(“I want people to look at me and say, ‘Wow, this is where he started and look where he ended up.’” Photo props: MMA Weekly)
By Ben Goldstein
Over the last six years, we’ve watched Chris Leben evolve from The Ultimate Fighter‘s original wild-ass brawler, to a multi-faceted contender who has the tools to defeat virtually any middleweight opponent on any given night. In fact, two of Leben’s last three fights have resulted in the greatest victories of his entire career — his epic UFC 116 Fight of the Night against Yoshihiro Akiyama, and his stunning 27-second knockout of Wanderlei Silva at UFC 132.
On November 5th, Leben will headline UFC 138 in Birmingham, England, against Mark Munoz, in a meeting that could put one of them on the short-list for a title shot. We spent some time on the phone with the Crippler last week and discussed all the notable battles in his life that have led him to where he is today, facing yet another massive opportunity. Enjoy, and check out our previous Retrospective Interviews right here.
THE ORIGIN STORY
(Matt Lindland, overdressed as usual.)
CHRIS LEBEN: “I think I was in the fourth grade when I got into my first fight. I can’t remember what it was over — something on the playground. But that was my first real, non-wrestling match, hitting-each-other-in-the-face kind of fight. And all the other kids just stood around and watched. I didn’t get into fights a lot, but I definitely had some good ones, like all kids that are a little more on the wild side.
I did a little wrestling in grade school, and something called Christian Karate that I did in like third grade. Then I started boxing in eighth grade and I actually took that really seriously.
Even when I was in junior high, my plan was always to fight in the UFC. I joined Team Quest right after I turned 21. You have to remember that at 185 pounds, I was training with Matt Lindland, Evan Tanner, Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman — we were all in the same room, every day. And every day I walked into the gym, my first coach Robert Follis would say, ‘Good morning Chris, how are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Did you get me a fight yet? Did you get me a fight yet?’ I’d never say, ‘Good morning, how are you,’ it was always ‘Did you get me a fight yet?’ I believe it was about six months until I had my first amateur fight.”
CHRIS LEBEN vs. MIKE SWICK
WEC 9, 1/16/04
Result: Leben wins via second-round knockout and becomes the first WEC middleweight champion
“That was the first time I met Dana White. He was actually sitting in the front row for that fight, so I went up and talked to him, which was a pretty big deal for me. At that point, I think The Ultimate Fighter probably wasn’t much more than a pipe dream for the Fertittas. But me and Dana talked about fighting Sakurai in PRIDE because he was a little big after his knee injury back then, and possibly getting into the UFC sometime.”
THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER 1
“I kind of look at it like boot camp: You don’t necessarily enjoy it while you’re there, but once it’s done you’re glad you did it. And don’t get me wrong, I had some great times on the show, some fun moments, and I learned a lot — both about fighting and myself — but if they said, ‘Hey Chris, we want you be a competitor on The Ultimate Fighter right now,’ would I jump at that opportunity? To be a coach, yeah, I’d jump at that. But to be a competitor and live in that house with all those other guys, at my age, where I am now in my life? Absolutely fucking not.
The top-tier of the martial arts world is a small world, and we’re the original [cast], so I feel camaraderie with those guys. Every time I see Stephan Bonnar we’re always telling war stories.”
On the previous rumors of Chris Leben being booked to face his TUF nemesis Josh Koscheck: “It’s funny, the guys at my gym know more about what’s going on in the sport from me. Half the time I hear about who I’m fighting from some random fight-school member that read it on a blog somewhere. The Internet’s not really my favorite thing, but I heard some people at my gym saw that idea being kicked around on forums, and I loved it, but the opportunity never came to me. I’d love to take that fight.”
On the next page: An ill-fated run-in with the Spider, going zombie-mode against Terry Martin, and the fight he’d rather not discuss.