The first time I saw Chris Leben fight in person was at UFC 82, when he was facing "Legionarius" himself, Alessio Sakara. Early in the opening round, Leben was moving forward despite getting cracked upside the cranium with everything Sakara had in his arsenal. The punches were landing so flush and into every square inch of his head -- and he was making so little effort to slip them -- that somebody in the Columbus crowd yelled out in the auditorium quiet, "Hey Leben, you’ve got to move your face!" This sent up a roar of laughter, and for a brief second, it looked like Leben himself smiled.
Then again, Leben never minded a firefight -- he’d take three punches if it meant he might land one glorious one of his own. Those exchanges were always his own masochistic bartering system.
He knocked Sakara out moments later. Knockout of the Night. That's just what he do.
The Sakara fight was Leben’s eleventh UFC bout, and it was the prototypical "Crippler" -- bloody, brutal, honest discord. Sometimes he found a willing dance partner that would accommodate his taste for a brawl. Sometimes he encountered "tactical" fighters who had a sense of self-preservation, schemers bent on winning, and he would suffer. Often he was overwhelmed in a fight, so he went into that familiar zombie flip-switch until he (or they) were left with flashlights in the pupils.
It was a hell of a way to have a career, to let game plans slip in and out of focus like that. But that was Leben.
And after 22 fights in the UFC, he has decided to hang up the gloves and put back on his shoes. It’s been a somewhat quiet, often erratic run for one of the UFC’s most polarizing figures. As a cast member on the first Ultimate Fighter reality show, Leben was the original draw. Long before Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar had that transcendent slug-out in the Finale which has since been canonized in company lore, Leben was the broken character who first gained viewer empathy. Until then, fighters were largely just fighters, mute, violent (and probably crazy).
But Leben was a human being. A troubled human being, with plenty of problems that the key demographic (18-34 year old males) could relate to. He drank too much. He drank himself into regrettable situations. He was a softy at heart, people suspected, but abrasive. He was as futureless as he was misunderstood. He had bright red-dyed hair, sometimes orange, and black fingernails, and tattoos that looked like fungi from afar. He was bullied, and at the whim of his emotions, but resilient. He was picked on, the "fatherless bastard," as Bobby Southworth called him on the show, which only endeared him that much more to the public.
He was so many things besides just a fighter, but because of those things he was a fighter.
It could be said, that in the airing of that first season of TUF, that Leben was the first UFC fighter that America truly cared about. Since he was always in a state of bettering himself, we pulled for him along the way. Even as he "spritzed" on poor Jason Thacker’s bed, we began to forgive his behavior as part of the whole Leben experience. We took his slip-ups in stride. There was something riveting about his nearness to implosion. Yet, he was always likeable in the way that complicated figures are. He was overcoming more than just opponents in a cage; he was overcoming his own demons.
Coming off the show, after defeating Thacker for his first official UFC victory, Leben proved he was more than loveable damaged goods. He rattled off four more victories over good fighters -- Patrick Cote, Jorge Rivera, Edwin Dewees, Luigi Fiorovanti. Boom, boom, boom, boom. With a classic brawl mentality and a beyond durable chin, he was 5-0 and -- very realistically -- a contender in the middleweight division.
Which ended with Anderson Silva, the UFC newcomer who punished Leben’s aggression with all eight limbs, from distance, from in close and from nowhere. Leben lasted just 49 seconds. He became the Guinea pig against Silva, the blueprint on what not to do if stuck in a cage with him. Silva went on to win 15 more fights in a row, breaking company records along the way that may never be touched.
Leben went on to fight 15 more times himself. And he had plenty of moments, some of them good, some of them bad. His reward for beating Sakara at UFC 82 was to get booked against Michael Bisping in Birmingham, England. After being socked for 15 straight minutes in front of a partisan crowd and losing a unanimous decision, he grabbed the mic and yelled out, "Is that what you guys came to see? Did I give you guys what you wanted?" These moments in Leben’s career were always very raw, very telling, and very real. The martyr had fought for the entertainment of a bloodthirsty gathering. Somehow he reminded people of the spectacle. That he was the spectacle.
It was that fight he got busted for stanozolol. Later, after a loss to Mark Munoz, it was oxy-morphine and oxycodone. He had DUIs in his past, parole that he violated when he skipped out of Oregon to live in Hawaii. He was no stranger to the hoosegow. We knew his mug shots.
But he was trying to right the ship the whole way, and that sense of optimism kept us inclined to forgive. People still genuinely cared about Leben, and he remained one of the game's most loveable underdogs. This was best seen in 2010, when he resurrected himself by putting together one last improbable run. After beating Jay Silva in January, he took on Aaron Simpson -- who Vegas listed as a sizable favorite -- on June 19. Leben knocked Simpson out in the second round, which became a kind of feel good story for those who’d followed along with his checkered career. It was so good, in fact, that when Wanderlei Silva was forced out of his fight with Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116, the UFC called on Leben to fight again.
And just two weeks later, on July 3, Leben put on his greatest show.
He and "Sexyama" went back and forth for nearly three full rounds, with Leben getting battered gamely (and predictably) in the process. Each time he got hurt, he’d stagger forward throwing punches from the hip. It was all Akiyama could do to take him down and keep him there. And, as he the clock was running out in a fight that Leben was clearly losing, Akiyama was doing just that. Yet with less than 30 seconds left, Leben slipped his right leg over Akiyama’s shoulder, clamped down with the other to secure a triangle, and tapped him moments later. It was Leben’s greatest Houdini act.
It was also one of his last.
Over the next few years he just couldn’t reenact that magic. He did knockout Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132 in half a minute, but the game was catching up to him. Leben lost three in a row heading into his final bout with Uriah Hall at UFC 168. Hall caught him at the end of the first round, and Leben couldn’t answer the bell. "I’m done man," he told his corner. That admission was its own poetry. After a volatile ride, in which he’d faced every kind of striker, grappler, wrestler and hybrid in the literal realm of fighting, he threw up his hands mid-fight and declared, "I’m done man."
He officially retired on The MMA Hour a few weeks later.
It was a fun ride, even with all the bumps along the way. I remember one other little episode with Leben. At UFC 102 in Portland, on the van ride over to the arena where he was to fight Jake Rosholt, Leben and Brandon Vera were chatting away the pre-fight nerves. As we rode along the Willamette River, Leben pointed to an old bridge and said, "I used to jump off that thing when I was a kid." Everybody sort of half-laughed, but nobody doubted that he did. After all, this was just the kind of crazy ass thing that Leben would do without giving it a second thought...jumping off a city bridge into the cold Willamette, with no other reason than an adrenaline-filled "why not?"
Sort of like his fighting style, which didn’t dig so deep into the consequences either. He fought everyone from the guy in front of him to the demons at his door, one often indistinguishable from the other. He fought his style of forward-moving headhunting because if the name of the game is fighting, then…why not?
So let me field his question from after that Bisping bout, the one where he wondered, "Did I give you guys what you wanted?" Why yes, Mr. Leben, I think you did.