"I feel like I'm on the ropes, but you've got to man up and take that challenge." - Chris Leben
When you're 33 years old and coming off your 21st UFC fight - several of which were memorable wars â€“ a single loss can be the catalyst for the "R" word - retirement - to rear its ugly head among fans and pundits.
Two? Even worse. Three? Well, you can see where this is heading. But for Chris Leben, as straight a shooter as there is in the fight game, his recent three-fight losing skid hasn't started him thinking about life after MMA.
So let them talk. Leben's heard it all before.
"Honestly, I'm pretty good at letting it roll off nowadays," he laughs when asked about the criticism he's received, especially after his UFC 162 loss to Andrew Craig in July. "I've had so much of that over the years, but it wasn't too bad (after the Craig fight). The way I saw it, Craig fought a great fight. I still feel like I won the first two rounds, but the judges made their decision and it is what it is. There were some things that I could fix, that I could make adjustments on, and in the practice room, I truly feel like I'm performing better than I ever have. Albeit, it's been a rough road back since my suspension as far as my fights go. There have been some mental blocks and a big move, and a lot of things that I've had to overcome, but I'm excited to see what happens in this fight. I've done everything right, I'm training my ass off, I'm in great shape, my weight's where it needs to be, and I think that me and my team have come up with a good game plan and we've got the tools to go out there and put this guy away. And for me, this is definitely a measuring stick. After this fight, win, lose, or draw, I'm gonna have some thinking to do, one way or another."
This fight is a Saturday matchup with Ultimate Fighter 17 finalist Uriah Hall, a young man who has also dodged his share of barbs after lackluster showings in his first two UFC bouts. If you're talking about a must win situation, for Leben and Hall this is it. But not surprisingly, the fighter who seems most at ease heading into Saturday night is the veteran, a member of the TUF 1 cast who has seen it all over the last eight-plus years in the Octagon. Good, bad, ugly, Leben has been through it, yet when he moved back to the mainland earlier this year after a long stint in Hawaii, it was a new start for a fighter who needed one after a one year suspension for testing positive for painkillers following his 2011 loss to Mark Munoz. And while he lost subsequent bouts to Derek Brunson and Craig, his (pardon the pun) alliance with the Alliance MMA team in San Diego before the Craig bout has him feeling better than ever, even if the first camp there was kind of rough.
"My last fight, I got out here right when I was starting my camp, so I showed up out of shape and I jumped full on into a really intense Alliance camp and it was all I could do to keep up," he said. "This time it's a little bit different. I've continued to train at Alliance since just a couple days after my last fight, so I maintained some level of conditioning. We started the camp a little bit further out, so it's been easier and smoother, and I've been able to focus a lot more on technique because my body hasn't been falling apart quite as much as it was before my last camp."
It was the shock to the system, both physically and mentally, that Leben had to have following the Hawaii run that basically saw him dictating his own training and being the best guy in the gym a lot of the time.
"I think it's good for me because now I'm not running the show," he said. "Out here at Alliance, everybody has their job and has their place, and Alliance is a well-oiled fighter-producing machine. It's a little bit hard for me to sit back and be the â€˜dumb fighter,' (Laughs) but that's my job and really, that's kind of what I feel I needed to get back to."
And though he admits to feeling sharper than ever in the gym, if he can't pull it off on fight night, that's a problem. It's an issue Hall has gone through in his losses to Kelvin Gastelum and John Howard, and one the New Yorker said he's addressed in the lead-up to this fight. Leben isn't so sure that's the whole story.
"He (Hall) is really athletic, he's got fancy moves, but in his last couple he's failed to pull the trigger," he explains. "In the fights I've watched, he threw some pretty heavy, pretty exciting stuff, but if that stuff doesn't land, he kind of runs out of options. It seems like the fancy stuff is really the only option that he has, and it's hard when that's the only thing in your bag of tricks. So I feel like this guy gets beat with basics and with going out there and making him fight a regular, dirty, grimy kind of fight."
That's Leben's specialty, but something Brunson refused to let him do thanks to his wrestling attack, and what Craig avoided with sharp counters and movement. Leben doesn't want to take no for an answer this time around, and he believes that if he can goad Hall into a dogfight, he'll be the one leaving Las Vegas with his hand raised.
"Watching his last fight, when things didn't go his way, instead of really digging in and reaching out and taking the fight, he kind of let it slip through the cracks," said Leben. "And there comes a time as a fighter when you've gotta reach down, gut it out, and take the win, and I didn't see him doing that."
Leben needs to reach down and get that win, or there will be some serious discussion about his current place in the fight game. It's easy to write or say that, but not easy for someone who has been doing this much of his life to hear.
"I don't want to be a Dan Henderson or Randy Couture," said the Oregon native. "I've said that before. My wife's in law school now and when she graduates and gets a job as a lawyer, that will probably be about the time I would like to throw in the towel. I'll be 36, 37, and I think that would be my time if everything goes right. That being said, I consider this more than just a way of making money for me and my family. It truly is a lifestyle and a passion, and I love being in the gym. I love learning and progressing my skills and developing new skills, and continuing to grow. Where I'm at now with the move and the change to Alliance, I feel like I'm growing at an exponential rate. My skills are progressing and I'm getting better in every realm of the game. That alone makes me want to go out and fight because the actual fight is truly the measuring stick of what you're doing in the gym. You have good days and bad days in the gym, but for me, it's how you perform on Saturday night. So that's my main motivation for continuing on. Now that I've made all these changes and made all these adjustments, I want to see how well this is gonna work out for me."
It's impossible not to root for Leben to have a happy ending in this sport. Through the ups and downs, he's kept moving forward, in the Octagon and out. So what would be the perfect end for "The Crippler?"
"My dream, for where I'm at right now, would be to go on a run, win three, four, five fights straight and who knows from there," he said. "That would just be huge and that would change everything. Right now, the deck is stacked against me, and I'm not in the best position. I've never lost three fights straight in my career, so I feel like I'm on the ropes, but you've got to man up and take that challenge. I'd like to have a couple good runs in the next couple years, showcase some new skills and abilities, have some great fights, bow my head and be out."