Chris Leben, one of UFC’s best known and most enduring stars, is already one of the last of the Mohicans. For the first time in his career, he may be battling to stay that way Saturday night in the FX main event before the UFC 162 pay-per-view show from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Leben (22-9) and Josh Koscheck, even before Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin a few weeks later, was the first major UFC television fight back in 2005 on Spike. Leben, with his orange hair, loudmouth personality and heavy drinking, became the first personality created in the initial episode of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show. People hated him at first, when he urinated on the bed of fellow fighter Jason Thacker. But then, weeks later, when Bobby Southworth and Josh Koscheck, sprayed a water hose on him while he was sleeping outside the house, it was a watershed moment for the sport.
Southworth, who never fought for UFC after the show, was remembered for that the rest of his career. Koscheck became a fighter who made his career on being booed by fans, including many who today don’t even know why everyone does that.
When Koscheck beat Leben via decision in their grudge match, the show did two million plus viewers for a show that started after 11 p.m. Even though the fight itself was boring, Koscheck just taking Leben down and riding him to a decision, you can specifically trace the UFC being off and rolling from the week leading up to that fight itself. The antics and promotion created a mainstream water-cooler buzz about UFC that had never been there before.
Leben, Koscheck, Diego Sanchez and Mike Swick are the only members of the first season cast still on the active roster. When Leben fights Andrew Craig (8-1) on Saturday night, it will be his 21st fight in the Octagon, the seventh most of anyone in history.
Two weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, the number would be even higher, but his career has been detoured by two failed drug tests, and battles with addictions that he openly talks about.
Saturday’s fight may also be the first one where his tenure in the company is in jeopardy. After testing positive for Oxycontin when he lost in late 2011 to Mark Munoz, he was suspended for almost all of 2012. He had said he had kicked his habits, changed his environment and was in the best shape of his life when he returned against Derek Brunson on Dec. 29.
The result was a one-sided decision loss that was so bad that UFC President Dana White on fight night publicly took the blame for it being put on the pay-per-view show. White talked about how matchmaker Joe Silva warned him it was a risk on pay-per-view, White took that risk, and admitted Silva was right. A lot of fighters wouldn’t have been brought back after losing that type of match and his performance in it.
But UFC had always had a soft spot for the people who helped build the company’s popularity. Yet, not having won a fight since his sensational knockout of Wanderlei Silva two years ago, he may not be able to afford another loss. He almost certainly can’t afford another performance like with Brunson.
"You know, I think every fight is that way," Leben said on Monday's The MMA Hour about whether he feels it’s a must-win. "Absolutely, whether or not they’ll let me go if I don’t win, I don’t know. I’m coming off a loss against Munoz and a lackluster fight. Both fights I learned a lot from. Being a fighter, the only thing you can do is prepare for Saturday night. You can’t look too far ahead. I feel better mentally and physically than I ever had. I’m performing better than I ever had in the gym. Hopefully it goes well Saturday night. Whatever happens, I’ll accept it."
Leben has changed almost everything about his life since his loss to Munoz. He’s moved from Hawaii to San Diego, largely due to his wife’s career. He’s joined the Alliance Gym, home to fighters like Phil Davis, Brandon Vera and Dominick Cruz, where he’s no longer the local fighting star in an isolated locale.
He says these changes have been for the better, but does admit it’s a fluke he wound up where he did.
"You know, probably not," he said when asked if he would have left Hawaii, where he was teaching MMA and training, had it not been for his wife getting job opportunities in San Diego. "But it’s funny how things work out. I’m here in San Diego, training at Alliance and I didn’t realize what I’m missing. It has been so many years since I was a member of a hardcore training team like this. In Hawaii, I was a little bit of a lone wolf."
The difference is that nobody treats him like a star now and lets him slack off.
"No 'yes men' here," he said. "If I wasn’t doing that great, maybe I could whine a little and get a little bit of a break from my coaches, but that just doesn’t happen here. At first, I thought, 'They’re pushing me hard.’ Then I realized that it never lets up. They’re pushing me hard, and they continue to push me hard. In order for me to be able to train with these guys, and compete with these guys, I had to do everything perfect. I had to get my rest and stay on my diet. Every day, you’re facing hard intense training with guys who want to be the best. Anyway, it forced me to clean my act up even more. My diet has been dialed in. My rest has been dialed in. In the gym, they’re pushing me harder than I’ve ever been pushed."
Leben has bounced back from losses in the past. He’s always been a crowd favorite with his style, and he's known for knockout power and an iron chin. He’s had his highlights, such as his spectacular knockout of Terry Martin in the third round of a fight he was on the verge of losing, or his win in one of UFC’s all-time greatest fights in 2010 with Yoshihiro Akiyama via submission with 20 seconds left in the fight.
But the Brunson fight was different. Even while battling addiction, he’d win some and lose some. He was the first UFC victim of Anderson Silva, and was overwhelmed in that fight. But even in his losses, he usually fought an entertaining fight and looked like he belonged, and would follow losses with wins.
With Brunson, he talked about his he had made lifestyle changes and trained harder and was in his best shape. But he looked too slow and wasn’t competitive. For the first time, how much time he had left became a real question. He said he wasn’t quite there yet.
"My last fight, I still had a lot going on, stress and anxiety and learning the proper way to deal with that. I still had holes in my game outside the cage. This year has been so much better. Everybody here knows what my deal is. Everyone has been very supportive. It’s been so good for me to get away from Hawaii, as much as I love it."
Leben put a lot of the blame on how bad the fight was on his opponent, who largely outwrestled him to take a decision.
"I’d have to say Derek Brunson," Leben said when asked who deserved the blame for the last fight. "I was training for a right-handed brawler who comes at you and I got a left-handed wrestler. I was active on the bottom. I had some close catches (near submissions). But in the UFC, the guy on top is the one they say is winning. In the stand-up, he didn’t want any part of me. After having time off, I didn’t push it to the level I should. Both of us made some mistakes, but I have to say him more than me."
Craig is coming off a decision loss to Ronny Markes on the Jan. 19 show in Sao Paulo, Brazil. On paper, Leben isn’t the toughest fighter he’s faced, but he is the most well-known.
"I’m a firm believer every fight is won or lost before Saturday night," he said. "Having said that, the fight should be in the bag already. I’ve already beaten Andrew Craig in the work I’ve done to prepare. I’m waiting for the fight, to get the money in the bank, and then getting back to train."