It’s hard to believe that just seven years ago, MMA fans throughout the world were introduced to Chris “The Crippler” Leben on the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. There is no doubt that one of the most memorable moments of the season was when Leben used Jason Thacker’s bed as a urinal… but now, fast forward to 2012 and 2,000+ miles across the Pacific ocean to Hawaii where “The Crippler” now calls home, fans are seeing a much more “evolved” Chris Leben.
I’ve actually had the pleasure of knowing “The Crippler” since he moved to Hawaii in 2007, following the opening of the Icon Fitness gym, where he was the head instructor. Since that time, Leben has made great strides in both his professional career and personal life that many fans may not be aware of. He opened his own gym in Honolulu – the Ultimate Fight School, got married, and more importantly, cleaned up his act and started acting as a mentor to incarcerated youths at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility on Oahu.
While cornering some of his fighters at Ainofea’s Rapid Fire MMA event on Kauai this past weekend, I got a chance to sit down and “talk story” with the Crippler.
Lots of things have been happening with you – you have your academy in Hawaii, you just came back from helping Ed Herman train for his fight – what’s new for you? What’s coming up for you?
It’s exciting. I talked to Dana White yesterday, so he said he’s gonna talk to Joe and they’re gonna look to get me a fight as soon as possible… and welcome (me) back. I think everyone knows I was out for a little bit so it’s exciting to be back in there and be able to mix it up. Other than that, its been focusing on my gym training my guys. We have three guys fighting on this Kauai card again. It’s good to be back in Kauai and it’s a great show so we’re excited to see how they do. Other than that, I was helping Ed Herman train. That went well. His fight was a little bit of a bummer. I think stylistically that Jake was a good matchup for Eddie… and two of my favorite people in the sport both of them are, obviously… Eddie… we go way back. He’s one of my best friends in the whole world so it was tough seeing him lose but nonetheless, it was a good, competitive fight. I think a lot of people watching that fight probably didn’t realize until you really understand the game, you understand how technical and difficult the clinch and cage work can be, so to a trained eye, I thought it was a really good fight.
How long have you been in Hawaii now? It’s been awhile, right?
I have. I think about six years… something like that.
How do you feel that it’s been different from being in the Pacific Northwest and being in Hawaii? Do you like it better? Do you call Hawaii more “home”?
I wouldn’t stay here if I didn’t like it better. So that’s pretty obvious. Yes, Hawaii is my home. As far as training goes, it’s a pleasure. The Pacific Northwest is wet and it’s cold so getting outside most months of the year is difficult so you’re stuck in the gym a lot… which makes for good fighters sometimes. But you know, Hawaii does have some distractions as far as outside goes but I enjoy getting out running and swimming and taking advantage of my surroundings for sure.
And you got married recently… has that changed anything for you?
I did… recently get married. Life is good. It’s a little more boring than it used to be (laughs). My wife is great. We’ve both changed our lives around so much. She studying for law school right now and I’m focusing on my gym. And when I’m not at my gym, I’ve been volunteering at the youth correctional facility in Kailua. And I go out there at least every Tuesday. I teach the kids muay thai for a couple hours and then give them a talk so that’s been real rewarding, especially after all the stuff I’ve been through with drugs and partying and everything else. They seem to listen to me a little bit more where maybe they don’t listen to (obviously) their parents or maybe even some of the people that work at the facility out there. But I’m tattooed, I say “f**k,” so you know… and I think they can relate a little bit. So it’s kinda nice. I show them how to punch somebody and then sneak in a couple good words. That’s been real rewarding for me. That, and again, doing things like this and being able to come over here with three of my young, amateur fighters and really take them – one of my guys here, Jeff, it’s his first fight and just to see how much he’s changed in the last couple years that he’s been at my gym… from being another guy that was more interested in nightlife and probably never thought he would be competing as an athlete… and here he is, so it’s really exciting to see the growth in everybody. And again, Hawaii, all these people from Hawaii… the kids at the prison are from Hawaii, my wife is from Hawaii, and really, I probably haven’t stayed in one place longer than I have stayed here so this really truly is my home.
We have definitely seen the evolution of Chris Leben in Hawaii and it’s been amazing and it’s awesome to hear about the work that you’re doing with the kids at the youth correctional facility… One last question… today is the grand opening of BJ Penn’s UFC gym. How does that affect your academy and do you foresee any collaboration with BJ or any of the fighters there?
BJ’s gym is a beautiful facility and I actually work with a lot of the coaches and instructors there… I train with Scott (Junk), he’s one their head MMA instructors, Coach Joe, Chris West, a lot of those guys… I really look at our gyms kinda as apples and oranges where theirs is full of all kinds of workout equipment, flat screen TVs, they’ve got a full bar where you can go in and get your protein drinks and talk story, and buy your UFC clothes. You know, my gym… it’s got posters slapped up on the fall, it kinda smells like sweat, there’s holes in the sheetrock… you know, and our training is probably a little tougher than what you’re gonna get at the UFC gym… I believe there is something in martial arts for everybody. If you wanna go after work and take a class and learn something effective, then absolutely the UFC gym is fantastic. But if you’re an up and coming fighter, than I would say, that you know, if you’re looking at possibly competing, then I would say we’re more of the place to go. And I think the UFC gym, the guys there, I’ve talked to them… and they kinda see it the same way. They’re not looking to put out MMA fighters, they’re really looking to put MMA out to the masses more than anything. So as far as memberships go, definitely with their opening, we got a few less members coming in, but we’re picking up more committed people now… left and right. The committed fighter is really seeking out my gym. And honestly, I kind of welcome that. I like that role. I like to be, “Hey, if you wanna be elite, if you wanna take it to the next level, come to me.” I mean really, that’s kind of my next goal. I’ve got a few more years left in my career. But just like I’m here with three of my fighters right now… you know, I want, and I know I will be, an elite level coach. You know, I wanna be at multiple UFC events with multiple different fighters and I wanna hear Joe Rogan say, “Well you know he comes out of Fight School in Honolulu, Hawaii, so you know this kid is gonna be tough, he’s gonna be ready to go.” That truly is my goal.
It’s amazing to see this evolution of Chris Leben from when you first came to Hawaii and you started off at Icon (Sport)… I think your coaching has also evolved, as well as your fighting… and Hawaii is lucky to have a UFC fighter, aside from BJ, that calls Hawaii home, to put us on the map.
I’m a haole, but I’m happy to be here. You know, I really love it. And from here on out, there has been a big change and I hope to showcase that. Hopefully do things that benefit Hawaii in a positive way. I wanna make sure that I represent myself and my home well.
**And for all of you Suckas in Vancover, B.C. “The Crippler” also gave you all a little shout out, saying that he loves it there too (but obviously not as much as Hawaii).
Although I’ve known Leben for years now, it has really been amazing to watch him grow as a fighter, as a person, and more importantly as a coach. His emphasis on his fighters really shows a different side to the Crippler, as he is really striving to become an elite level coach, as well as a role model for Hawaii’s troubled youth. Not only is he helping to put Hawaii on the map for MMA, but he is playing a large role in the development of tough up and coming fighters from Hawaii.
Despite being a haole (meaning “foreigner” in Hawaiian), Leben’s love for Hawaii and its people has made a positive impact on his life… and we are very fortunate to have another respected UFC fighter lovingly call Hawaii “home.” And for any fans out there planning on visiting Hawaii, please make sure to check out Leben’s Fight School in Honolulu. You will be surprised at how down to earth (and mellow) the Crippler is, but how tough training in paradise can be. And don’t worry, even though he’s married and he says he’s boring… he’s still a pretty fun guy!