It’s long been known that the fight game caters to fear, and there’s more than a century’s worth of boxers who confronted it through many means. Anxiety sits in everyone, with some heavier than others.
Georges St. Pierre has said that before a fight he’d get so nervous that he’d wish the lights in the arena would go out, something beyond his control to let him off the hook from fighting that night. Matt Wiman’s version was that a friend would pull up in a car in the back, saying, “let’s get out of here.” These are common fantasies. The idea is that something or someone will intervene to relieve them of the absurd thing directly ahead, a voluntary predicament agreed to in braver times, that scares deepest when thought of in its entire inevitability.
Some fighters fortify resolve by introducing themselves to cowardice. Some fighters fight because of these personal confrontations. All fighters are asked to overcome themselves. It’s why meditation and breathing techniques are used.
I don’t know Chris Leben’s exact reason for taking Oxycodone and Oxymorphone, but I do know he’s not uncommon. I did a piece for ESPN.com on Karo Parisyan at UFC 123 when the UFC gave him another chance against Dennis Hallman. He’d failed a drug test for painkillers after his split decision victory of Dong Hyun Kim at UFC 94, and backed out of a fight with Dustin Hazelett at UFC 106 the day before. Dana White banished him from the UFC after the second offense. As White is wont to do, he then gave him yet one more chance based on Parisyan’s assurances that he’d changed.
The Parisyan that showed up at UFC 123 in Auburn Hills hadn’t changed. He was a mess. He was looking for painkillers nearly the entire time he was in Michigan. On fight night, he pleaded with the athletic commission to help him out, his skin so pale and clammy that it became heroic just to watch him start shuffling towards the cage when Burt Watson came to inform him it was time. In that case, Parisyan was past the point of trying to overcome his anxieties without pills. It was hell to watch him try. And it was impossible for those who cared for Parisyan backstage to remind him that these circumstances once fueled his fire. The original version had long since left. Parisyan couldn’t hear anything above the clatter of the world caving in around him.
Leben has been in trouble in the past with a DUI, for using anabolic steroids, and behavioral issues going back well before the original Ultimate Fighter that he made his name on. He has always worn his asterisks, and it seems no matter how many times he talks of reform he ends up back in the same place.
The latest was him testing positive for painkillers after fighting Mark Munoz at UFC 138. He is now suspended for a year. His latest offense comes to the surprise of nobody. We don’t know how he arrived at it or the level of his intake or if he’s an addict, but it’ll be a test of mettle to overcome the stigma. It becomes a spiral. Each time Leben gives into a need to cope, the result is he’s asked to dig deeper.
Not an ideal situation for a susceptible person.
Painkillers in the fight game are problematic, and you can see why. This is a literal will-against-will sport where a ball isn’t used as a metaphor to impose it. If there are metaphors to be had, it’s usually the opponent. Fighting is, on whole, a hellish encounter with self. Many fighters do it for this very reason -- to overcome themselves. That’s the subtext of a fight. We watch because we know it carries those kinds of reserves. It’s personal. There is pain.
And there are so many fears that only get magnified in MMA. Fear of failure, fear of exposure, fear of panicking, fear of death. Fear of vulnerability. Going back through fight game literature concerning some of the greats, part of the euphoria a fighter feels after winning a fight -- and oftentimes on the idea of merely having fought in a fight -- is the fact that they went through with it. That’s it. No amount of torment, doubt or pressure -- whether coming from the outside or self-induced -- could hold them back.
This is its own triumph that is too easily taken for granted.
Karo Parisyan is what happens when pills become necessary to get through. Leben will have a year to look down that path and ask if that’s him. Hopefully, somewhere along the way, he remembers exactly why he does it.
Or, at very least, come around to this -- if there are easy ways to handle hard situations, chances are you’re only defeating the purpose.