Leben proves his value to UFC by taking fight with Akiyama

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I can think of at least two good reasons why Chris Leben would take a fight against Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116 just two weeks after beating Aaron Simpson via TKO.

The first is money, a motivation we can all understand. Leben (20-6) is closing in on his 30th birthday, and his brawling style isn't exactly conducive to career longevity. After pocketing a disclosed total of $95,000 (including bonuses) at the Season 11 finale of The Ultimate Fighter on June 19, the bout with Akiyama (13-1, 2 no-contests) on Saturday night in Las Vegas will push him into the mid six-figure range for the last two weeks or work -- and that's whether he wins or loses.

The second reason, however, might be a little harder for many people to understand. You could call it a sense of duty, or maybe just a sense of self-preservation. It's the urge to never say no when the UFC asks for a favor -- particularly when that favor is of the pugilistic variety.

To hear the story as told by Leben to UFC.com, matchmaker Joe Silva called him on the Monday following his Saturday-night TKO of Simpson to ask if he'd be willing to step in for the injured Wanderlei Silva on this weekend's fight card. His first reaction, he said, was "No way." After going nearly two full rounds with Simpson, who mauled Leben with his wrestling skills for much of the first frame, you can imagine that he might have been just a tad bit sore.

But then he mulled it over and decided the opportunity was worth the risk, he said. So he took the fight. He told the UFC yes, which is the only answer the UFC likes to hear.

As anyone who has watched even one episode of The Ultimate Fighter already knows, UFC president Dana White loves "real fighters." By that he means guys willing to fight on short notice, guys willing to fight hurt, guys willing to fight when it's probably not the smartest idea.

These are the guys who make life easier for the UFC front office. They want to please White, maybe get a pat on the back or one of those undisclosed "locker room bonuses" we're always hearing about, and so they sometimes act against their own long-term best interests.

Leben has long been one of those guys, and it's paid off. When the UFC needed a warm body to feed to Anderson Silva in his Octagon debut, it was Leben who stepped up and took the fight. He also took a beating for the record books, but that's the price of loyalty, I suppose.

Maybe that loyalty helps explain why, when he went through a bad 2-4 stretch in the Octagon, he didn't get cut from the roster like so many others before him. Even when he followed a positive steroid test with a loss to Jake Rosholt -- who was released after losing his very next fight, let's not forget -- the UFC still had a place for Leben.

Therein lies one of the benefits of being a UFC favorite. Because the brass knows that Leben is the kind of guy who will grab his gloves and give you a show on short notice, he has a value beyond wins and losses.

He might never be champion. He might never even be a true main event fighter. But like the ne'er-do-well friend who sleeps on your couch and keeps promising to chip in on the rent one of these months, he's up for anything and he doesn't complain. The UFC needs those guys just as much as it needs the Anderson Silva's.

You could make the argument that fighting a guy like Akiyama on less than two weeks' notice isn't a smart move for Leben. Even if he hadn't just gone through the physical and emotional rigors of a UFC fight a couple of weekends ago, he'd probably still be the underdog. For most of us, just that many flights back and forth from Hawaii (where he lives) to Vegas (where he won The Ultimate Fighter and willfight Saturday) in such a short time period would be enough to wear us out.

But for Leben, it's a win-win. With a second upset victory in two weeks, he'll come off looking like a lovable, gritty underdog. Even if he loses, he's proved to the UFC that he's the kind of guy who doesn't mind doing painful favors.

He is, if you will, a working fighter. He may not ever get the glory of the top spot, but at least this way he gets the paychecks. That's always nice, but let's hope for Leben's sake that he's playing it smart with these back-to-back paydays.

As much as the fight business loves a guy who's willing to step up and say yes, it also has a way of using them up and tossing them aside. Best to make the most of it while you can, as Leben is. Favors -- much like a fighter's physical ability -- are a currency whose value can often plummet overnight.