The game plan to stray into people’s wheelhouses and eat punches in order to land some is nearing extinction.
This makes Chris Leben an endangered species. His is a roadhouse style that demands cranial punishment. Hit him square in the nose, and he starts coming forward on toddler legs throwing bombs. It’s what makes him a fun watch -- much in the same way it’s fun to watch zombie movies, the parts when people with ordinary motor skills begin to turn.
Knowing this makes Leben extraordinary.
“The Crippler” will be fighting in his 19th UFC bout, this time against Mark Munoz at UFC 138. That’s 19 times he will have gone in there headhunting. He wins two out of every three fights. A dozen times he’s come out on top. A couple of times -- against Anderson Silva and Brian Stann -- he got blasted into space. He either wins spectacularly or loses that way, and it’s enough for his corner to watch the action through their fingers. The last time he fought in England, he took a beating from Michael Bisping, and the first words off his lips were, “are you not entertained?”
We were. And partially because game plans are such fleeting things.
But imagine being in 19 brawls and yet, mysteriously, still sitting in middleweight contention. There’s simply no accounting for his longevity, nor his success. The recently retired Chris Lytle liked to brawl but had fallback options, such as credible jiu-jitsu. Lytle was a career .500 fighter in the UFC. Should Leben beat Munoz this weekend, he’d be 13-6 and his name will start running up the flagpole for Joe Silva to consider in the Anderson Silva sweepstakes. (Think Ed Soares would be open to that rematch? His pen would shake with the excitement of a lottery winner signing the lucky card.)
By comparison, Tito Ortiz and Matt Hughes, the leaders in Octagon appearances, have 25 UFC fights to their names. Neither one of them brawls the way Leben does. Hughes knew enough to use his wrestling to neutralize danger areas; Ortiz was a ground-and-pound specialist, not a stand-and-bang practitioner (unless he was forced to be).
Leben? He’d be at home if barstools and glass bottles were being flung and crashed over heads. It’s a life of hazards, and yet he fights on. He trusts his punch is harder than yours, and that his chin can withstand more. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach chin -- but surely you can advise against testing it so frequently.
Then again, does Leben look like the kind of guy to take advice?
The first time I saw him live was at UFC 82, when he was fighting Alessio Sakara in Columbus. He’d just eaten something around a couple hundred consecutive punches and somebody yelled out, “Hey Leben, you’ve got to move your face!” This drew a collective chuckle. Leben didn’t move his face. He kept hacking away, his hair the screaming color of a target, until Sakara dropped.
Ahead of UFC 102, on the shuttle ride to the arena in Portland just hours before he was to fight Jake Rosholt, he pointed to a bridge crossing the Willamette and said, “I used to jump off that bridge when I was a kid.” Brandon Vera, the nearest to him, could only shake his head and laugh.
Which is sort of what we do when Leben answers the bell like a blood-dimmed tide. You’re going down, or he is. It’s not exactly a recipe for a sustained career, but it has worked for Leben for many years, making him the most durable fighter to ever embody the kamikaze way of thinking.