Chris Leben wants to get one thing clear before all else: Just because he’s going to step into the ring for a bare-knuckle boxing match, that doesn’t mean he’s going to rematch Jason Thacker any time soon.
“Man, that follows me everywhere,” Leben told MMA Fighting with a laugh. “But no, this isn’t a joke to me. I’m stoked to get into the ring and I plan on having fun, but this isn’t a new episode of another reality show, no matter how many times the fans ask.”
Indeed, Leben first made his name on a national basis due to his antics as a younger and less mature person on the legendary first season of The Ultimate Fighter, actions which included a scene in which he drunkenly urinated in Thacker’s bed, leading to a fight at the first TUF Finale which Leben won in short order via TKO.
But that’s just part of Leben’s legacy as a memorable competitor who consistently put on entertaining scraps for the fans, win or lose. If the Thacker incident was the lowlight, the highlight was a memorable two-week span in 2010 in which Leben knocked out Aaron Simpson, then filled in for Wanderlei Silva at UFC 116 and submitted Yoshihiro Akiyama, earning $100,000 in bonuses in the process.
“The fans who really know the sport, they know my whole story,” Leben said. “They’re the ones who ask me about my fight with Akiyama. But there were millions of people who watched the reality show so year, all those years later it’s still the first thing a lot of the casual fans want to talk about.”
Nearly five years after his MMA retirement, then, Leben is ready to give both casual fans from TUF 1 and hardcore fans who appreciate his upset of Akiyama something new to discuss, when he faces Phil Baroni on Nov. 9 in the World Bare Knuckle Federation event in Casper, Wyo.
Leben attempted a mixed martial arts comeback in 2016 with Bellator MMA, but it was nixed at the time due to a heart ailment. Leben has passed his medicals to get licensed for the fight and attributes his improved health to a change of scenery and a change of attitude.
“I was in a bad place for awhile,” Leben said. “I don’t hide who I am from anyone, the fans know about my ups and downs and know I’m real with them. When that issue came up a couple years ago, it made me evaluate who I am, how I’m living my life. Now I’m living down by the beach in San Diego, I’m eating clean, I’m sober, I got my brown belt in jiu-jitsu, I’m digging life, again, man. After awhile, once I got myself in a healthy environment and taking care of myself, it just started to click, like, hey, I should do something.”
That opportunity turned up when Bare Knuckle FC put on a cult hit of a show in June, leading to a second event in August, which led to new promotions coming onto the scene.
It immediately became apparent that some mixed martial artists are going to be naturals for bare knuckle fighting, whether it be BKFC standouts like Bec Rawlings and Joey Beltran, or retired fighters known for their slugging capabilities like Chris Lytle, who competed at BKFC’s second event.
“When I first heard about this, my first thought was, ‘c’mon man,’” Leben said. “It just didn’t sound like something that would work. But then I saw the way people reacted to the concept, and it was just like, man that’s something that could be fun. Maybe I should give it a try?”
That’s where the WBKF, the inevitable competitor to BKFC, came in, and it didn’t take much convincing for Leben to accept a bout with Baroni.
All the elements are there to make this fight interesting: Both guys hit hard, both guys have colorful personalities, and Leben has been familiar with Baroni’s obnoxious side going back to Baroni’s longstanding beef with Leben’s old Team Quest coach, Matt Lindland.
“In his own, way you gotta respect Phil,” the 38-year-old Leben said. “You’ve all seen how he is he going back to when we were all breaking in, and the thing is, whatever else you want to say about him, he’s not phony. He’s not WWE. That’s who he is 24/7. He’s real and I’m real and by the time I get into the ring with him I’m sure I’m going to be good and ready to punch that guy in the face.”
One consideration Leben took in before he agreed to sign on for the opportunity to punch Baroni in the face is that the bout is under official sanction by Wyoming’s state athletic commission. That matters because Leben has been certified to referee and judge amateur mixed martial arts events, and he wasn’t about to jeopardize his standing by fighting on a wildcat show.
“Becoming an official is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself,” Leben said. “It’s let me stay involved in something I love and it’s given me a real appreciation for just how much responsibility a referee has in their hands. I made sure this was a legit event before I signed on. It’s going to be fun, but it matters that the promoters are doing this right. This is going to be a real fight.”