When Chris “The Crippler” Leben competed on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, he was a young, brash fighter with black-painted nails and a Kool-Aid red buzz cut who spoke without a filter between his mind and mouth. But his devastating 49-second knockout loss to Anderson Silva at Ultimate Fight Night 5 in June 2006, sent the emotional brawler into metamorphosis.
He started to think before he spoke, he added more muscle to his middleweight frame and, most surprisingly, changed his distinctive hairstyle to a red mohawk before growing his hair long enough to have black cornrows. “I did it probably because everybody was doing it,” he says about abandoning his dye jobs. “It didn’t make me an individual anymore.”
Besides the dye, the Portland-bred southpaw also lost some confidence. Following his decision loss to Kalib Starnes in May 2007, Leben accepted a head instructor’s position at the Icon Fitness and MMA Center in Honolulu. There he taught techniques to emerging Hawaiian talent and improved his own along the way, which helped him to bounce back with knockout victories over Terry Martin and Alessio Sakara.
Everything was looking up, but trouble loomed ahead. His next bout, a fight with Michael Bisping at UFC 85, was scheduled but “The Crippler” had to pull out because he couldn’t obtain a visa due to a probation violation stemming from a DUI conviction three years earlier. After returning to Portland to serve a 35-day sentence, the three-round contest was moved to the headlining slot of UFC 89 in Oct. 2008. Leben not only lost that fight via unanimous decision, he earned a nine-month suspension afterwards by testing positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol.
While he admits to ingesting the banned substance, he took it months earlier and thought his body would’ve flushed it out of his system before the necessary testing. “Obviously you wanna be bigger, faster, stronger. Ya know,” he explains. “It wasn’t that I was injured. It was just that, ya know … I guess curiosity killed the cat.” To make matters worse, the Icon Fitness and MMA Center closed down.
In those nine months away from competition, “The Crippler” opened the Ultimate Fight School near downtown Honolulu, continued coaching and building up his enterprise. So far, it’s going well and financially, his new gym takes care of itself. As the 29-year-old says, “It’s paying its bills. It’s not paying my bills, but it’s paying for its bills.”
With his suspension coming to an end, Leben (18-5) is ready to make his MMA return this weekend at the Rose Garden in his hometown of Portland, Ore. at UFC 102: Couture vs. Nogueira where he’ll face four-time All-American wrestler Jake Rosholt. Rosholt’s wrestling credentials are impressive, but Leben began his career with Team Quest, a bastion of great grappling, and the gym where he will finish his pre-fight camp.
According to the southpaw slugger, his strategy is clear. “[Rosholt is] a great wrestler and what his game plan is gonna be is not to try to stand up and knock me out, and my game plan is probably not going to be to try to take him down and put him on his back,” Leben explains. “As far as training goes, I’ve tried to find the best wrestlers on the island and bring some people in so I can get that kind of a feel, and working on the things you work on when you’re gonna fight a great wrestler.”
After being on both ends of brutal knockouts, riding a magic carpet to Hawaii only to have it pulled out from underneath him, spending a month locked up and nine more locked out, the Chris Leben who takes the Octagon on Aug. 29 is not the same guy who became the first chapter in Silva’s UFC highlight reel even if he looks a lot like him – the cornrows are gone and according to Leben his close cropped hair “will have some red in it this time.”
Same look, hopefully a different outcome.
FIGHT! Fans: What are you putting your money on, Leben’s power punches or Rosholt’s wrestling?