In a year that has seen longtime contenders like Yushin Okami and Jon Fitch hit the chopping block, the number of fighters who can feel truly safe about their jobs is dwindling. Outside of the top three or four fighters in a given division, no one is off limits when it comes to the UFC’s roster purge, and dropping an expensive veteran coming off a few losses suddenly is becoming an easy way for the UFC to cut costs. For new talent entering the UFC roster, the willingness to let fighters go has made it imperative that they earn a win in their first two fights. For a struggling veteran like Chris Leben, it’s made every fight a must-win situation.

Even a year ago it would have been somewhat laughable to think that Leben’s tenure in the UFC was in any kind of jeopardy. He may have been coming off a bad performance against Mark Munoz in late 2011 where he tested positive for painkillers (the second failed test of his UFC career), but he was still “The Crippler” and was guaranteed to come out and put on a show worthy enough to make everyone forget about his mishaps over the last year. As one of UFC President Dana White’s favorite fighters due to his memorable stint on season one of The Ultimate Fighter, Leben had been given more opportunities than most to retain his spot on the UFC roster in the past, and there was no reason to think anything different this time around.

When Leben was ready to return from his suspension in December 2012, the UFC didn’t hesitate to give “The Crippler” a spot on the main card of the year-end pay-per-view, a show that usually is one of the biggest of the year for the promotion. As a longtime fan favorite, Leben being granted a spot on the main card seemed like a no-brainer, especially considering his tendency to get into wild brawls that get the live crowd worked up. The UFC wanted to kick off one of its biggest shows of the year with a bang, and it was counting on Leben to come through.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be for Leben on that night. Derek Brunson completely shut down “The Crippler” with his wrestling game, sending Leben on his first two-fight losing streak since 2009 and prompting Dana White to voice his displeasure with the fight. Leben’s return to the Octagon at the Fourth of July weekend UFC 162 pay-per-view went about as well as his fight against Brunson. This time, relatively unknown Andrew Craig scored a split decision win over Leben in an ugly fight, sending “The Crippler” home on a three-fight skid for the first time in his career. The loss wasn’t enough to pull the trigger on releasing Leben quite yet, but it was another forgettable performance from a fighter who desperately needed a strong showing.

With Leben set to return to the Octagon against Uriah Hall at UFC 168 this December, a fighter that was once thought to be almost “uncuttable” is now firmly on the chopping block. After two straight fights that could be considered snoozers, Leben’s aura as one of the Octagon warriors that turns every fight into a brawl is slowly fading away. With it, his job security is fading too.

There’s no doubt that Leben is still one of the more popular fighters in the middleweight division. When matched up against the right fighter, he’s still likely to produce some fireworks. But it’s been over two years since we’ve seen Leben even resemble the fighter that made him a fan favorite, and another loss, especially in a bad performance, is likely going to force the UFC’s hand.

Only two fighters in recent memory have been able to avoid a UFC release following four straight losses: Dan Hardy and Leonard Garcia. Both guys have the same stand-and-bang mentality as Leben. To “The Crippler’s” credit, he may be the most well-known fighter of the three. However, that doesn’t mean he’s going to have any easier of a time keeping his job.

Hardy’s first loss in his four-fight streak came in a UFC title fight to Georges St-Pierre, and his second loss during that run came from future interim champion Carlos Condit. Following bouts with back-to-back championship-caliber opponents, Hardy was squashed by a gigantic Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. “The Outlaw” slightly rebounded with a “Fight of the Night” performance in a loss to Chris Lytle. While losing four in a row is never a good thing, Hardy’s level of competition was extremely high during his rough patch and the UFC opted to give him another bout. Maybe it was a bit unconventional, but it was probably fair.

As far as Garcia goes, his competition may not have been of the highest quality, but he made sure to put on a show in nearly every one of his UFC losses. Garcia earned a “Fight of the Night” award in his loss to Nam Phan at UFC 136 and could have earned two more in his scraps with Chan Sung Jung and Max Holloway during the losing streak. Although his fights weren’t always pretty, you could almost always count on Garcia getting the fans out of their seats. That earned him a chance to try to bounce back from a four-fight losing streak.

Whereas Hardy had level of competition on his side and Garcia had a handful of exciting performances to make his case, Leben will be banking on nothing but name value if he doesn’t perform like “The Crippler” of old on Dec. 28. His last three fights have left something to be desired, and if he loses to Hall, who’s 0-2 inside the Octagon, it will be almost impossible to warrant giving Leben another shot inside the Octagon. Without a win, or at least a “Fight of the Night” bonus, the UFC may decide to pull the plug on Leben’s Octagon career.

The choice to let Leben go is going to be a tough one for the UFC, and for Dana White in particular. White has shown a fondness for Leben and even said prior to Leben’s fight at UFC 162 that he “doesn’t even want to think about cutting Chris Leben.”

Following that UFC 162 bout, White expressed some concern towards Leben’s style as well. That same style was once one of the major reasons that “The Crippler” made a fan out of the UFC president. Leben’s love of slugfests may have been entertaining in the past, but White seems a lot less supportive of the strategy as Leben’s chin continues to accumulate punishment.

The way that White has been talking about Leben is starting to sound more and more like the way that White talked about his longtime friend Chuck Liddell towards the end of “The Iceman’s” career. That, of course, begs the question of whether White will feel the need to step in and end Leben’s Octagon career in the same way he ended Liddell’s. Leben isn’t getting finished left and right like Liddell was towards the end of his career, but Leben’s decline through the middleweight ranks has been lightning fast and sometimes a fighter’s chin is the final thing to go. If Leben suffers another loss, it would probably be for the best if he decided to hang up his gloves.

However, the problem with that scenario is that Leben, unlike Liddell, was never a UFC champion with countless endorsements and million-dollar paychecks. Liddell was able to walk away from the sport and transfer right into a comfortable job with the UFC in between working on Miller Light commercials and making appearances on Entourage. Unless the UFC offers Leben some sort of position within the company, he is almost guaranteed to keep competing in MMA on some scale. It was barely a year ago that Leben revealed to MMA Mania that he was “flat broke,” and while he’s made a tidy $102,000 in reported earnings since that time, it’s not like he’s never going to have to work again.

Taking a few fights outside of the UFC may not be the best idea, but fighting is what Leben has done with his life since he was 22 years old. Leben’s been a professional fighter for over 10 years and, unless the UFC makes him an offer he can’t refuse, it’s doubtful that he’ll willingly end his career after another loss.

Leben never fought for a UFC title and was never considered one of the best in the world, but don’t be surprised if “The Crippler” ends up getting some sort of support from the UFC over the next year or so. Dana White was very candid in his feelings towards Leben following his last loss, and he seems hopeful that Leben won’t travel down the wrong path when his Octagon career runs out.

“I want Leben to get up every day and be part of society and have to do something, whether it’s training or training other people, no matter what is,” he said. “Chris Leben has the type of personality that can go off the deep very easily in a lot of negative ways. I really care about the kid. I like him a lot. I love him. So I’ve got to figure this thing out.”

Regardless of a win or loss at UFC 168 this winter, it’s obvious that Leben’s time in the Octagon is going to come to a close sooner rather than later. The idea of Leben, who has a tendency to be as unpredictable outside of the cage as in, trying to make a living on the regional circuit is almost as scary to his fans as it is to Leben himself. One has to hope that the UFC and Dana White, in particular, can find a way to avoid that from happening. White has had Leben’s back for almost a decade and has stuck with the fighter through plenty of controversy. Hopefully, he’ll be able to help out Leben one last time and make sure he ends up in an office or a gym, not back inside a cage, once his UFC career is over.

Photo: Chris Leben (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.