In early 2016, Chris Leben’s heart was working at less than 20 percent. Doctors told him he probably needed a new one.
Fast forward to today, “The Crippler,” a UFC pioneer and TUF 1 alum, is just hours away from making his return to combat sports.
Leben on Friday night meets fellow MMA veteran Phil Baroni in a bare-knuckle boxing match in the co-main event of WBKFF 1. The fight is for the promotion’s light heavyweight title. It marks Leben’s first time competing since the end of 2013, when he last fought in the UFC.
Leben planned to return to MMA in Bellator nearly three years ago, but that fell apart when he failed an electrocardiogram (EKG) and was subsequently not medically cleared to fight.
“I was training for three hours, then when I came to the doctor, the doctor was like, ‘Really? You can walk up the stairs without fainting?’” Leben told Bloody Elbow. “It was that bad.”
Leben changed his entire lifestyle: he quit drinking, he got into a different relationship, he moved homes, he met new friends, he ate healthier, he moved gyms, he continued to work out and train. By this past summer, doctors said Leben had a “standard, healthy heart.” It was no longer enlarged and had an ejection fraction of 45 percent — which is on the low end of normal. Leben said he will continue getting EKGs every year. And for what it’s worth, he passed one ahead of Friday’s fight.
Leben said he decided to come back to combat sports because his life has changed so much since his last fight, a loss to Uriah Hall at UFC 168. He said he feels better than ever and has been training more often than he ever has in his career. Though he knows he’ll never again reach the highest level in MMA, he wants to prove that he still has what it takes to get in there and throw down.
“Most people don’t end their career on a good note,” Leben said. “Where I was — my personal relationships, the gym I was at — there are so many variables. Without me wanting to point a finger at anyone, I’ll just say I wasn’t in a good place (when I last competed).
“Fighting is what I do. It’s my life. These years off have really given me the chance to realize how much I enjoy training for a fight and how much I appreciate it. I want to come back and prove the naysayers wrong — and I do have something to prove.”
Leben was first in talks with Bare Knuckle FC, but opted against fighting for that promotion because it was late sending a contract to him. He decided to take the Baroni fight at WBKFF 1 because he really likes the matchup.
“To have the opportunity to get in there with an opponent like Phil Baroni, who much like myself, win, lose, or draw, doesn’t really have a boring fight, I think there’s no way I don’t go out there and put on a great show for the crowd,” Leben said. “I love it.”
Leben, of course, changed things up in this training camp because it’s a bare-knuckle fight. He said it took him a while to get used to not being able to throw other strikes like knees and elbows.
During camp, Leben said he sparred hard with big gloves, sparred technically with small gloves, and hit mitts with just hand-wraps.
According to Leben, the biggest differences from a regular boxing or MMA fight due to the lack of gloves pertain to which strikes are most effective, safety, and facial damage. Leben said it’ll be important for him not to get “sucked into” a brawl, which, he admitted, he tended to do sometimes in his MMA career.
“Every punch is important. The jab is very important, just touching them is huge,” Leben said. “Ultimately, I think it’s a lot safer because you can’t turn over punches and hit a guy on the top of the head like you can with boxing or MMA gloves. I don’t think you have the same concussion issues as you do in other combat sports with no gloves on your hands. I think you’re gonna have a lot more lacerations, but those heal. For the untrained eye they might be ugly, but they heal.”
Leben said it didn’t exactly feel weird punching without gloves on for the first time in the gym, because, well, he’s done it before. But he did say it took some getting used to.
“I’m not gonna say I’ve never hit somebody bare knuckle before. It has happened,” Leben said. “I feel substantially faster. The range is different. You can’t hit with your fist. You don’t want to hit with your fingers — you want to hit with those knuckles. Getting used to lining those up so that the knuckles that are gonna do the damage is what lands, it takes some work, it takes some calibrating.”
Leben has also focused on taking care of his hands leading up to the Baroni fight.
“I feel like those martial arts guys that punch gravel and that sh-t for 20 years and their hands look like just big wads of clay — I don’t have 20 years to strengthen my hands,” he said. … “I ice my hands after practice, I try to take care of my hands, so that if I’m gonna hurt my hands, I’m gonna hurt it on Phil Baroni’s face — I’m not gonna hurt it before the fight.”
Unsure if ring rust will play a factor, Leben has no idea whether he’ll compete again after Friday night, because he’s solely focused on Baroni. He expects his opponent to start fast and explode early on, which makes the two-minute rounds beneficial for Baroni. He also believes Baroni is taking the fight seriously, and expects to see the best Baroni we’ve seen in years. Leben doesn’t know exactly how the fight will play out, but he knows one thing for sure: he’s not looking past “The New York Badass.”
“Phil Baroni is extremely dangerous against anybody,” Leben said. “No part of me is underestimating Phil Baroni.”
WBKFF 1 takes place at Capser Events Center in Casper, Wyoming. In the main event, former UFC champion Johny Hendricks meets short-notice replacement Dakota Cochrane for the middleweight title.