Admit it: Chris Leben had you fooled. He certainly fooled me. From boorish behavior on TUF 1 to a DWI conviction to a positive test for steroids, it looked as though Leben would be relegated to a footnote in MMA history: a tough, mid-tier middleweight who introduced Anderson Silva to UFC audiences by being on the wrong end of a vicious ass-kicking. But in the space of two weeks, Leben has entered a career renaissance.
Fabricio Werdum's triangle choke victory over Fedor Emelianenko was surprising, but Werdum is one of the best jiu jitsu artists in the world; it's not completely out of the realm of possibility. Brock Lesnar's submission of Shane Carwin is more surprising, because until <strong>UFC 116</strong>, Lesnar has been content to tenderize his opponent's faces from top position. But Leben's triangle late in the third round of Yoshihiro Akiyama made me feel as though I'm inhabiting an alternate universe.
Traditionally, Leben's tools have been two: a hard head and a huge left hand. It was the latter that most thought was his only path to victory; Akiyama was expected to be the more technical striker and leagues ahead of Leben on the ground.
Although Leben gave and received shots that made the ears of audience members in the front row pop (what are Leben's and Akiyama's chins made of, anyway?), it was his previously unheralded ground game that stole a win from what was shaping up to be a unanimous decision loss. And to mount a dramatic comeback just two weeks after his last dramatic comeback is almost miraculous.
Where does Leben go from here? Though he called out Akiyama's original opponent Wanderlei Silva (a match-up that gets an emphatic nod from this writer), UFC President Dana White has said Silva will be too long in recovering from knee surgery. Less clear was Leben's plea to "give me The Ultimate Fighter." Was that the offer he couldn't refuse he claims White and matchmaker Joe Silva made him? It might breathe new life into an otherwise stale medium.
Leben has matured as a martial artist, a fighter and a person, and at 29 years old, still has a few good years left. Saturday's performance has shown that he is not the same fighter victimized by Anderson Silva in 2006, and if he continues to evolve, another shot at "The Spider" might be waiting down the road. Stranger things have happened in MMA, especially in 2010.
<em><a href="http://www.psully.com" target="_blank">Patrick Sullivan</a> is a freelance writer and editor from New Jersey.</em>
Article originally posted on the FightLaunch.com MMA Blog.