Last Saturday at UFC 155, the 32-year-old Chris Leben returned to the Octagon for the 20th time.

It was against replacement Derek Brunson, who took the fight on relative short notice after Karlos Vemola had to pull out due to injury. Although Leben didn’t walk away the victor, it did little to sway his staying power in a storied UFC career that isn’t matched by many.

Leben is a fan-favorite that has resonated with fans since the first season of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike. A fighter with trademark blood-red hair and a penchant for coming forward like a wounded zombie in the cage to knock opponents silly, he’s made solid runs in the Octagon, but was never truly considered as someone that will one day vie for promotional gold.

For those of us that can look back at his fight with, at the time, promotional newcomer Anderson Silva like it was yesterday, we saw his longest winning streak in the UFC snapped. And that “success” of continuous winning efforts has yet to be recreated. However, the UFC is his home and he’s not going anywhere for a long time unless he decides to remove himself from action. Even then, he has always been welcomed back out of good faith.

After the UFC 155 fight, UFC President Dana White said putting Leben on the main card a “mistake.” But he meant it in the terms that Leben perhaps needed to be built back up in the cage after a year off due to a failed drug test, rather than jumping back into the fray. White’s thoughts ended with, “Chris Leben loves to fight—there’s no doubt about that. The biggest challenge in Chris Leben’s life is battling his demons. We try to help him as much as we can. I love the kid.”

No doubt, the UFC has his back. Leben has been in the co-main event slot eight times in his career. Twice, Leben has held the honor of being one-half of a main event, but those were losing efforts to top middleweights Michael Bisping and Mark Munoz.

That is treatment that most other fighters would love to have, but for many reasons, Leben has held the formula for keeping himself in the UFC’s good graces.

What makes his treatment by the UFC seem all the more gracious is Leben’s well-known battles with drug and alcohol abuse.

His alcohol use was seen on the first TUF reality series in the form of drunken rambunctiousness. It made for good reality television, but as we have got to know him through the MMA media, it was only the tip of the iceberg in what has been a history of substance abuse troubles.

In April 2008, Leben faced a previous DUI charge for which he spent over a month in jail. Earlier in 2007, he made a move to Hawaii as a new home and setting for his training, but his past followed him.

Fans that followed Spike TV at the time remember watching the Countdown show that showed Leben in his picturesque new setting. He was done with drugs and alcohol and was focused on moving forward. However, that wouldn’t be the first time that a sober Leben was presented only to have bad news repeat itself.

After the Oct. 2008 main event fight with Bisping, Leben failed his first UFC drug test for the anabolic steroid stanozolol. He sat out nine months and returned to fight on the preliminary card of UFC 102. He had his hiccups, but the UFC welcomed him back and another new-and-improved Leben returned to continue his career.

It seemed as though Leben had moved forward as 2010 saw his most promising run since falling to Anderson Silva. He defeated Jay Silva by decision in January and went on to finish Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama within the stretch of a few weeks. It was a feel-good comeback story, and fans could now claim his as a contender in the division.

However, in October of that year, Leben again was nabbed for a DUI after crashing his truck in Hawaii. Many that followed his troubles up to this point were ready to write Leben off as a self-destructive screw-up. But not the UFC. And so his career in fighting continued.

A loss to Brian Stann—one of Stann’s biggest wins, as he was the only other person besides Silva to stop Leben inside of the cage—snapped Leben’s strong run in 2010 and vaulted Stann as a contender. Leben came back in July of 2011 to knock out the legendary Wanderlei Silva and set himself up for a middleweight tilt with Mark Munoz at UFC 138.

There, the story of Leben would stumble again. Leben looked out of shape in the match and lost by TKO to the “Filipino Wrecking Machine.” Personally, Leben was digressing into old habits and ended up failing his second drug test after the fight due to his use of painkillers.

It was a self-destructive move that Leben has recently admitted to doing as a cry for help, probably due to pressures that most who have never been a prize fighter can ever understand. Taking substances has been a long battle for someone like Leben, and answering their siren’s call, as he knew all too well, would steer his ship right back into the destructive rocks in the shallows of tumultuous waters.

History was repeating itself again and his latest performance wasn’t going to help his goodwill with the fans. Surprisingly, the UFC and the fans have continued to stick with him, patiently waiting for his return, which he had at UFC 155.

His performance after a year-long absence can easily be contributed to cage rust, as he was beaten by Brunson, who many never gave a chance of winning the fight. Of course, Brunson deserves his credit for the win, but all eyes were on Leben, who looked just as bad as he did in the Munoz fight.

That is the Leben we are currently seeing—one who is supposedly rejuvenated after another battle with substances, but can’t seem to put it together in the cage. Nevertheless, his employers still had his back and fans watched to see him do well. That is a lot of goodwill when you think about it, especially with his history of tripping himself up in the face of golden opportunities.

I, for one, am happy to see him continue to have the opportunity to fight for his life. For people that carry a dangerous monkey on their back, no matter where they go, it sticks to them, and it is important to have the love of others to instill hope that, maybe this time, things will go right. Realistically, things will never go right. That is life, and dealing with it by not running away to abuse yourself is the hard part.

HBO ran a documentary, titled Assault in the Ring, that chronicled a professional boxer’s fall from a promising career to being a broken man living in squalor and his only highs being his next hit of crack. It is all too ugly and real how athletes can fall into that fray.

People like Leben can’t look that far ahead. They must take it one day at a time. Will he screw up again? Probably. But he has a welcoming home with the UFC and legions of fans that only want to watch him succeed.

Some circles say, “once an addict, always an addict,” and that is an ugly truth that Leben plays out. It is also something that fans can grasp and relate to, past all the campaigning and selling of promises. That is a fight more real and inspiring than anything the UFC can ever manufacture.

Photo: Chris Leben (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.