He was on his ninth life after dropping his second consecutive fight to the unproven Jake Rosholt in 2009, which was after he lost to Michael Bisping and, to add insult to injury, tested positive for steroids.
Then he went on his run.
Back-to-back-to-back wins, two of them in a two-week span, which included handing Aaron Simpson his first-ever career loss and then stepping up to co-main event one of the biggest UFC shows of all time, UFC 116, to win in ridiculous comeback fashion against Yoshihiro Akiyama.
"The Crippler" was back in the title chase, just like that, he was ready to fight among the middleweight contenders again.
Leben is now looking to get back on track in what is perhaps one of the biggest fights of his career in less than two weeks at UFC 132 against former Pride FC champion Wanderlei Silva. It's his third consecutive co-main event billing. He was available to the media today during the UFC 132 conference call and he had plenty to say about coming back from a difficult loss and fighting one of his heroes.
Leben explains just how motivating it was to have a fight with "The Axe Murderer" following a tough loss:
"For me it's huge. One, fighting Wanderlei, it's a little easier to train a little harder. And two, there's nothing, lemme tell you, nothing, more motivating than a loss. I went out and had a bad performance and those are mistakes that I made. It makes me want to correct those things and let everyone know, 'Hey, I'm better than what they saw.' I've had my ups and downs for sure. With the Brian Stann fight, it left a shitty taste in my mouth and I want to go out and get back on the winning side of things and there's nothing better than a win over Wanderlei. It would be huge.
Leben, who got blasted by the "All American" earlier this year vie first round technical knockout, explained just exactly what went wrong against Stann fight at UFC 125:
"I've had a lot of fights, and I should know better, but I got a little comfortable. I was feeling really good after my three-fight win streak. I was feeling good and I underestimated Brian Stann a little bit. I think the biggest thing that it affected was my diet. I came in just a little too heavy and I cut too much weight. This time, I'm really, I'll be honest, I'm excited to fight Wanderlei and I'm a little scared at the same time, too. For me, I think that's a very motivating and driving emotion. I'm really focusing a lot harder on my diet and when I'm in the gym I'm going 110 percent. I'm listening to my coaches and I'm putting everything in because I want to go out and I want to win this fight. Regardless of whether I win, lose or draw, I want to go out and at least put on a fantastic show for the fans. For me, the biggest thing is I'm waking up at the same time, I'm going to bed at the same time, I'm eating a bunch of crappy food that's good for me and I'm doing the right things. I'm doing all the stuff that I'm supposed to."
So how did Leben get over the loss to Stann? For some fighters, they never truly recover, but Leben is a true veteran and a professional. He's been there, done that and he explained what he needed to do to bounce back:
"We've all had our wins and losses. The bottom line is , just like that old saying, you've got to get back up on that horse. I think this is gonna be my 19th fight in the UFC. I've been around to the point where a loss isn't going to make me perform bad the next time. I don't lose all my belief in myself or anything like that. Basically, I look back and say, 'Well, I messed up. What worked in that fight and what worked in camp and what didn't work?' And after I analyze that, I try to change a few things and that's what I've done. This sport, the way I look at it, is continually a learning curve. I never stop learning. That goes not just with the skills that we learn for our fights, but also our life outside of the fights, our diet, everything leading up to the fight I'm constantly trying to change and tweak. How can I get another extra percent out of myself?"
One thing is for certain: Despite being in tons of wars and taking boatloads of damage over the course of his now 32-fight professional career, Leben isn't thinking about calling it quits anytime soon.
Even though, surprisingly, he doesn't really like it:
"I ain't retiring any time soon I'll tell you that. I fight for different reasons. When I started it was to prove myself. Right now, I've got my own gym and it's more to inspire kids at my gym and say, 'Hey, if I can do it and I train with you then you guys can do it, too.' I think as long as my body's gonna let me, I don't see why I wouldn't [keep going]. I see how much motivation it gives a lot of the people around me. I'll be honest. I don't like fighting. (laughs) I love the training. I love everything else, but the day of the fight, anybody that says they really love it is probably lying to ya.' There's so many benefits that go along with what we do that right now, I don't see myself throwing in the towel."
After defeating Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116, the first thing Leben did was call out Wanderlei Silva and say he wanted to fight him next. After all, Leben had stepped in for the injured Silva to fight "Sexyama" in the first place.
It was only fair.
Leben explained what his feelings were like to finally have his wish granted a year later:
"From one point, it's 'Be careful what you wish for.' When Joe [Silva] called me and said, 'Hey man, you got it!' I was like, 'Whoa, okay. I guess I'd better start training' I'm really excited. Losses are never good. I had to go to counseling about that damn loss. The fact that I got this fight, it's a whole different story. Wanderlei was slated to fight Akiyama and he got injured. I stepped in and I won that fight and for me I felt like I earned that fight. It took a while for the UFC to come around to it, but here we are. July 2nd, my dream comes true. As far as that goes, I'm stoked."
Now that he got his wish Leben also detailed what it'll be like facing the legend and someone he's looked up to his entire career.
"Wanderlei is an animal. There's nothing more motivating than a fear of a coma (laughs) Honestly, I'm so exciting to fight Wanderlei Silva. He's one of my heroes. Believe it or not, and I don't really wanna tell him this, but he's one of the reasons I fight. When I just began to start fighting I used to get bootleg videos of him in Pride videos and I'd watch him and I would try to emulate stuff that he did. You have to beat the legend to be the legend. For me to be able to fight one of my heroes, I'm so stoked. This is like the passing of the torch at least that's what I hoping for. A little fear is good. That just shows me that I might be a little worried, but you know what? I'm going to get out there and do what I do because I look my fears and issues in the eye and then I conquer them."
Despite Wanderlei being one of his heroes, Leben talked about how he'll treat the legend once the cage doors close. Needless to say, he won't let his admiration get in the way of wanting to get the win.
"I have In the past, I've fought against guys that, at the time, I thought were better than me and truth be told, I ended up winning those fights. I think that, looking back on my career, I've won a lot of fights that on paper I should have lost and that's just great. How do I handle it? It's pretty easy to switch gears when they start swinging at you. How I feel about the guy goes right out the window. I don't think anymore. Honestly, I react. I'm thinking about the fight but I'm not thinking, 'Oh, I really like this guy. Is his girlfriend gonna feel bad because she's sitting in the second row?That's not what's crossing my mind, it's,'I've got to put this guy out before he puts me out.'"
He'll get that chance to do just that at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Independence Day weekend. Expect (early) fireworks.