Chris Leben will make his return to combat sports later tonight (Fri., Nov. 9, 2018) at WBKFF 1 from inside Casper Events Center in Casper, Wyoming, when he takes on Phil Baroni. The two former UFC fighters will be competing on the first event under the newly formed World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation (WBKFF) banner.
Leben, 38, hasn’t fought professionally since a knockout loss to Uriah Hall at UFC 168 back in 2013. That defeat was the fourth in a row for “Crippler” and it forced him to step away from mixed martial arts (MMA). While the former middleweight knockout artist was anticipating a comeback to fighting with Bellator MMA back in 2016, a failed electrocardiogram (EKG) showed that Leben wasn’t physically fit to return to competition.
“I was training for three hours, then when I came to the doctor, the doctor was like, ‘Really? You can walk up the stairs without fainting?’” Leben told Bloody Elbow. “It was that bad.”
With a few years to clear the cobwebs and position himself for a return to combat sports, Leben is excited to put the past behind him and prove that he still has something left in the tank.
“Most people don’t end their career on a good note,” Leben said. “Where I was — my personal relationships, the gym I was at — there are so many variables. Without me wanting to point a finger at anyone, I’ll just say I wasn’t in a good place (when I last competed).
“Fighting is what I do. It’s my life. These years off have really given me the chance to realize how much I enjoy training for a fight and how much I appreciate it. I want to come back and prove the naysayers wrong — and I do have something to prove.”
Unlike his past crusades inside of the cage, Leben will do his bidding tonight as a bare knuckle boxer. His opponent, Baroni, doesn’t have any experience in this realm either, but the two former UFC fighters should deliver fireworks atop WBKFF’s inaugural card.
“To have the opportunity to get in there with an opponent like Phil Baroni, who much like myself, win, lose, or draw, doesn’t really have a boring fight, I think there’s no way I don’t go out there and put on a great show for the crowd,” Leben said. “I love it.”
Having prepared extensively for his bare knuckle debut, “Crippler” feels ready to showcase his refined skills. It’s going to be different than his past fights, but the 38-year-old is confident he understands the ins and outs of punching without gloves.
“Every punch is important. The jab is very important, just touching them is huge,” Leben said. “Ultimately, I think it’s a lot safer because you can’t turn over punches and hit a guy on the top of the head like you can with boxing or MMA gloves. I don’t think you have the same concussion issues as you do in other combat sports with no gloves on your hands. I think you’re gonna have a lot more lacerations, but those heal. For the untrained eye they might be ugly, but they heal.”
“I’m not gonna say I’ve never hit somebody bare knuckle before. It has happened,” Leben continued. “I feel substantially faster. The range is different. You can’t hit with your fist. You don’t want to hit with your fingers — you want to hit with those knuckles. Getting used to lining those up so that the knuckles that are gonna do the damage is what lands, it takes some work, it takes some calibrating.”
Leben will have his chance to prove his doubters wrong and put an exclamation mark on his comeback affair. If he’s able to defeat Baroni in devastating fashion later this evening he may turn out to be the type of champion that WBKFF is looking for.
MMAmania will have LIVE coverage of WBKFF 1: “Baroni vs. Leben” below, starting with the free undercard at 8:30 p.m. ET and continuing on with the pay-per-view (PPV) main card at 10 p.m. ET.