Mixed martial arts has come a long way from its early incarnation as a dangerously jagged combination of the brutality we always felt in our pounding hearts and an out-of-the-blue mystery dance that stepped to a beat invisible to the untrained sensibility. The latter was the purview of fellows like skinny little Royce Gracie, who before we even knew to pronounce the given name as "Hoyce" was pulling off hocus-pocus moves that persuaded unwitting victims to tap, tap, tap for reasons we could not decipher. We sure did understand the other kind of early MMA fighter, though, as the likes of Tank Abbott did the beer belly polka all over some poor palooka's head just as we'd have expected to see happen if they had squared off in a heated bar room.
Chris Leben was molded in the back room of that quarrelsome tavern. The shocking red-dyed hair was a brighter shade than the blood he drew from opponents with his shocking do-or-die brawling. And before those brutal fights of his even began ... those eyes. Those daunting pupils staring at you with an icily numbing look of madness that might make even someone with the creepy gape of a Rory MacDonald shudder.
But, of course, Leben didn't end up making fighters of MacDonald's ilk shudder. MMA has evolved to the point where high-level pugilists train to deal with whatever might spook them, which is why the man known as "The Crippler," who won his first nine fights -- eight finishes -- a decade ago, has lost five of the last six times he stepped into the octagon. It's been evident for a long time that this sport has passed him by. And on Monday the 33-year-old acknowledged as much, announcing that he's finished fighting.
"I've got a lot of years ahead of me," Leben said during an appearance on the MMAfighting.com show The MMA Hour. "I would like to still have my head on my shoulders and have a brain when I'm raising kids and doing all the other stuff that I want to be part of. I think it might just be time for me to gracefully bow out."
That is indeed a graceful, even thoughtful departure by a man who entered MMA as a bull in a china shop. Leben will forever be remembered as the most attention-grabbing character on the first season of the UFC's desperate-grab-for-attention reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. Stephan Bonnar and future UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin are in the promotion's Hall of Fame for their rock-'em-sock-'em finale, which was such a television spectacle that it is credited for keeping the fight promotion afloat. And a full season of Leben's drunken rampages did feed into a distasteful stereotype of fighters in a way that the back stories of more clean-cut castmates, like former collegiate soccer player Kenny Florian, did not. But there's no denying that Chris's train wreck was must-see TV.
The demons stayed with Leben throughout a topsy-turvy career stained by a DWI, a probation violation that resulted in jail time, a steroid suspension and another ban for using pain killers, and some ugly losses. He always seemed to bounce back, though, rooted on by none other than Dana White. "I really care about the kid," the UFC president told reporters following Leben's loss to Andrew Craig back in July. "I like him a lot. I love him."
You have to assume, then, that White was heartened to hear Leben say goodbye. His last fight, on the undercard of the Dec. 28 rematch between Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva, was especially sad. The one-round beatdown by Urijah Hall ended with a bloodied Leben sagging on his stool, moments after having been saved by the horn, and telling his cornermen, "I'm done." We suspected at the time that the fighter was speaking not just of that night, but who could know for sure, considering the many times in the past that this man had risen from the ashes?
Chris Leben ends his career at a pedestrian 22-11, although as recently as June 28, 2006, he was 15-1. That night he welcomed Silva to the octagon, and with a 49-second knockout in his UFC debut, Anderson set a course for the top of the mountain. Leben would not join him there, but he did make an impact on his sport, in part as a throwback but even more so as an example of hard-fighting resiliency inside and outside the cage. He was a guy with no quit in him ... until there was nothing else he could do.
Tournament tough? Quinton Jackson believes the "Rampage" is still within him. We haven't seen the man live up to his nickname for a good five years, and he lost his last three UFC bouts before his contract ran out last winter.
But Jackson won his debut with Bellator MMA back in November, knocking out fellow UFC alum Joey Beltran in the first round. The 35-year-old had been expecting a different fight, as he and Tito Ortiz were scheduled to meet in a pay-per-view main event before Ortiz injured his neck. But Quinton rolled with the change of plans, even at the expense of PPV earnings.
And next up for Jackson is something else he wasn't expecting.
Bellator announced on Monday that Jackson will meet former champion Christian M'Pumbo in the first round of its light heavyweight tournament Feb. 28, with the other bout in the four-man tourney pitting Mikhail Zayats against "King" Mo Lawal, the latter of whom, at just 3-2 in Bellator, also hasn't lived up to his nickname.
"I wasn't interested in doing the tournament," Jackson acknowledged during a conference call with reporters, later adding, "My manager talked me into it."
Courage: Did you see Dan Rather on Inside MMA the other night?
It's always fascinating when a mainstream figure enters the MMA fray, and media personalities don't come much more mainstream than the longtime CBS News anchor. Those with a stake in this sport probably held their collective breath, wondering if Rather would follow the lead of some others and seek to marginalize a sport still creeping from the fringes. Instead, the 82-year-old -- he's even more far-removed from the core demographic than I am! -- characterized the growth of MMA in a way that revealed he's been paying attention all along.
"When it started, when it began to bloom, I thought, 'This is going to get big,'" Rather told interviewer Kenny Rice. "I am surprised how big it has gotten and how quickly it has happened. When I think about it, none of us should be surprised. Television, the fuel for this rise of mixed martial arts, lends itself always to drama. Good drama plays well on television and gets a mass audience."
Rather's kind words might have been prompted by the fact that he hosts a show on ASX TV, the cable home of Inside MMA. But not necessarily. He mentioned that he once was a Golden Glove boxer. And even during his tumultuous broadcast career, he's a man who's been unafraid of a tussle. Hmm. The UFC is headed to Rather's home state of Texas in March. Get this man a cageside ticket.