It seems like a lifetime ago when we first met Chris Leben during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Sure, hardcore fans had seen his amazing fight with Joe Doerksen and his knockout win over Mike Swick. But we didn't know him. Only reality television allows us as fans that illusion and Leben was the first truly three dimensional fighter in UFC history.
The Chris Leben we saw on Spike TV wasn't airbrushed to the point of being unrecognizable. We saw him warts and all. His desperation to please. His insecurities, masked cleverly at times by a near constant stream of chatter. We saw how hard he worked, how badly he wanted it, how much it hurt to lose. In short, Chris Leben was real. And Chris Leben, more than anything else, loved to fight.
Whether it was on the streets of Portland, where by his own reckoning he "put the stamp" on dozens of kids looking for a beating, or later inside the confines of the UFC' steel cage, Leben was a born warrior. How else can you explain his focus, the willingness to take his opponent's three best shots for just a single opportunity to deliver his own?
Leben's single speed was straight ahead with the pedal on the floor. No more. With 11 wins and eight losses in the Octagon, Leben has nothing left to prove. Anything that can happen in the cage has - he's been pounded, knocked out, and submitted and has done horrible things to opponents in turn. To Leben, every fight is different because the sport requires constant evolution and change.
"This sport, the way I look at it, is a continual learning curve," Leben said in a media conference call. "I've never stopped learning. Not just the skills, but also our life outside of fights, our diet. Everything leading up to the fight, I'm constantly trying to change and tweak and find out how can I get another two percent out of myself."
He's also found some peace on the island paradise of Hawaii. Sure, it took therapy to reach this happy place, but Leben has finally put fighting in its proper place. Fighting, it seems, isn't the key to his self esteem. It's his job, a livelihood, but not a lifestyle.
"I'll be honest with you," Leben said. "I don't like fighting. I love the training. But the day of the fight, anyone who says they really love it, they're probably lying to you."
If that's true, no one tells sweeter lies than Leben. When he's punched in the face, it's like a switch goes off and the sensible Leben from media calls is replaced by the kid once known as the "Cat Smasher," by the guy who literally marked his territory on TUF by urinating on a fellow contestant's pillow. There's something inside him that seems to demand Leben approach each fight like it's a battle for his very soul. A more nuanced approach might even possibly lead to a better Chris Leben - one who adds brains to his notable brawn.
If anyone can bring that side of Leben to the forefront, it's opponent Wanderlei Silva. The PRIDE legend is the Brazilian Leben - or, to preserve precedent and keep things in their rightful place, perhaps it's better to describe Leben as the American Silva. Both charge ahead like bulls. Both have iron chins. And both are willing to take an incredible beating to win a fight.
"He's one of my heroes," Leben admitted. "I don't want to tell him this, but when I started fighting, I would get bootleg PRIDE videos and in some ways try to emulate some of the stuff he did. You've got to beat a legend to be a legend. To fight one of my heroes, I'm so stoked. A passing of the torch is kind of what I'm hoping for."