At 32 years old, veteran middleweight Chris Leben (22-8 MMA, 12-7 UFC) believes his best days in fighting still lie ahead.
A one-year suspension for a positive drug screen is complete, and Leben has undergone treatment for addiction to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Now "The Crippler" is committed to his sobriety, and his focus is paying off in the gym.
"This is the best training camp ever," Leben said. "I have more energy and feel stronger now than when I started my pro MMA career. I have changed a lot of things in the past months: my camp, management, diet, attitude. And, most importantly, I'm sober now.
"I have a good UFC record, … but now my focus is on the future. I'm coming back stronger than ever and in my best mindset."
Leben has long struggled with addiction. Some of his inner demons were on display in the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter," and he was also suspended by the UFC following a failed 2008 drug screen. After his latest suspension, UFC officials helped Leben find a suitable treatment program. While Leben certainly doesn't consider himself cured, he does have a clear understanding of the challenges that come with addiction, and he said he's making constant progress toward a better life.
"It's a one-day-at-a-time kind of thing," Leben told MMAjunkie.com (MMAjunkie.com
). "It's definitely not in the past for me. I'd be lying to you if I told you the thoughts weren't there – if stress doesn't get high and start raising in my life, and instantly my natural reaction is to look for the easy way out. And I don't think that's going away anytime soon – absolutely not. Does that mean there's something wrong with me? No. That just means I'm an addict, and I had an issue.
"I'm trying to change years and years and years of a behavior and a thought process. As long as I don't entertain those thoughts – I try to shift my mind – and as long as I continue to make the right progress, I think it's OK. I think the test is what I need, and every day I wake up without a hangover, I get a little bit stronger."
It hasn't been an easy journey, but Leben said those fans that have stuck with him along the way push him to work harder each day.
"Some people have written me some really great things; Some people have said some not-so-great things about me," Leben said. "I just really appreciate those that have stuck with me. I don't know what it is about my fans in particular, but so many of them have stayed beside me, and it's very inspiring and is one of my prime motivations when I'm training. Sometimes when I'm training and I'm working on conditioning and I want to slow down on my sprints or I don't want to go that last round, that's one of the things that helps me push through."
Leben lives and trains in Hawaii, and for his latest camp he brought fellow UFC veterans Ed Herman and Brad Tavares, among others, in as sparring partners. He also brought in former coach Robert Follis and strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Ranes to help better his time in the gym.
"Sparring and training is really good," Leben said. "I have all the good guys around me and can put in those crucial hard sparring sessions that I lacked in previous camps. My coaches are pushing me everyday to become stronger, leaner and faster."
Leben hopes to show off his improved skills at next week's UFC 155 event, where he meets Karlos Vemola (9-3 MMA, 2-3 UFC), a former heavyweight who has trimmed himself down to 185 pounds. Vemola doesn't boast nearly as much experience as Leben, but the southpaw said he's certainly not looking past the matchup.
"I'm not overlooking Vemola as opponent," Leben said. "He is a strong, big guy, but I will finish this fight. This fight will be a clear message that I'm coming for people's heads in the middleweight division."
All while clearing his own.
Leben's career has been a bit of a roller coaster in recent years with fantastic performances against Wanderlei Silva and Yoshihro Akiyama tainted by setbacks against Mark Munoz and Brian Stann. But Leben insists things are much different now, and he is looking forward to showing the MMA world what he has left in the tank. He also hopes to prove an inspiration for those who have gone through struggles similar to his.
"I want everybody to know that fighter or not, we're all normal people with normal lives, and we've got the same problems that everybody else out there has," Leben said. "Regardless of how tough you are, there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with your problems. Nobody is strong enough to escape the clutches of drug abuse and addiction. If anybody has these battles, remember that you're not a unique case. You're mortal, and it's one of the downsides to being a human being. We battle with some of these issues, but there is a way out."