On Monday's episode of the MMA Hour, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight Chris Leben announced his retirement from mixed martial arts (MMA). For a man who entered the Octagon with a roar, it seemed disappointing to see him leave in a whisper.
After becoming the breakout star of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), the "Cat Smasher" fought under the UFC's umbrella for an astounding 22 fights, racking up a 12-10 record. He ended his tenure on a four-fight skid that also included a suspension for testing positive for banned substances.
His UFC career wasn't particularly illustrious and like so many other fighters, he'll likely never be inducted into the UFC's Hall of Fame. His role in the promotion was to be the "blood and guts" fighter to raise a crowd's excitement level before the main event.
You knew whenever he fought that someone would go to sleep.
With his announcement, it got me thinking. Often when an athlete retires from a sport, the first question is usually "what was their legacy?"
The legacy talk is basically a way for sports writers to eulogize an athlete and discuss accomplishments and, at times, shortcomings. Those athletes sometimes gave years of their lives for our entertainment, so why not spend a little bit of time remembering them, right?
But do all athletes leave legacies?
Did a guy like Chris Leben make enough of an impact on the sport that fans and writers will need to remember his MMA career? I don't mean that question as a slight to the man. It's an honest question that is applicable to the dozens of mid-level fighters who walked away from the sport.
By all accounts, Leben is a genuinely kind person, but one with many faults. His personal demons outside the cage limited what he possibly could have accomplished inside the cage. There were even times when they became the main story as was the case with his two drug suspensions as well as multiple DUI arrests.
While Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar's first bout is often credited as being the UFC's breakout moment, Leben's time on TUF was likely just as valuable to the promotion. In a world where "reality" television seems to be more and more scripted every day, he proved to be very raw and very real.
That first season made Leben a star, but it also put all of his emotional baggage on display for the world to see. When Bobby Southworth cut him down with two words, the viewing public felt for Leben. Bravado is a great defensive mechanism to cover the pain underneath.
His UFC career saw a lot of ups and downs. He won some really entertaining fights. His bouts with Terry Martin and Yoshihiro Akiyama stick out in my mind. In both bouts he was out on his feet, yet found it within himself to come back and win in incredible fashion.
However, that "down but never out" style of fighting also added to the damage he did to himself outside of the cage. Because of his granite-like chin, he was willing to take several punches to land one of his own. He didn't have the best footwork or technical striking.
But when the man slung some leather, chins were crushed.
The problem with trying to be an athlete while also living the rock and roll lifestyle is that everything accumulates. Concussions? Those never go away. Your brain doesn't heal itself. Liver damage? As amazing as the body is at detoxing, eventually everything gives out.
His final three bouts inside the Octagon were disappointing, if only because I've been a fan of his for so long. Seeing him lose to the younger generation of fighter was heart breaking.
He just couldn't keep up with the better athletes.
In 2013, Leben was a throwback to the early days of MMA. A world where toughness was the greatest equalizer. While he wasn't a significant part of the "golden age" of MMA, he was by far its best representative. He's the living embodiment of a time when Harold Howard let the world know that "if you're coming on, then come on!"
As far as legacies go, I'm not sure he has one. I think legacy talk is reserved for people who either accomplished great things or left a real mark on a sport. By that definition, Leben is just another fighter who fought hard and gave fans some lasting memories.
But I'm pretty sure he should be remembered as an extremely violent fighter who gave everything he had to a sport that celebrates violence. In a world filled with hardships, his story doesn't have to have a tragic ending. He can just be the guy who got me pumped to watch some face punching on a Saturday night.