He was a fighter’s fighter.

Tough as nails.

He had a chin made of granite.

You can take your pick when it comes to clichés, but none of them come even close to describing Chris “The Crippler” Leben’s grit. On Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, Leben announced his retirement on The MMA Hour.

“I’m done,” the 33-year-old Leben said to his corner at UFC 168. After five minutes of chasing Uriah Hall around the Octagon, like he did with all of his opponents, the only thing Leben had to show for it was blood pouring down his face. In the past, a hurt Leben was a more dangerous Leben, but this wasn’t the same. For everyone watching the fight, there was a sense that he was talking about more than this particular match. After all, this was his fourth loss in a row.

Of course, there was speculation that “The Crippler” would soon end his fighting career, but like any athlete’s retirement, expected or not, to actually hear the words come out of their mouth is met with a kind of disbelief.

Leben, after all, was a staple of the UFC roster. He was the rice with the beans, the whiskey with the ginger. Whether the outcome was good or bad for him, you knew what you were going to get. Leben was going to walk into a cage and try to punch someone incredibly hard in the face. After a 33-fight career, 22 of which were in the UFC, it’s strange to see him go.

Although he never veered that far from his brawler roots, we saw Leben develop as a person throughout his 11-year career as a fighter. The man today, who wants to be a coach rather than a fighter, is not the same man we saw on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, breaking down doors and pissing on beds. And while his over-the-top alcoholism may have provided good television ratings and entertained us all, there was a man who needed serious help.

The odds were never in Leben’s favor. Leben and his two other siblings were raised by a single mother, and without any fatherly guidance, he turned to the streets, where he found a life of alcohol and drug abuse with no cares about his future. In fact, Leben has said that he graduated high school without knowing how to read or write. He subsequently joined the Army with the promise from his recruiter that he could wrestle for the Army team. This turned out to be a lie, so Leben went AWOL and was less than honorably discharged after doing a bid in military prison

However, Leben has never been one to blame others for his mistakes, inside or out of the cage. The way he deals with adversity in his life is the same way he deals with receiving punches in the Octagon: he simply bites down on his mouthpiece and keeps coming forward.

Leben’s resiliency is not just a handful of defining moments. Rather, it is his whole career.

After winning his first five fights in the Octagon, he was knocked out in Anderson Silva’s UFC debut and went on a two-week bender. What did he do next? He came back and knocked out Jorge Santiago.

He dropped his next two fights, and the MMA community talked about how brawlers were becoming obsolete. Mind you, this was back in 2007. What did he do? He had back-to-back “Knockout of the Night” victories.

He lost to Michael Bisping and got caught for doping, and then dropped another fight against Jake Rosholt. What did he do? I think you get it by now, but why stop there? He defeated Jay Silva in January 2010, then, that summer, finished Aaron Simpson and Yoshihiro Akiyama in a span of two weeks. Brian Stann halted his three-fight winning streak, but six months later Leben knocked out the legendary Wanderlei Silva in 27 seconds.

Even with his last four fights in the Octagon, as slow and outdated as Leben might have looked, what did he do? He kept coming forward, trying to knock off his opponent’s head.

Leben is far from a perfect human being, whatever that means. The results of his pan addiction to painkillers. Most would not call him a role model, but if there’s anything for which to look up to Leben, it’s his tendency to take responsibility for his actions and pick up the pieces.

On The MMA Hour, Leben said, “I was a tough guy, I had some techniques, and that always worked for me, but when you look at these guys now, like Uriah Hall, they’re just a different breed of athlete than I am. The game has been evolving and changing so much, so rapidly, that I’m actually pretty happy that I can say I was in it for as long as I was in it.”

Yes, Chris Leben, you’re right. The sport has reached new heights that no one could have dreamed of when they saw Art Jimmerson wearing only one boxing glove, or Vitor Belfort knock out fat guys, or even Chuck Liddell battling Randy Couture. Some might think the sport is headed in a bad direction, driven by point-fighting, whereas others only see MMA going up with Fox contracts, Nike sponsorships and fighters that look like superheroes. Only time will tell. But I think I speak for the whole MMA community when I say to Leben:
Thank you. Thank you for showing us that for all the mainstream sparkle our sport has at the moment, it is still built on insanely tough, tattooed, hair-dyed wild men such as yourself.

Leben represents a microcosm of a unique phenomenon in our sport: you don’t have to be one of the best to be one of the greatest.

About The Author

Zach Miller
Staff Writer

Zach is a Boston native and has had a fascination with martial arts since playing Mortal Kombat at five years old. He was introduced to MMA after watching The Ultimate Fighter 5: Team Pulver vs. Team Penn. A recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Zach seeks to one day become a full-time MMA journalist. In addition to watching the sport, he has also trained in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, and tae kwon do. Zach has also written for NortheastMMA.