I caught up with former UFC middleweight Chris Leben to discuss his bare knuckle debut for the World Bare Knuckle Fight Federation. I later found Leben at Epic Fighting where we were able to discuss the fight in person. Below is a transcript of our first conversation.
First, fans are all talking about the recent photo of you and the cast of Season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter and how much time has passed since then. How did all that come together?
“It was something that the network came up with. It was a reunion special and they filmed the whole thing. I don’t know which channel it’s going to air on, probably the one where The Ultimate Fighter will be on. It will be several months before it’s complete. But they’re going to air a whole reunion episode.”
It’s hard to see the photo and not notice some of the people who are absent, such as your old friend Josh Koscheck. What can you tell us about what it was like behind the scenes of everything?
“I was a little nervous at first to be honest. As soon as we sat down for that first big dinner, shots were fired early. I was going ‘Oh man, it’s gonna be a rough one.’ But then things really mellowed out and it was really quite enjoyable. It was awesome to see everybody, catch up, and all that good stuff.”
You retired in 2013 and you’ve been busy with coaching and as a referee in California. Why did you pick now to make your comeback?
“Because I feel better than I ever have. Being away from something for awhile, you miss it. I’m in the gym training and coaching guys all day every day, and I could see and feel myself getting better. With that, my health is better than it has ever been. I just want to get in there and do what I love to do. I’m in a position now where I can and I can probably do it pretty well. So why wouldn’t I?”
Besides your work in the fight business, I know you’ve also welcomed a new baby boy. What can you say is different about yourself today compared to the Chris Leben who was fighting a few years ago?
“Everything. My life is polar opposite. Now my life is: go to work, get my training in, come home and spend time with my family. That’s what I love. I love training and I love spending time with my family. My son, he’s just awesome. He’s the greatest thing to ever happen to me. I’m certainly glad I waited. I’m glad the 20 something Chris Leben never had a kid, that’s a good thing. The 30 something Chris Leben is really enjoying it.”
What has surprised you the most about being a dad? Is it something like the diapers or the sleep?
“Sleep is definitely a luxury around my house. But the thing that surprised me the most is when you get that kid home from the hospital, me and my girl are standing looking over the crib like ‘we gotta take care of this thing.’ If you want to do anything in this country, you need a license or certification. Like if you want to drive or even if you want to cut hair you need a certification. But they will send you home with a newborn baby and say ‘Well, keep it alive.’ We read the books but nothing can prepare you, you just have to jump into parenting. That was eye-opening, for sure.”
You’ve been open about struggles with alcohol earlier in your career. Working as a referee and training, the schedule is very busy. Is it safe to say that being so involved in that aspect of MMA has helped in terms of staying away from negative influences?
“I definitely had to change a lot of my friends and a lot of the people I ran around with. It kinda happens on it’s own when you get sober. They’re not calling you and you’re not really calling them and then you realize they weren’t really your friends in the first place. Besides the fact that I had to stop drinking to save my life and every time I drank I broke out in handcuffs. I’ve got so much responsibility in my life. I’ve got more classes than anyone at the gym. I’ve got a ton of private lessons, I’m at the gym at 6am every day and I don’t get out of there until 8 at night most days. I get a little break in the middle of the day, that’s when I come home and spend time with my family. But if I’m not doing that, I’m in LA or somewhere in California refereeing fights or I’m training the military. My schedule and doing what I love to do, that really doesn’t promote the ability to drink.”
How did you get into refereeing MMA?
“I love our sport. Everything to do with our sport. I look at refereeing as a very serious job. Number one, the safety of the fighters. To have a good ref, you need a guy who knows the sport and who knows the ins and outs of fighters. Can read a situation. Can read a fighter: can he take more? Is he done? Is he hurt or is he injured? Being a coach for so long and being a fighter myself, I feel I was kind of tailor-made for that job. I love it. I have the best seat in the house. I get to go watch great fights and I’m right there in the mix. I’m one foot away when they’re throwing. It’s definitely exciting. It’s an honor to go out there and help support these fighters. Help their careers and keep them safe so they can grow and become professionals.”
How does one start in terms of actually becoming a referee?
“I ended up doing Herb Dean’s refereeing course. It was freaking tough, I’m not gonna lie. I’ve been doing this sport for 20 years and thought it should be no problem. The first day was 13 hours of straight paper work and book work. It was a tough course. But it was very thorough and they definitely instill in you how important and serious the job of refereeing really is. Once I passed Herb Dean’s course, I put in my application to CAMO which is the California Amateur Martial arts Organization. Then they brought me on as a ref and I was shadowing and then I was reffing and the ball just kept rolling from there.”
Bare knuckle has obviously has taken off in recent months and many would say that you’re the kind of fighter just made for it. What was your reaction when you saw it and why did you choose this for your comeback instead of MMA or a boxing match?
“I was actually looking to come back and take an MMA fight. That’s what I do. That’s when the Bare Knuckle people approached me. That’s when I looked at it and was like ‘This is tailor-made for me!’ It’s a small ring and the guy has to stand in front of me and slug it out. It’s perfect. I love it. The fights are super exciting. Whether you’re a veteran fight fan or the average spectator, a good fist fight is entertaining to anybody. I think it’s going to do really well. I think it’s going to be the next big thing, I really do.”
You’re facing Phil Baroni, another veteran like yourself. Already there’s some talk between you two. What’s it like to face him going into this kind of fight specifically?
“It’s really exciting. With Phil Baroni, I think the best thing about him is his hands. That’s where he’s the most skilled. Off the bell he throws straight punches. I saw him fight in King of the Cage and he knocked out his opponent, Matt Lagler, pretty quickly. He’s a dangerous guy. He’s one of those guys who the character he plays, “The New York Badass,” that’s really him. I think he looks better now than I’ve seen him in years. So it’s super exciting to get in there and mix it up with him. If I was going to pick any opponent, I’d pick him. I know he’s not going to run from me. I know he’s going to come out guns blazing. I know regardless of whether I win, lose, or draw, it’s going to be an exciting fight.”
How are the nerves? Is it refreshing to have a fight lined-up again? Are you nervous because it’s been awhile? How are you feeling?
“I’m definitely amped. I notice a difference in my training. I’ve gotten a little meaner. I tell myself to take it down when I’m going against the other guys. There’s nothing like the fear of getting knocked out in front of thousands of fans, and possibly millions watching at home, to motivate you to train hard. The last three years, yes I’ve been training, but without a fight it’s just not the same thing. I feel like I’m crushing it more than ever in the gym. I have purpose. I want to prove everybody wrong. I want to shut up all the naysayers. I’ve got a fire. I’ve got a family that I care about so I want to win and make that money and bring it back to them. I want to win so I can make more. I’ve got a lot of motivation to go out there, look good, and dominate in this fight. That is exciting. When you do what I do every day, having that makes it a little easier to get out of bed and get in the gym and train after you were coaching the night before. In terms of the nerves, I may have been out a few years but I’ve been doing this sport a long time. Maybe I haven’t been fighting but I’ve been right in the ring refereeing fights. I’ve been cornering. I feel like this is what I do. I’m not as much nervous as much as excited.
Everyone is curious, will you be be dying the hair and bringing back the red for this fight?
“I don’t know why that’s the most important thing to everybody. (Laughs) I want to say I’m a little bit older, a little bit more mature. Maybe a patch. Maybe not full red, maybe a spot. I won’t get rid of it completely.”