Last July 3, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Chris Leben had barely finished off a Fight of the Night victory over Yoshihiro Akiyama by the time he looked into a TV camera and called for a fight against the man he’d replaced in that bout, Wanderlei Silva.
“Wanderlei was set to fight Akiyama,” Leben said, “and he got injured. I stepped in and I won that fight. To me, I felt like it earned me that fight.”
On Saturday night, 364 days later, in the same Octagon, in the same arena, “the Crippler” will get his wish, as the middleweight star of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter will battle the “Axe Murderer” in a bout that has Leben wondering, on occasion, if he’d have been better off keeping his big mouth shut.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Leben said with a laugh. “When Joe [Silva] called me, he said, ‘Hey man, you got it.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK, I’d better start training.’ I’m really excited.”
After the win over Akiyama last July, Leben was as hot as hot could be. He TKOd Aaron Simpson at the TUF 11 finale, and took the Akiyama fight on two weeks' notice just two days later. Leben’s late triangle choke submission of the highly-regarded judoka gave him three wins in a little more than six months, and more than a quarter million dollars in prize and bonus money from the Simpson and Akiyama fights combined.
Then came UFC 125, and a matchup with Brian Stann. Facing an opponent who had made his middleweight debut less than six months prior, Leben didn’t come out with the same fire he’d shown in the wins over Simpson and Akiyama. The result was a first-round knockout at the hands of the “All-American,” with Silva in the arena watching.
“I should know better, but I think I just got a little comfortable,” Leben said of the loss to Stann. “I was feeling really good after my three-win win streak. I was feeling good, and I underestimated Brian Stann a little bit.
That mistake (and the resulting knockout) notwithstanding, when the time came for Leben to climb back into the Octagon, it was determined that a matchup with the “Axe Murderer” was the right fight. Wise or not, Leben got his wish, and despite having to “go into counseling about that damn loss,” he’ll have the opportunity to throw down with one of the great strikers in the history of the sport.
“I’m excited to fight Wanderlei,” Leben said, “and a little scared at the same time. That’s a very motivating and driving emotion. I’m really focusing a lot harder on my diet, and when I’m in the gym, I’m in there 110 percent. I’m listening to my coaches and I’m putting everything in, because I want to go out and I want to win this fight.”
As badly as Leben wants to win, most pundits seem to have him at a disadvantage going into the Octagon against Silva, who has earned 23 of his 33 career wins via knockout, and poses a dangerous challenge to a fighter like Leben, who likes nothing better than to stand and trade. One thing no one doubts is the fight’s potential to entertain UFC fans, and while Leben will be fighting to win on Saturday night, he also has every intention of making sure that the bout lives up to expectations, and that expectation of entertainment has been just as much of a motivation in Leben’s training as victory.
“Regardless of whether I win, lose or draw,” Leben said, “I want to go out and put on a fantastic show for the fans, so for me, the biggest thing is that I’m waking up at the same time, going to bed at the same time, I’m eating a bunch of crappy food that’s good for me. I’m doing all the right things.”
It’s easier to train for a fight if you’re excited about the matchup, and the more Leben talks, the easier it becomes to see just how excited he is.
“It took the UFC a little bit to get around to it,” Leben said, “but here we are. July 2, my dream comes true.”
When the Octagon door closes on Saturday night, Leben will learn if the fight he asked for is the dream he envisioned or a complete nightmare.