Leben not ripe for life at top of the heap
If you thought Chris Leben has what it takes to claim a shot at the UFC middleweight title, it's time to stop pretending.
One of Zuffa's most active fighters is undoubtedly a fan favorite. But at this stage of his career, having equally divided his last 14 fights with wins and losses, there isn't a rational argument to be made that the 31-year-old fighter has what it takes to reach such heights.
Three consecutive wins last year, including an outstanding effort against Yoshihiro Akiyama, put him in the conversation. But an awful performance against Brian Stann in January put a halt to that. And Saturday's decisive loss in England to Mark Munoz ended any notion that Leben is equipped to hang at the top.
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Leben carried a 15-1 record with him when he entered the cage against Anderson Silva in 2006. That night we witnessed the wide gap that exists between a genuinely great fighter and an all-around tough guy.
Silva's 49-second knockout of Leben marked the first time "The Crippler" was finished in that fashion. He's always been willing to endure punishment to win. It's almost a mandate when Leben fights. But this year, that route has twice led to rough stoppages.
Does that mean Leben (22-8) has slowed down for good? That massive weight cuts and the toll of his previous wars has caught up to him?
These things are never written in stone, but I think so. It was inevitable, really. The overwhelming evidence suggests that Leben takes too much punishment to accomplish anything beyond what he already has. Leben is an entertainer. It's OK to enjoy watching him fight, of course, but how much longer will that be the case? How much longer will his chin keep him in fights? How much longer will someone with such poor defensive skills be considered any kind of factor at all?
I suppose we'll learn the answer to those questions. He's not leaving the UFC anytime soon.
Leben is one of 10 fighters graded this week. From A to F, here's how they fared:
UFC 138 grades
In his first trip into the cage since April 2010, Terry Etim required just 17 seconds to finish Eddie Faaloloto with a guillotine choke. The submission was good enough to land him his fourth performance bonus in the UFC, and it suggested that the 25-year-old lightweight is an Englishman capable of making waves in the organization. He's going to struggle against strong wrestlers, that's just fact. But Etim (15-3) possesses attributes -- length, speed, striking and submission skill -- to emerge as a real threat at 155 pounds.
Once again Mark Munoz, 33, lived up to his nickname. "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" pummeled Chris Leben over a 10-minute period, forcing a fighter who relies on durability for his wins to quit in his corner before the third round. Munoz played it smart. He mixed it up on the feet but never made the mistake of trading with Leben. Instead, he looked for and successfully found takedowns in various forms. From the top position, Munoz maintained terrific posture and balance, which allowed him to unload heavy punches. That accumulation took its toll on Leben, and Munoz (12-2) earned his fourth straight win in the Octagon. He's likely a win or two away from reaching his goal of a title shot.
What an effort from the 24-year-old Brazilian. Renan Barao (27-1) went to war with Brad Pickett and put together one of the more compelling rounds I've seen in a while. It all went down in the first, with Barao and Pickett trading mean-spirited attacks. Each fighter's chin was tested and in the end it was Barao, a strong and fast Brazilian bantamweight, who earned high marks. A lead knee to Pickett's jaw was slick and accurate, and it set up the finish. Barao's transition into back-control was as dynamic as it gets. And the subsequent rear-naked choke finish was well-executed. There's a lot to like about the way Barao fights, and he could soon find himself near the top of the line to meet Dominick Cruz.
Anthony Perosh, 39, scored win No. 2 since returning to the light heavyweight division. The Australian grappler enjoyed a relatively easy time against striker Cyrille Diabate. Perosh (12-6) dictated where the fight took place, and he easily handled his French competitor on the ground, leading to a second-round rear-naked choke. Eventually Perosh will run into problems against wrestlers.
Taking into account the level of opposition is an ingredient when I'm trying to come up with fair assessments. Such is the case here. Thiago Alves was excellent leading up to this submission of Papy Abedi, but it must be said this was the Swede's first fight in the UFC, and previously he had not fought anywhere near the level of competition Alves (19-8) represented. Still, the 28-year-old Alves, a former No. 1 contender in the welterweight division, took care of business as he should have. The result prevented Alves from losing four of his last five fights, and it should help him regain momentum after struggling against the likes of Georges St. Pierre and Jon Fitch. Alves, it should be noted, failed to make weight again.
There's a lot to like about Brad Pickett -- he's a fiery competitor, for one thing -- but the clock is ticking on his career. The 33-year-old Brit is a much better at grappling, including takedown defense, than he used to be, a testament to the hard work he's put in over the past few years. Still, he's a fringe top-10 bantamweight and it's hard to envision him moving to the next level. Pickett (20-6) was reportedly distraught after conceding a submission to Renan Barao. That's understandable. He was in the fight until the end and made it exciting to watch. I don't think there's much more he could have done Saturday.
I hit on Chris Leben in the opening, so you know what I thought of his effort against Mark Munoz. The guard game he whipped out against Yoshihiro Akiyama was nowhere to be found on Saturday. Instead, Leben allowed Munoz to make space, which helped the Filipino-American create a tremendous amount of power. I don't care how stout Leben's chin is, no one can handle the extended punishment that Munoz dished out. Leben, of course, fought with spirit. It was clear he had trouble seeing in the first round, yet he pressed forward through the second. The guy is nails, yet in a test of wills he fell short to a fighter who brought and executed a much better game plan.
Rough debut for Papy Abedi. Unbeaten before entering the Octagon for the first time, Abedi (8-1) was asked to handle an extremely dangerous welterweight in Alves. He couldn't. The matchmaking here was suspect. Abedi appears to be a quality prospect, but the 33-year-old was simply in over his head against Alves. Well, that's life in the big city.
Cyrille Diabate (17-8-1) could not maintain momentum after a solid victory over Steve Cantwell in March. He seemed to have little clue how to defend himself on the floor, which is too bad considering Alexander Gustafsson highlighted that weakness last year. It was a disastrous effort by the 38-year-old Frenchman, who is nothing more than a matchup fighter. Against a striker, he's got a shot. Otherwise, forget about it.
Not much to say here for Eddie Faaloloto. He's lost three in a row, all before the final bell, and now offers a dismal 2-3 record in MMA. The 26-year-old Hawaiian does not seem long for the UFC.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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