Chris Leben has always been a fighter.
Long before he was an original cast member on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter”, Leben grew up fighting and it’s just always been something in his blood.
For the better part of 11 years, Leben dedicated his life to fighting until some tough losses and mounting injuries convinced him it was time to walk away.
Leben retired from MMA in 2013 but then less than three years later he announced his return after inking a deal with Bellator MMA. Leben ever actually competed for the Viacom owned promotion after pre-fight medical testing revealed a heart abnormality that could have been life threatening if he were to step into the cage again.
It forced Leben to begin looking at new avenues for his life including coaching and refereeing but he never completely gave up on fighting again.
Now in 2019, Leben says his heart is healthy and his mind is right after getting clean and sober from alcohol and drugs. With a new family to support, Leben decided it was time to get back to doing what he’s always done best and that’s fight.
“Combat sports is my life,” Leben said ahead of his debut for Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships (BKFC). “Obviously, I trained MMA forever. I’ve done some kickboxing matches. My full time job now is that I’m a coach, I’m a referee. I’m doing the bare knuckle thing. I love combat sports. I love them all.
“It sounds cheesy but I consider myself a martial artist so when it comes to any of these combat sports, I want to at least know what I’m talking about. Whether you’re talking to me about bare knuckle, kickboxing, MMA, whatever, I want to know what I’m talking about.”
Leben actually made his initial comeback last year when he was offered a hefty contract to compete in bare knuckle boxing against fellow UFC veteran Phil Baroni.
The promotion — World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation — was seemingly a disaster waiting to happen with financial problems plaguing the debut show before it even started. The good news for Leben was he earned a stunning 79-second knockout in his first fight back in five years.
The bad news was Leben didn’t get paid for his fight outside of the $10,000 fee he negotiated for training expenses before ever stepping into the ring. Just recently, Leben filed a lawsuit against the promotion and its owner Tomasz Stankiewicz for the additional $90,000 he’s owed.
In reality, Leben says he knows he will probably never see another dime of the money he’s owed but he wants to expose promoters like this one who take advantage of fighters in this industry.
“Honestly, that’s kind of my main goal at this point. I realize you can’t squeeze water out of a rock but I want to bring as much attention to what happened as possible,” Leben said. “Ultimately if it was a Ponzi scheme to begin with, I would like to get to the bottom of that.
“I would like to personally know. I’m definitely starting to lean towards that as a theory.”
Despite the sour experience he had with that promotion, Leben was happy to receive an offer from BKFC, a well established bare-knuckle boxing organization about to put on their fifth event on pay-per-view this weekend.
While he’s yet to actually fight for BKFC, Leben says the experience has been night and day compared to the disaster he dealt with surrounding his last appearance in a bare knuckle boxing match.
“These guys are awesome,” Leben said. “They’ve had four spectacular shows and after everything that happened, I’ll be able to get out there and compete. The last fight went well. My training camp went well. I was able to prove to myself that I still can do this. I can get my body in shape and I can go out and compete at a high level. In that aspect, everything is great.
“Now I get to go out perform on a big stage and do what I love and hopefully bring some money home for my family.”
More than anything, Leben just wants to compete again while earning money to provide for his family. It’s the one job he’s always loved and he’s always done best.
“For me it doesn’t matter if I’m doing MMA or if I’m doing bare knuckle [boxing] or I was doing a kickboxing match, I’m preparing to compete,” Leben said. “When you’re preparing to compete at the highest level, you’ve got to make sure you’re ready for everything.
“I want to go out and be the best I possibly can.”