of a very different Chris Leben.
"I'm very excited, very nervous, I have a lot of anticipation," said Leben, whose last year after being suspended for pain killers has been spent battling demons away from the sport and getting ready for a fresh return. "I haven't had a payday in a year. I'm broke. This fight marks a transition. Dec. 29 is the end of a rough year for me. I've got a lot of new things going on. Financially, I can become stable a little bit, so this is a very big transition. I really want to do well. I'd like to get that KO bonus. I'm shooting for it, but I need to get a victory, get the money in the bank, and make the most of my career for the next few years."
This Chris Leben (22-8) is coming to Las Vegas strictly for business. He's getting there as late as possible, arriving Wednesday, spending as little time there as he can, and flying back home immediately after one post-fight personal appearance. For most people, they look forward to a trip to Las Vegas. For Leben, he's looking forward to a fight purely as business, believing Las Vegas is not a good place for him to spend a lot of time in. It's the same mentality that has changed his social life back home in Hawaii.
It'll be almost 14 months since he lost to Mark Munoz, and then got suspended for one year by the UFC for testing positive for Oxymorphone and Oxycodone. Unlike many who will come up with excuses when failing drug tests, Leben, for the second time, immediately admitted usage. The first time he tested positive was for the steroid Stanazolol after he lost to Michael Bisping at UFC 89.
In training for the Munoz fight, which he lost when the fight was stopped after the second round, he was rapidly going down.
"A lot of things were going on," he said. "There was stuff going on in my camp. There was stuff going on in my personal life. Hindsight is always 20/20. It just wasn't the best camp leading up to the fight. I had major issues and I was dealing with them the wrong way."
"It's been a long struggle, not just pain medicine, but drug and alcohol abuse, and I've had it through my entire career," said Leben, whose drinking and issues with depression and aggression dating back to childhood made him the most compelling figure in the first season of the reality show. "Some fights I was doing better than other fights. Things came to a head. My last fight was more of a cry for help.
"I knew I was going to get caught," he said. "I knew I wasn't supposed to be doing what I did. Thank God for (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva and (UFC President) Dana White. They helped me. I broke the rules. They suspended me for one year. It's not like I was trying to cheat. I had a problem and an issue. They sent me to rehab. I needed a month of inpatient rehab, and went directly to outpatient treatment. I've continued to focus on my treatment. That's a continual battle in that fight. I take it one day at a time. I haven't taken a pain pill since. I've continued to be drug and alcohol free."
But he admitted he's now having to prepare for two different kinds of fights.
"You have to fight that war on all fronts, internal work with my thought patterns and my old ways of dealing with issues and problems," he said. "At the same time, there are situations I've had to remove myself from. A lot of good people I know that are still friends of mine, but they know we can't hang out because they're living that other life. The best thing for me is to not be around that. There are certain places I don't choose to go. If my friends are going to a bar instead of a restaurant, or a restaurant that is more of a bar, I don't go."
Since that time, he's gotten treatment for deep seated emotional problems that he would medicate himself away from addressing. He feels younger, lighter and in better shape. The time off has healed his injuries, but left him in rough shape financially.
"You really don't know what you have until it's taken away," he said. "This was truly a blessing in disguise. I had that invaluable time I needed for my personal life. I do miss competing. I miss getting in there. I miss training for a fight and missed the paydays as well. I have a different mindset. I'm much more clearheaded. But with that comes different issues. There's more anxiety, more nerves, questions on how I'm going to perform. I'm trying to make that a positive thing, to push myself harder, to be more ready."
But he thinks what he's been through has been a positive, that it's both a learning experience for him, and also allows him to have the firsthand experiences to help others dig themselves out of similar pitfalls.
"All I can say is everything I've done has a purpose," he said. "I volunteered to go to jails in Hawaii (Leben lives on he island of Oahu). I go every Tuesday. My and my friend Mark. I've been there. They don't listen to the guards. They don't listen to their parents. So I kind of believe everything happens for a reason. My hope is with all this stuff I've been through, that God has a plan for me. I've grown in the last year from it and become a different person, a person who can benefit society and people around him in a positive way."
He's also trained smarter, more scientifically and for the first time in his career, is watching closely what he's eating.
"As a fighter, there's always the question of slacking or overtraining, and I've been guilty of both. I've in better condition, with more strength and a higher vertical leap. Being sober helps. You don't have to fight those toxins. Drinking a half bottle of booze a night doesn't help you as an athlete."
"I'm more ready, by far, then I've ever been. I'm in the best shape I've ever been. My heart rate walking around is in the mid-40s. I'm ready to go. I've done everything I can to insure a victory. The fight changing, having a year off, I can't do anything about those things."
Leben found out while eating lunch on Dec. 18 that his opponent had changed from Karlos Vemola, who was injured, to Brunson.
"I'm glad to be fighting," he said, noting he's grateful to Brunson for taking the fight on short notice. "It's a bummer for Vemola. Too bad for him. I'm still pretty excited I get a chance to fight. There's not a huge difference between the two of them. They're both wrestlers who have fairly heavy hands. After training for one style, I'm glad I'm not getting a K-1 kickboxer. There are definitely some adjustments that have to be made. He's a southpaw. The good thing is, I'm not one of those guys who trains for one fight at a time. I'm always trying to better my skills."
One advantage in fighting Brunson, is that Leben's friend, Kendall Grove, fought him, winning a split decision on June 16.
"I gave my buddy Kendall Grove a call," Leben noted. "Kendall had some very nice things to say about him. They went back-and-forth on the Internet. He gave me his input on what he saw, and how he planned for Brunson. He knows me and knows my style and what would work best for me. We chatted for a while. My coaches both pulled up videos and watched DVDs and gave me their input."
While a lot of UFC fans still think of Leben as the guy who got out control in the early episodes of The Ultimate Fighter, Leben noted that was eight years ago and he's moved past that era.
"I certainly am tired of hearing about p***ing on (Jason) Thacker's bed, or when people ask me, `When are you going to fight Josh Koscheck,'" he said. "That was seven, eight years ago. It's over."