By Michael Owens

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down to look back at Chris Leben’s MMA career. Finally, here’s the last installment.

In the previous two parts we’ve taken a trip down memory lane to recall some incidents and moments ‘The Crippler’ might want to forget. These failures, positive drug tests and brushes with the law are every bit as much a part of Chris Leben’s makeup as his finest hours as they help to illustrate what a flawed individual he was – providing a useful analogy of his status as a flawed fighter. However, I hope he will ultimately be remembered for his highlights – and there are many. At his best he was everyone’s favourite TUF graduate KO artist, providing some of the best moments in the short history of the sport.

The troublemaking, flame-haired slugger entered the TUF 1 house as one of the more fancied prospects after putting together a 10-1 campaign. THat included knockout wins against Benji Radach and fellow castmate, Mike Swick. The reality show was not a rip-roaring success for the then ‘Cat Smasher’ but the first few fights of his pro UFC career were. As one of the stars of the promotions new Ultimate Fight Night series to showcase TUF alums, he rattled off five straight wins. Things started with a bang and a quick first round KO of his TUF ‘spritz’ (read – piss on bed) victim Jason Thacker – a man that probably shouldn’t have been in the Octagon in the first place.

A three-fight win streak over future TUF 4 contestants followed as Leben took it upon himself to make sure each of Patrick Côté, Edwin Dewees and Jorge Rivera would need to go through ‘The Comeback’ season of the reality show. The Rivera fight was particularly impressive as Leben stopped a tough veteran who had previously beaten the likes of Travis Lutter and David Loiseau when that actually meant something. A win over Luigi Fioravanti in his next out him put ‘The Crippler’ just one win away from a title shot. It’s a shame for him Anderson Silva was the man he had to get past to get over the edge there. “I’ll send him back to Japan,” he said… Oh well.

The rebound was classic Leben. A left hook clipped Jorge Santiago on the deck prompting a swarm of bludgeoning coffin nails to head of a lifeless Brazilian. His next two wins were even better.

Our man was given the heavy-hitting and four-fight win streaking Terry Martin.  Martin controlled much of the fight from top position. He had to survive a tight triangle but he went into the third round with his nose in front. In that third round both men were sucking wind like no top-level athlete should and it looked like the contest was over. Then Martin landed a few punches about as close to the button as you could possibly see and sent Leben careering back up against the cage. Martin was too tired to follow up and finish but he knew he had this one won. He gestured at Leben with almost a shrug and nailed him with four more big shots, but the last one really hit The Crippler’s red-mist button. He almost lost his footing but swung from his grandmothers house and planted one straight on Martin’s chin. The fight was over for real this time, but there was one more a-bomb to follow up and really induce coma-levels of unconsciousness. Herb Dean pulled Leben off his sleeping opponent and he raised his arms with glazed over eyes and the look of some sort of movie serial killer psycho. He didn’t even look like he knew where he was in all honesty, but he was right at home on the battleground after just beating a man senseless. Really, that might not be too far from the truth:

Sometimes that’s what it takes to get me going,” he said in his post fight interview with Joe Rogan. “You hit me and that just turns it on. It’s just autopilot. To tell you the truth I didn’t know what was going on after that shot. It’s like I’m rocked, it’s time to get after it, it’s time to turn it up.”

The next fight with Alessio Sakara offered another iconic image. A un-dyed Crippler again waded into his opponent and ate heavy strikes that cut his eye all up. Undeterred, he turned into a human bludgeoning machine once again and beat the Italian into the mat. He rose from the ground open mouthed with blood streaming out of his eyebrow, down his face and onto his chest. Madman.

Possibly the greatest story of Leben’s career was his comeback from the brink in 2010. He followed an unremarkable win over Jay Silva with a decisive TKO of the favoured Aaron Simpson – sending the Arizona wrestling standout careering across the Octagon. Just a fortnight later, he was back.

UFC 116 was one of the biggest events of the year. Headlined by Brock Lesnar in his comeback from diverticulitis against the undefeated Shane Carwin for the heavyweight belt. However, the co-main event between Wanderlei Silva and Yoshihiro Akiyama was scuppered when ‘The Axe Murderer’ fell foul to injury. Leben was there to pick up the pieces and he stepped into the cage for the fight of the night. Both men traded punches with Leben in particular eating flush punching combinations right on the chin as he stood with his hands down. He would not be moved. The third round saw Akiyama leading and riding out on top. However – as if the Oregon native just said ‘fuck it’ – he started cutting huge elbow strikes across Akiyama’s face, connecting almost every time. The Japanese Judoka was hurt enough that Leben was able to lock in a fight-ending triangle to pick up the best win of his career to that point and a handsome cheque for fight of the night. In the aftermath he called out Wanderlei Silva. He’s have to wait one day shy of a year and come through a deflating loss to Brian Stann first, but he got his wish.

The 27 second fight was the perfect encapsulation of Leben’s career, his best and last win. This was never going to go the distance and at first it looked like Leben was caught cold as the former PRIDE champion swarmed with his trademark flurry and scored big. He was not hitting any normal chin though. Leben fired back, wobbled ‘The Axe Murderer’ and crumpled him onto the canvas with two uppercuts directly onto his chin. The follow up punches were vicious – and academic, Silve ate dirt and was taking a nap – and ‘The Crippler emerged as the victor for the final time in his career, screaming into the camera with veins popping from his neck.

For all his foibles, that’s the Chris Leben I’ll remember. An absolute warrior who was willing to go blood and guts, life and death, toe to toe with anyone to put on a show. That didn’t always work to his advantage but there was rarely a dull moment when he was doing it. Mixed martial arts would be a duller sport without folks like him.