Just two weeks before his next fight, Chris Leben is inside a Honolulu shopping mall doing some Christmas shopping with his girlfriend – a stark contrast to the last time he was this far off from a fight – when he was standing inside the Octagon going toe-to-toe with Aaron Simpson in the TUF 12 Finale.
“Yeah, but this is just as stressful,” laughs Leben over the phone, the sounds of holiday shoppers and Christmas tunes dominating in the background.
For fans who have been following Leben’s career since he exploded onto the UFC scene during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, if you had told them that just over five years later the crazy drunk guy from the show would be in the middle of a career resurgence and on his way to a title shot they would say you were crazy.
Yet here we are going into UFC 125 on January 1, 2011, and Leben (21-6) is coming off a three fight win streak heading into a match with Brian “All American” Stann (9-3).
After a career that has been dead and resurrected time and time again, Leben’s business inside the Octagon is finally on solid ground. But for the man fighting out of Hawaii, it’s never really been about what the fans or the reporters say.
“I never really worried that much about everybody saying, ‘I’m left, I’m right, -- I’m up, I’m down.’ I never pay attention to that. I just keep doing what I do, and that’s training,” he said. “I never really worry about where my career is going until the night of the fight. I’ve trained with guys like Matt Lindland, Evan Tanner, Chael Sonnen, Randy Couture and I’ve watched their careers go sometimes high, sometimes low, so I know it’ s the nature of the business. That’s just the way it works out.”
This past summer, Leben weathered an early onslaught from a very tough Aaron Simpson, TKO’ing the exhausted former Arizona State University wrestler in round two, and then just 14 days later, he stepped in for an injured Wanderlei Silva to take on Japanese superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama, whom he submitted in round 3 with a triangle choke.
“I was stoked to get the Akiyama fight,” he said. “At first I told Joe Silva I had doubts about taking the fight, but then Dana called and you just don’t say no to Dana,” he said. “I don’t really care about what the win did for my career per se. Financially, I was able to buy my mom a house, which is something I’ve always wanted to do, so for that, I’m extremely grateful. Those are the rewards for me, that feeling of security.”
In October, Leben was arrested on suspicion of DUI, and he has a court hearing in February.
“The UFC called and they were concerned but it’s all still in the works so I can’t talk too much about it,” he says. “The UFC has always been fantastic to me. I think it goes back to being that guy on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ you know. But I think a lot of us from that first season, Forrest (Griffin), Stephan (Bonnar), Josh (Koscheck), Kenny (Florian) – a lot of us have been taken care of pretty well.”
In Stann, Leben faces a fighter who is just beginning to discover what it feels like to fight in a lower weight division, making the cut for the first time from 205 pounds to 185 pounds in his last fight against Mike Massenzio, where he recorded his first ever submission victory.
Stann, the former WEC light heavyweight champion, has heavy hands and has knocked plenty of guys out in his relatively short career.
“I have a lot of power in my hands too,” says Leben. “I’ll take that gamble with Stann any day of the week. I’ll roll those dice for sure.”
And though Leben respects Stann, he believes the Marine Corps vet is a bit of a setback considering the man he finished at UFC 116, Akiyama, got to fight consummate contender Michael Bisping next. But as is his custom, Leben doesn’t complain about much; he just shows up to work.
“I’ll fight whoever they put in front of me; I’m a fighter. That’s what I do,” he said, before taking control of this interview the way he’s taken control of his last three fights.
“Are we about done here?” he asks. “My girlfriend is flipping out.”
Let’s hope for Stann’s sake, Leben comes solo to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, because if his girlfriend has any say over the matter, Leben will look to finish the fight as quickly as possible.
Christmas Shopping With "The Crippler"
“I have a lot of power in my hands too. I’ll take that gamble with Stann any day of the week. I’ll roll those dice for sure.”