Crippled no more: UFC middleweight Chris Leben interview exclusive with MMAmania.com (Pt. 1)

MMAmania's Brian Hemminger speaks with UFC middleweight brawler Chris Leben about how it feels to finally be fighting again, the adjustments he's had to make while keeping clean and how he's spent his significant free time this past year

There's a saying: you never kick a dog when he's down.

Chris Leben was so low following his loss to Mark Munoz, he could have found some fossils. Not only did he lose via TKO at the end of the third round but he had damaged himself badly with a horrible weight cut and to top it all off, he was popped for taking painkillers in his post-fight drug screening.

Thankfully for "The Crippler," the UFC realized he needed help. Instead of releasing Leben, they suspended him for one year and put him in rehab to get him clean and sober, make a real lifestyle change.

During this past year away from the Octagon, the iron-chinned middleweight has started working with troubled children, got married and has distanced himself from the bad influences in his life.

There was no better news for Leben fans than the announcement that he'd be returning to the UFC at the end of the year (Dec. 29, 2012) when he takes on Karlos Vemola at UFC 155.

Leben spoke to MMAmania.com about how it feels to finally be fighting again, the adjustments he's had to make while keeping clean and how he's spent his significant free time this past year in part one of this exclusive two-part interview.

Check it out:

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How does it feel to finally have a fight after over 10 months off? You've been asking the UFC matchmakers to give you one on twitter for a while now.

Chris Leben: Yeah it's exciting. It's been a long year. I'm just so glad to be back to work and to be able to get back in there and do what I do.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): There's been so much going on around you. How thankful are you to the UFC for, instead of punishing you for the painkillers, they wanted to help you with everything?

Chris Leben: It's amazing. Honestly, everything that's happened, hindsight's 20/20 and Dana White and the Fertittas handled it amazing. By all means, they had every right to fire me and kick me out but they helped me out. They sent me to rehab and really helped me make those steps to change my life.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've been working with kids at a youth correctional facility. Was that something you were doing before or is this something that's part of the healing process, perhaps taking a new role with the free time you've had?

Chris Leben: It's a new thing. I've been doing it since I got sober. I've been doing it for a few months now and it's helped me out. Being able to go in there and with my issues, some of the things I've been through in my life relate to them. It helps keep me sober and keep me on the right path. It's definitely something that I really enjoy.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Have the fans been forgiving?

Chris Leben: I try to steer away from hate mail and the negative things. The majority of stuff and the stuff that I choose to look up has been pretty positive. People saying how my story helped them and giving me inspiration and support. The majority of people are really, really supportive and it's definitely inspiring.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): How different has it been for you in your personal life? I heard that you had to basically say goodbye to several of your friends because you didn't want to fall back into bad habits. What's it been like with the major changes you've had to make in your life?

Chris Leben: Well, just my focus, my motivation is different. Even right now I'm focused on my life, my family and my gym. On doing things that can make a positive difference in the world. A lot of that doesn't involve hanging out with my buddies. That's true. I had a lot of friends that are good people but they're definitely not the right crowd that I need to be hanging around with right now. Most of them understand that. My life has definitely closed down a bit. I wake up in the morning and go to my gym. I train. I coach and I don't get home until 8:30-9:00 at night. I meditate a little bit, eat dinner with my wife and then it's off to bed.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Are you still working with all the same people? I remember in the fallout of the Mark Munoz fight, you mentioned that you'd been having several issues with your team and you didn't feel like they were fully in your corner. Did you mix things up in the last 10 months?

Chris Leben: There's been some switching around definitely. Everybody that I've worked with, everybody that I coached and cornered with for the Mark Munoz fight are great, wonderful people. Definitely I was not in the best spot in my life and hindsight 20/20, a majority of that stuff was me but due to the situation and everything that's happened, absolutely it was mutual that I wanted to start fresh.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): As a mixed martial artist that's been fighting for so long, most fighters would have a host of nagging injuries. I've heard you've been training like a madman over in Hawaii and is it difficult at all to suffer through the pain of the small injuries without being able to take anything to make it feel better?

Chris Leben: It's definitely a change of pace but what I'm doing is I'm doing a lot of things differently. I'm doing a lot of things the right way. I'm focusing a lot more on my diet. I'm also focusing on range of motion and flexibility. I just spent an hour and the majority of my hour and a half strength and conditioning session was spent on flexibility and elasticity. That's been a huge shift in my training.

Also, I'm getting massage and acupuncture regularly, at least once or twice a week. With that, taking the time off and with the proper nutrition, I've noticed that I feel younger now than I ever have. Having those toxins out of my body and dealing with the pain the right way, I'd say I feel 10 years younger.

Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've had all this time off and it's not like you were injured the whole time like most fighters with long layoffs. Did your really take advantage of this opportunity to revamp and take a hard look at the way you fight perhaps try to create Chris Leben 2.0?

Chris Leben: Absolutely, absolutely. For December 29th, I'm really looking to reinvent myself and I want the fans to see a new, fresh Chris Leben. Having the time off has really allowed me to go back to the drawing board, see what was working, what wasn't working and really what I needed to focus on. I've been able to do that and I've been working a lot with my coach Chris West out here and a few key things with my striking and grappling game that we want to change. I probably wouldn't have been able to get this done at the normal time between camps. Since I've had the extra time off, I've been able to focus on that and I think it's gonna be a pleasant surprise for everybody when I get back in there.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @CripplerUFC and on Facebook.com/ChrisLebenCrippler.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the conclusion of my interview with Chris Leben where we talk his return bout against Karlos Vemola, Chael Sonnen buying his stories and his current dire financial situation. You won't want to miss it.

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