The last time we saw Chris Leben, he was telling his cornermen “I’m done” after a round’s worth of abuse by Uriah Hall at UFC 168. As it turns out, he wasn’t just done for the night — he was done, period. The TKO loss was Leben’s fourth straight defeat in the UFC, and it finally convinced him that there might be more to life than getting kicked in the head for a living.
On yesterday’s installment of The MMA Hour, Leben officially announced his retirement:
“It’s been a fantastic, wonderful ride,” Leben said. “I’ve landed more strikes than anybody out there. Definitely highs and lows, ups and downs, but I think I’m starting to realize that, for me, it might be time to make that transition away from competing and get more on the coaching side of things.
“After [UFC 168], I wanted to go back and re-evaluate things, make sure that the decision wasn’t based purely on emotion. That it was really what I wanted to do. And now, yes, I can say, I’ve really retired from competing in MMA…
“I’m 33 years old now, which isn’t the oldest for a fighter. But like I tell people, it’s not how old you are, but it’s how long you’ve been doing it. And I’ve been doing this game for quite a while.
“I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me. I would like to still have my head on my shoulders and have a brain when I’m raising kids and doing all the other stuff that I want to be part of. I think it might just be time for me to gracefully bow out.”
Leben, who recently took a job as a coach at Victory MMA & Fitness in San Diego, discussed how his fight against Uriah Hall was a harsh reminder that he’d gone as far in the sport as his skills would allow him, and could no longer be competitive on toughness alone:
“That first five minutes was just absolutely horrible,” he said. “It was more of the same, as far as what my last couple opponents have been doing, to where nobody really wants to — and I understand why — but they’re not going to stand in front of me, toe to toe, and just swing like guys used to try before. Now I’ve got a guy with six or nine inches of reach advantage that’s definitely a better athlete than I am, that’s running away from me as fast as he can and is only going to hit me with these little shots. It was one of those things where, personally, I knew the only thing that was going to happen was two more rounds of that, until he really got me upset and I was rushing in and he hit me with that crazy spinning kick that he does…
“I really can’t be upset. I’ve had a wonderful career. And again, I didn’t start fighting until I was 21 years old. Back then you could actually get in 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, that I’m actually pretty happy that I can say I was in it for as long as I was in it.”
Chris Leben’s lasting popularity is a lesson in what MMA fans value. He was a brawler, known for his powerful left hand, his granite chin, and his colorful hair. As the first “crazy drunk guy” on The Ultimate Fighter, he was arguably MMA’s first reality-television star, and the blueprint for all the inferior crazy drunk guys on TUF who followed him. (Sorry, but Junie Browning and Julian Lane aren’t fit to hold the Cat Smasher’s jock.)
If you only look at Leben’s highlights, his career comes damn near close to legendary. He was the first WEC middleweight champion, a title he earned by knocking out Mike Swick in 2004. He won his first five official fights in the UFC, then launched Anderson Silva’s career by getting his ass kicked by the Spider in a middleweight title eliminator. Leben appeared on the first six UFC Fight Night cards, helping to build that sub-brand on Spike TV. He knocked out Terry Martin while basically unconscious. He submitted Yoshiro Akiyama in an epic match at UFC 116, just two weeks after knocking out Aaron Simpson. He KO’d his hero Wanderlei Silva in just 27 seconds.
But to say that Leben “had his demons” would be a profound understatement. He struggled with addiction, and managed to cross off almost every box on the MMA fuck-up checklist. DUIs? Yep. Steroids? Uh-huh. Unapproved painkillers? Indeed. Bizarre excuses related to candy consumption? Oh yeah. After every self-imposed setback, Leben would claim that he had finally matured and was now in the best physical and mental shape of his life, which would lead directly into the next fuck-up. It made him an incredibly frustrating fighter to be a fan of.
After Leben’s split-decision loss to Andrew Craig at UFC 162 last July, UFC president Dana White was unsure whether to keep him in the company or not. If Leben was just another mid-level 185′er, three straight losses would have almost guaranteed his release. But White felt a kind of paternalistic loyalty to Leben, along with some fear of what might happen to him if he lost his spot in the UFC:
“I want Leben to get up everyday and be part of society and have to do something, whether it’s training or training other people, no matter what is” [White] said. “Chris Leben has the type of personality that can go off the deep very easily in a lot of negative ways. I really care about the kid. I like him a lot. I love him. So I’ve got to figure this thing out.”
The UFC decided to give Leben one more match against Uriah Hall this past December, and the Crippler essentially quit mid-fight rather than absorb more brain trauma. As honorable and logical as that decision was, it’s something he never would have done five years ago. Clearly, Leben doesn’t want it anymore, which is the best reason to retire. And instead of forcing Dana White to publicly fire one of his most beloved employees, Leben is stepping away on his own terms.
With his UFC fame and reputation for hard-nosed performances, Chris Leben could have continued to draw crowds by sacrificing his body in smaller promotions; luckily, we don’t have to witness that. The era of getting by on toughness alone is over. Let’s remember it fondly.