While the eyes of the combat sports world were firmly fixed on the debuting Paige VanZant at Bare Knuckle FC’s KnuckleMania pay-per-view, that meant they saw the end of “The Crippler” Chris Leben’s nearly two decades as a fighter.
Starting his fight journey in 2002, the now 40-year-old Leben first took the sport by storm with his antics on the first season of the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter in 2005. He would amass a 22-fight UFC run through late December 2013.
The inaugural WEC middleweight champion would fight in a UFC title eliminator bout but never claim UFC gold. He’d earn both KO and Fight of the Night honors multiple times while under the UFC banner.
However, his issues with addiction to drugs and alcohol plagued him for much of his career. After UFC 138 in 2011 Leben tested positive for oxycodone and oxymorphone and was suspended for a year. Leben would initially retire from MMA in 2014 but achieved sobriety in 2015. His brief retirement ended when he signed with Bellator MMA in 2016.
A heart issue would derail his planned comeback before he ever stepped into the Bellator cage. His overall MMA record remains 22-12 with 17 finishes. Leben would begin a new profession in real estate in 2016.
MMAJunkie wrote at the time, “he failed several electrocardiogram (EKG) tests…Doctors discovered a “life-threatening abnormality” to the left ventricle of his heart, which was “oversized,“”misshapen,” and “not operating properly. Doctors estimate that the blood flow through his heart is only 18 percent of what is considered normal.”
“The Crippler” would leave MMA behind aside from serving as a coach and referee. Leben said in 2019 he suspected the ailment was not only due to his athletic career but also his hard-partying lifestyle of years past.
“Luckily, at that time, I had already started to revamp my life. At least I had quit drinking before I [attempted to come] back to Bellator. Mentally, I felt clearer than I had ever, at the time, but health issues don’t change overnight. I continued to go in every six months for an echocardiogram, changing my diet, changing my supplementation, completely changing my lifestyle,” Leben said.
Bare Knuckle would breathe new life into his career. After a TKO victory against fellow UFC veteran Phil Baroni in 2018, Leben signed with BKFC the next year. He’d go 2-1 in BKFC and 3-1 overall after his win over Quentin Henry at KnuckleMania on Feb. 5. He earned the win in just over a minute.
“What a f**king way to finish a career right there,” Leben said in his post-fight interview. “I wanted somebody that was going to swing like a motherf**ker at me and I knew Quentin was going to do that. That’s how I wanted to finish my career. Thank you to Quentin and thank you to BKFC for that opportunity.”
Leben indicated later that BKFC President David Feldman would “hopefully put him to work in some facet”. Leben has been assisting with tryouts. Feldman said at the post-fight press conference, “I do believe that he’s done actually competing in fighting right now and he’s going to proverbially put the suit on now and go on the other side.”