Chris 'The Crippler' Leben made an appearance on Ariel Helwani's The MMA Hour yesterday to announce his retirement from the sport of MMA. More accurately, he announced his retirement from fighting, but plans on remaining an active part of the MMA community. Recently named the head coach at San Diego's Victory Gym, a position he described as his 'dream job,' Leben will shift his focus towards passing his knowledge and love for mixed martial arts onto other prospective fighters. In his appearance on The MMA Hour, Chris described his reason for hanging up the gloves after nearly 10 years competing in the Octagon.
I didn't start fighting until I was 21 years old. And back then, you could actually get into the UFC, win, and do well just on being a tough guy. I was a tough guy, I had some techniques, and that always worked for me. But when you look at these guys now, like Uriah Hall, they're just a different breed of athlete than I am. The game has been evolving and changing so much - so rapidly. I'm actually pretty happy that I can say that I was in it as long as I was in it.
This sort of selfless attitude is precisely what made Leben such a popular fighter in the first place. He had his ups and downs throughout his career, but above all else, he was real. For many, he was the dynamic personality that first got people into the sport of mixed martial arts. He was that loud, obnoxious drunk in the first episode of The Ultimate Fighter. He peed on Strange Brew's bed and he tried to steel everyone's pillows. At the exact same time, he was that kid with the troubled past who wasn't afraid to be vulnerable in front of a group of fighters or on national television. When Bobby Southwork called him a 'fatherless bastard' we felt Leben's pain. And when Josh Koscheck sprayed him with the hose, we related to his anger and respected his restraint. Leben was, in many ways, the first guy to shatter that stereotype of the 'douchebag, meat head, cage fighter'. He was a real person, full of complexity and depth, and we were pulling for him.
Over the course of his career, he accomplished a lot. His went 5-0 upon entering the UFC with wins over some pretty big names, i.e. Patrick Cote, Jorge Rivera, etc. He welcomed top G.O.A.T. candidate, Anderson Silva, into the UFC, a loss that would prove to be the first of many that came at the hands of The Spider. In his final win, he knocked out the always dangerous Wanderlei Silva in under 30 seconds. He beat some really tough guys and he lost to some really tough guys. But through it all, he continued to move forward. The reason he was so loved was because of his undying will to persevere. Chris Leben holds the record for the most strikes landed in the Octagon. This is not an accidental coincidence. This is an earned honor.
On one of the biggest cards in UFC history, Chris Leben faced TUF finalist, and UFC newcomer, Uriah Hall. We tend to look for poetic truths in sport, but in this case, it was hard to miss. From the first season of the show that saved MMA to one of the most recent, two generations of fighters squared off. Chris was out classed, dominated, and eventually beaten by the up-and-comer. The man known for relentlessly moving forward, returned to his corner after round one and called it quits. This was not only a testament to how much the sport has evolved throughout the years, but also a testament to the kind of human being Chris Leben is. When Matt Hughes took on Royce Gracie at UFC 60, we witnessed a passing of the guard. When Chris Leben took on Uriah Hall at UFC 168, we saw it yet again.
More important than the progress of the sport, is the message Chris's actions sent to fighters and athletes everywhere. Unlike Royce, who was very much past his prime at UFC 60, Chris Leben retires at only 33 years of age. Typically, this is only a year past the prime age of a mixed martial artist. But a combination of Leben's fighting style and the number of all out wars he'd been in over the years have made Leben into a old man by fight standards. As tough as Leben was throughout his career, it takes an even tougher man to admit when his time is up. He's not giving up or turning his back on his dreams. He's realizing that he's given all he has as a fighter, and that it's time to give back to MMA in a different way.
The bottom line is this. Chris Leben is as much a part of the UFC as anyone who ever entered the cage. He will be remembered as a legend, and deservedly so. His red hair, black finger nails, looping hooks, and zombie like march forward will be long remembered by fight fans both new and old, but if you think his legacy in the UFC is coming to a close, you are dead wrong. He will take a lifetime of hard-learned lessons, bottle them up, and bestow them upon a whole new generation of fighters as the head coach of Victory Gym. He will continue to be feared by fighters, whether it's through his mere appearance over the top of the cage during Bruce Buffer's introductions, or vicariously, through the values and approach he has instilled in his students and trainees. Chris Leben casts a long shadow, and the shock waves of his impact will be felt for years to come - a fortunate outcome for everybody involved.