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Despite all the hardships, Chris Leben only too happy to drop the gloves

Gallery Photo: UFC 162 Weigh-in Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When Chris Leben took on Phil Baroni back in November for the upstart World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation, it was supposed to be a return to the thing he loved most in the world: Fighting. Unfortunately it was also a return to the thing that he and most fighters dread, fear and try desperately to avoid: Dealing with deadbeat promoters.

The 38-year-old Leben — who knocked out Baroni in just 79 seconds in Casper, Wyoming that night — is among the fighters still owed money by the WBKFF. He recently filed a claim in the state of California to begin the process of recouping the $90,000 that he was contracted to earn. The claim, he says, was filed mostly on principle, as he doesn’t have high faith that he’ll ever be made whole for the fight.

“Tomasz [Stankiewicz], the owner of that previous league, has been served — I think we served him in jail,” Leben told MMA Fighting. “He’s on his way to prison right now, but I know my attorney spoke to his attorney, so he knows what’s going on. It may be a very long, drawn out process. I know he was ordered to pay back two-and-a-half million dollars he stole in real estate fraud. I don’t know if there’s any assets left for me or not.

“But for me, what’s important is that I’m following through because I’m just so let down by him and [WBKFF president] Bas Rutten in particular. Hey, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do on my end to make this right.”

Leben isn’t dwelling on any of it. In fact, he recently signed on with the more established Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships (BKFC), which hosts its fifth event on April 6 in Biloxi, Mississippi. He is scheduled to trade blows with Justin Baesman, a journeyman from Northern California who has a feast or famine mindset in the ring. It’s not the most glamorous fight of the former UFC veteran’s career, but it’s a fight. 
And it’s legit. Guys like Shawn Merriman and Brennan Ward aren’t dropping out shortly before the event, as happened when the red flags began to wave at WBKFF.

And it’s an unexpected turnaround from where Leben was a few years ago, when he announced he was suffering from a heart ailment (which he says he cured through herbal sophistication, namely by taking turmeric, garlic and wheatgrass) and was pinged for possession of an assault weapon and vandalism.

These days he sounds optimistic, realistic, and healthy-minded about not only his life, but how it plays into his twilight tinkerings with the exposed knuckle. A beleaguered figure going all the way back to his days competing on the original Ultimate Fighter, Leben says he’s sober now. He doesn’t dabble in drugs. He’s enjoying being a husband, and a father to his one-year old son, Liam. He talks glowingly about working at The Arena in San Diego, where he teaches MMA classes and acts as a coach on the fight team alongside Charles Martinez and Vince Salvador.

He’s even started refereeing MMA events, showing up in the form of just such an arbiter at Golden Boy’s inaugural show in November.

“After everything I’ve been through with the health issues, everything my wife went through, and to quit drinking and everything else that was counterproductive to my life, to get through that and turn my health around and be able to come back and do the sport I dedicated my life to, it’s fantastic,” he says. “Maybe things didn’t work out perfect for the other guys, but ultimately I got a good warm up. I went out and realized I can still do this, and now I get to step up and do it for BKFC and put it on their big stage and do what I love to do.

“For me, it’s just trying to take the best out of everything. When you’re in your twenties you forget how cool it all is.”

Back in the day, Leben was among the most reliable brawlers going. He put on ridiculous fights with everyone from Kalib Starnes to Yoshihiro Akiyama (just two weeks after knocking out Aaron Simpson), and crushed the likes of Jorge Santiago and Alessio Sakara with power punches. Even when he lost he lost spectacularly; when Anderson Silva pieced him up in 2006, Joe Rogan laid the superlatives on strong, rolling out the “ballet of violence” reference. And let’s not forget his battle with Brian Stann back at UFC 125, or the subsequent battle with Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132.

The lasting image of Leben was of him getting hurt with a big shot, nearly crumpling, and then coming forward on toddler legs winging madman punches. When he got into toddler-leg mode, whoever he was staggering towards was usually in trouble. It was as if concussive blows activated the zombie.

Yet after four straight losses between 2011-13 — with a one-year suspension for oxycodone and oxymorphone strewn in — he called it quits after a loss against Uriah Hall at UFC 168 in 2013. Since then he’s popped up in headlines for various offenses and occupational pursuits. One of those dalliances happened to be in the world of real estate. It turns out that particular scene wasn’t for him.

“What had happened was, I took my tests, did all my stuff to get my real estate license, and the wonderful state of California wouldn’t give it to me due to some of my brushes with the law,” he says with a chuckle. “So I was doing some deals and working for some other real estate agents, helping them out. But slowly but surely I realized that I hate real estate agents. So as much as I like architecture and I like helping people out, it’s the working with other real estate agents that turned me off to it.”

Now Leben is fighting again, news that reached a segment of the MMA fan base with a groan. At 38 years old, Leben took as much punishment as he dished out in the Octagon, and given the health scare with his heart — and his issues with substance abuse — returning to fighting didn’t seem like a good idea. Whether it is or not remains to be seen.

Honestly, he couldn’t seem happier. Not just to be fighting again, but to be competing under the revised rules that throw back to the pre-20th century taboo of fighting without gloves. It’s a concept that feels tailor-made for his attitude in prizefighting, even if these days he’s more into self-preservation than he was in his wild, hair-dyed youth.

“It is different, it’s very different,” he says of fighting bare-knuckle. “In particular to boxing. Boxers are standing there banging each other, shielding with their gloves, doing all that. Bare-knuckle’s not like that. You can’t take that damage. Your face will look like a Chucky doll if you do. You’ve definitely got to use a little more finesse.

“For me, I know the power’s there, I just have to time it right. I can’t take six shots to give one big power shot. I’ve got to set it up, use my footwork and my angles, and hopefully show some of the craftiness of a veteran who’s been training for 20 years. That’s my goal. To go out and fight clean and the knockout will come. I know we call it toeing the line, but after the fight starts you can move around a little bit.”

As for Baesman, his opponent on April 6 who carries a nickname of “Raw Deal”? Let’s just say Leben is taking him seriously.

“A lot of people know him in California, he’s got a lot of fights, he’s kind of a journeyman,” he says. “He’s beat some tough people. He beat Scott Smith. He fought one of my teammates, Herman Terrado, to a draw, and I know he’s tough as hell. He likes to slug it out. He can take damage and stay in there. He’s had some…I guess we’ll call it ‘rough luck’ as of late, in the last couple of fights...”

To be exact, Baesman’s lost 11 straight fights. Not that Leben is buying stock in such a fibbing, non-definitive mini-slump. He’s just happy to have a target again, and — whether he’s talking about Baesman or himself — “The Crippler” is right back in his element.

“For me it’s kind of a catch-22,” he says. “This guy has nothing to lose. He’s going to go for broke, because he has nothing to lose. He’ll fight to the death.”

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