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It only takes one: MMAmania exclusive UFC 89 interview with Chris Leben

Chris Leben

Chris Leben falls into a very unique category in the world of mixed martial arts. He’s one of the few fighters in the sport today who it seems every fan has an opinion of. Whether they love him or hate him, "The Crippler" always comes ready to scrap.

He’s got brick fists, and he can take a punch like you’re not even trying.

Leben holds notable wins over Patrick Cote, Luigi Fioravanti, Terry Martin and most recently Alessio Sakara, and he’s the only man who’s ever KO’d Mike Swick.

And now he’s headlining a major UFC event against another solid striker: Michael "The Count" Bisping. Leben (18-4) and Bisping (16-1) will go toe-to-toe at UFC 89 on October 18 at the National Indoor Arena (NIA) in Birmingham, England.

We caught up with the always-candid Leben to see how his preparation for UFC 89 is going and to find out how his recent relocation to Hawaii (where he trains and teaches at the Icon Fitness and MMA Center) has provided him with a renewed focus on what it means to be a fighter on MMA’s biggest stage.

Adam Wagner ( What are we going to see at UFC 89 from Chris Leben that we haven’t seen before?

Chris Leben: I think you’re going to see just more of a progression of the same road I’ve been on. You’re going to see a little bit more controlled, more refined and more in shape Chris Leben than you’ve seen before.

Adam Wagner ( I’ve been watching these "Evolution of an Icon" videos (click here for episode one and here for episode two). The last one featured you carrying the heavy bag up Koko Head Mountain. That’s pretty intense. It’s also nice that we get to see you in the teacher mode. Can you comment a bit on how teaching is going for you?

Chris Leben: Teaching is great. It’s kinda cool. Doing the shows we’ve been doing, people get a chance to actually see that about me. It’s something I’ve done for years. I taught at Team Quest for years, and now I’m out here (in Hawaii) teaching full-time. It’s the other half, that’s what I do. I eat, I sleep, I coach, I train. That’s it, man. That’s what I love to do, and as far as right now, that’s what I plan to do.

Adam Wagner ( Clearly there is a lot of anticipation for your upcoming fight with Michael Bisping. It has a great deal of potential to be an all-out slugfest. How do you see your standup comparing to his?

Chris Leben: I was kinda making a joke the other day when asked about my impression of the fight. I said, "He’ll probably hit me about 20 times, and then I’ll hit him once." That might be how that fight goes.

In other words, he’s got great foot movement, his hands … he’s definitely faster than I am — I’ll go ahead and say it. He’s faster than I am; he’s got good foot movement, good head movement. But I don’t think he’s got the big guns like I do. I don’t think he’s got that huge knockout power.

Bottom line is, everybody’s hit me a lot of times in every fight I’ve ever been in. I think this fight against Michael Bisping, I’d be lying to you if I thought it was going to be any different. I’m going to go out there, he’s going to land some shots, I’m sure, and then I’m going to land a big shot that’s just going to crumble him.

Adam Wagner ( The UFC has put Bisping up against a lot of jiu-jitsu guys. But when I interviewed him before his fight with Charles McCarthy, he said he’d take any fight the UFC put in front of him, but that he was really really hoping for an opponent who wasn’t afraid to stand and bang.

I tried to get him to call out names — and actually suggested that he fight you — but he wouldn’t name names. I know he was thrilled when this fight was presented to him finally. How did you feel when you were offered this fight? How long have you wanted to fight him?

Chris Leben: Oh, for a while now, especially when I was supposed to fight him, and then obviously some things came up, and that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. But I think right now where we are, who we are as fighters, the way our styles match up, where we are in our careers … I think it’s the fight that needs to happen.

I think me and Michael Bisping’s paths are coming to a collision, and come October, we’re going to run right into each other and see which one of us is going to be a top contender in the Middleweight division, and which one of us is just going to be another one in the pool of fighters that the UFC has at 185.

Adam Wagner ( I want to talk a bit about your ground game. Some of your critics don’t think it exists, but the ones in the know understand that you’re very underrated on the ground. Can you talk about who you work with in training and how you see your own progress on the ground?

Chris Leben: It’s a never-ending story. I train grappling every single day, just like I train standup everyday — I train to fight everyday. I started wrestling and grappling before I started doing standup, and I continue to work on that everyday.

It’s not my fault if (my opponents) don’t want to grapple with me. If I knock ‘em out first in a fight, that’s not my fault.

If you look back at my record, most of my amateur fights and my first (professional) fights were all won by submission. But then as I got a little older, I got a little more power and my hands picked up, I just started getting more and more knockouts, more or less because I never ended up on the ground.

And the other thing is, when I fight, even though I like to grapple … my last fight, my coach Matt Hume was a little upset with me. He said, "I wish you would just take one of these guys down and finish him. Tapping him out is a little bit safer than fighting the way you do."

But hindsight’s 20/20. It’s a great idea, I know the skills are there, I just gotta get myself to shoot that shot in the fight and work my ground game. That’s the only thing I gotta do.

Adam Wagner ( If the fight with Bisping does go to the ground, what do you see happening?

Chris Leben: Well if it goes to the ground and he’s on top, I’m going to work to stand back up. He likes to be standing and punching and working to pass, which is a great skill, a great way to pass guard I think in MMA. He was doing that well in his last fight, so I think I’ll work to stand back up.

If I take him down and I’m on top, I’ll look to pass guard, beat on him, and if he gives me a submission, I’ll take it; otherwise, I’ll just continue to punch him in the face.

Adam Wagner ( What’s it mean to fight over in England — and I believe you’re the headliner, right?

Chris Leben: Yeah, that’s my understanding. Main event, so … super cool.

Adam Wagner ( Yeah, especially over there in England, where a lot of fans like to see standup wars.

Chris Leben: Absolutely. I think it’s going to be a great fight for the crowd, an exciting fight. Obviously, he’s the hometown hero, so it actually has the makings to be a really awesome main event. The flipside of that is, not one person over there is going to be cheering for me, but hey, I’ve been a bad guy before, you know, it doesn’t bother me that much.

Adam Wagner ( You had commented that the fight was supposed to happen before, but obviously was postponed when you had to clear up that issue in Oregon (for more information click here). I wanted to ask you how the food was (in jail) and if you had any opportunities to try and stay in shape while you were over there.

Chris Leben: While I was in there, you mean? (Laughs) Um … not so much. One place you don’t really want to start training fighting or doing any sort of drilling is around a bunch of felons.

I think I did one interview where I told the story where … you know, there’s nothing really to do but tell stories to all the other guys in there. So they got me talking, and I decided to demonstrate a rear naked choke on one of the guys, and I was showing them how you can do it with just one arm.

So I’m holding it, and I’m like, "See I barely have to put any pressure, but it’s cuttin’ off the blood. So if you watch, he’ll start to feel a little light headed." And as I’m saying this and explaining it to him, I’m thinking, "Man, this guy is doing pretty good, he should be tapping out any second now."

Well, I guess I forgot to tell him to tap out. So next thing I know, he just falls down on the floor of the cell. So now I got 20, you know, gentlemen in jail staring at me, and I got this guy … and they think he’s dead, you know what I mean, they don’t train.

So anyway, I kind of caught him, lowered him down nice, kinda held onto him for a second, and I’m like, "Oh he’ll wake up in a second, he’ll wake up in a second." Well this guy, he was out for like 40 seconds — a lot longer than normally people stay out for. Normally it’s just a couple seconds. So right about the time that I started to really sweat, he came to.

That was the beginning and the end of any training that I did while I was in there.

Adam Wagner ( (Laughs) So I’m guessing that was the craziest thing that happened while you were in there?

Chris Leben: Yeah, that was pretty crazy.

Adam Wagner ( You consistently use a move that not a whole lot of fighters use — foot stomps. What’s it feel like to be the recipient of a well-timed foot stomp?

Chris Leben: Well a number of years ago I fought James Fanshier at Gladiator Challenge 20 (back in November 2003), and I stomped his feet really bad. After the fight, he came up to me and said, "Hey man, check this out." He showed me his feet, and both of them were just swollen and black. So I know it works well.

I’ve been stomped, and it sucks. It’s going to deter you to kick if the little bones in your feet are broken, as well. And the other thing, for me, is anyway you can score points possible, right? You know what I mean? So if this guy’s got my arms tied up and he’s not letting me knee him, I’m going to stomp his feet.

Adam Wagner ( It wasn’t so long ago that some of your critics were ready to write you off. You had lost 3 of 4 fights, but have since bounced back to win two in a row in exciting fashion. What changed? Was it more mental, or was it you going out to Hawaii?

Chris Leben: There’s actually a lot of factors, a lot of factors. I wasn’t ready to fight Anderson Silva when I fought him the first time. I was kinda the guy that got thrown to the wolves there.

As far as with (Jason) MacDonald, I probably could have trained a little bit better. I made a mistake. I made a mistake on the ground. I was beating him up on the ground, I was on top and I made a mistake. And at this level in the game, you cannot make a mistake. That was my fault.

And against Kalib (Starnes), what you saw was kind of the beginning of my transformation. After my loss to Anderson, I realized that my gung-ho charging-forward style of fighting wasn’t going to beat Anderson Silva. So what do you do? I’m a martial artist, I want to be world champ. I don’t just want to be a really good fighter.

So when I fought Kalib, I knew I could have gone straight forward and charged at him, but I said, "You know what, I’m going to try and fight him more technically. Work my footwork and stuff." I thought I won that fight, I still think I won that fight. I think the judges are stupid on that fight.

Adam Wagner ( I agree with you.

Chris Leben: But the only reason I didn’t knock him out and I didn’t win that fight in a more dominating fashion was because I wasn’t focusing on winning in a dominating fashion. I was focusing on making myself a better fighter. And because of that, and sticking with that, and like I told you in this fight you’re going to see a progression of that shift in my style — that’s what’s got me where I’m at now, and you’ll see it in the fight against Michael Bisping.

Everything happens in life for a reason. And that to me is my reason. That’s why I lost those fights and that’s what happened.

Adam Wagner ( A lot of fans like to talk about their favorite fights from the past year — that’s always a hot topic. Your fight with Terry Martin (at UFC Fight Night 11) certainly makes my top five. Late in the third round, Martin looked like he had you rocked, and he started taunting you a bit. That’s when, of course, you rushed in and the finished him off, which was highly dangerous to rush in like that. But it worked. What the hell were you thinking? What was going on in your head at that moment?

Chris Leben: I’d be lying if I said I was on anything more than autopilot. There wasn’t any in-depth thought involved at that exact moment in time. I wasn’t like, "Oh, he just rocked me, maybe I should do this—" No. I was on autopilot.

But what I will say is I’ve got probably like four knockouts that I’ve won like that. I’ve had a few fights where I was definitely losing the fight bad and been raw, and then … you know, people tend to let their guard down when they think they gotcha.

That’s one thing in this sport: never let your guard down. I hope Terry Martin learned from that mistake.

He came pretty close to having me. I’m not going to lie. And if he wouldn’t have taunted me and he wouldn’t have let his guard down for a second, he might have had his hand raised and not me. But I’ll take it! You know what I’m saying? I’m not complaining about it, I’ll take it.

Adam Wagner ( Chris, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. You’re a hard guy to track down, and I know you got a lot of fans who visit who can’t wait to see what you have to say this go around. Do you want to thank any sponsors, or do you have any messages for your fans?

Chris Leben: Yeah, just that I really appreciate everybody sticking by me through the thick and through the thin. And I promise to deliver another exciting performance come October.

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