The doctor was impressed that I could walk up the one floor of stairs to get to his office,” WEC, Ultimate Fighter, and UFC veteran Chris Leben (22-11) recounted of his heart condition, which was thought to be debilitating.
In 2016, following three years away from mixed martial arts, Leben signed a contract with Bellator MMA. “The Crippler” was ready to get back into the cage, but the serious diagnosis then prevented him from doing so.
“I ended up signing a three-fight contract with Bellator. [I] went back to get my pre-fight medicals; couldn’t pass the [electrocardiogram] EKG. Ultimately, they sent me to a specialist to do what they call an echocardiogram, which lets you know what the ejection fraction of your heart is, and my ejection fraction was, like, 14-17%, somewhere in that range, which is basically terrible,” Leben told The Body Lock.
That day, said Leben, effects of the condition were evident.
“You know, I had trained, like, twice that day, already. I did grappling and then straight conditioning, you know, and during my training, I remember my coach [IBJJF World champion] Baret Yoshida was with me and he goes, ‘You’re kind of turning purple, man, maybe you should sit down.'”
Leben believed the reasons for his heart’s abnormal, diminished efficiency stemmed from his lengthy sporting career and a life tinged by excessive partying.
“Due to what I believe was, you know, excessive alcohol – among other things; lifestyle choices, diet, everything else, stress. You know, I had shot out my heart. Drinking for all those years, fighting for UFC, burning the candle from both ends. You know, training all day, partying all night, not sleeping…”
Doctors offered Leben somber prognoses: he would need a heart transplant or would need to follow a diligent regiment of prescription medicine, and even then, a lifesaving device like a pacemaker might be necessary.
Instead, Leben made drastic changes to his lifestyle.
“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.
Ultimately, it got better, it got better, it got to the point where the doctor said, ‘Hey, you could do whatever you want.’ We waited even longer, and the doctor says, ‘You know, I don’t know how you – usually, guys with your issue, they hit a plateau, but your signs just keep getting better and better. You’re completely healthy.'”
A visceral attraction to bare-knuckle
With a new lease on life, Chris Leben was able to return to combat sports, but it wasn’t MMA that lured him out of what was, essentially, a second retirement. Instead, “The Crippler” was drawn in by a new, polarizing form of fighting: bare-knuckle boxing.
“The bare-knuckle guys were calling, you know,” Leben said. “Initially, they called me and asked. They said, ‘Hey, I hope you’re interested in that.’ I kind of looked around a bit at some other MMA leagues, but I kept being drawn back.”
It was, Leben says, watching others compete in bare-knuckle – and his reaction to doing so – that led him to sign with World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation (WBKFF), where he would eventually make his bare-knuckle debut.
“I started watching some of the bare-knuckle fights on YouTube… I’m an MMA guy, and I’m not one of those guys that was tired of MMA, per se, but with bare-knuckle, I was watching it, and I was like, ‘Dude, this sport is – one, it’s super exciting and two, it looks like it was designed for the way that I fight.’
So I thought, ‘Hey, why not?'”
Initially, Leben intended to sign with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), the promotion in which he currently competes. However, WBKFF swooped in at the last minute with an offer that was, ultimately, too good to be true.
“Well, initially, I was talking to BKFC,” Leben said, “but then that other promotion [WBKFF] called me. I had already kind of struck a deal with [BKFC], at which point the other promotion called me and said, ‘Hey, please don’t sign, we’ll give you twice as much money.’ Obviously, I’m fighting for my family, so I said, ‘Well, if you’ll pay me twice as much… Give me some up front, and you’ve got yourself a deal.'”
Leben signed with WBKFF ahead of the promotion’s first-ever event, which took place on November 9, 2018. There, Leben would face “The New York Badass”, fellow UFC veteran Phil Baroni, in what quickly became a heated grudge match. Leben knocked Baroni out in around a minute and a half, stopping him with a devastating left hand.
Nightmare non-payment from WBKFF
While Chris Leben would emerge from the cage the victor, it certainly didn’t feel that way after the event. A month after WBKFF’s inaugural show, reports began to surface that WBKFF had not paid its fighters their agreed-upon purses.
According to various reports, WBKFF had failed to pay the majority of the competitors from its first and only event. Leben was no exception.
Today, Chris Leben is in the midst of a lawsuit against WBKFF and its owner, Tomasz Stankiewicz, who has since been incarcerated in federal prison on unrelated charges of wire fraud in Illinois, which he pled guilty to prior to forming WBKFF. K2 Radio Stankiewicz is also facing several charges in Casper, Wyoming, where the event was held, stemming from non-payment.
“I need to call my lawyer, actually, because what happens is we went ahead and filed a claim,” said Leben. “We could not find Tom, uh – I can’t pronounce his last name – the owner, we would’ve served him paperwork, so we had to wait for him to go to prison on previous charges: real estate fraud,” Leben said with an exasperated laugh.
“So, [Stankiewicz] should’ve been served at this point, and then he had 30 days to rebuttal. Hopefully, he didn’t, and I just win. We’ll see what the next step is from there. I don’t know yet if that time allotted for him, that of statue limitations allotted for him to a rebuttal, is up. Hopefully, I just win, but we’ll have to move forward in court.”
“Obviously, hindsight is twenty-twenty,” laughed Leben. “Wouldn’t have done that if I would’ve known I wasn’t going to get paid by them.”
A new start in BKFC
Even with the disaster of WBKFF’s non-payment behind him, Chris Leben was committed to giving bare-knuckle a go. Fortunately, Leben says, BKFC was still interested.
“It didn’t work out, and luckily BKFC was – Dave Feldman was nice enough and professional enough that after that, he still called me back and said, ‘Hey, look, we know it didn’t work out there. We know what they told you they were going to pay you, but I’ll tell you what I can pay. It’s not [as] much, but, you know, we’re sure the check will be good. We’d love to have you still come over fight for us.’
“I got to tell you, you know, I was extremely grateful there were no hard feelings with Dave Feldman still accepting me, and allowed me to jump over to them,” said Leben.
In BKFC, Leben continued his winning ways, knocking out Justin Baesman in just twenty-five seconds, crushing him with a barrage of uppercuts. Next, Leben will take on Bellator veteran Brennan Ward (14-6) in what will be Ward’s bare-knuckle debut.
“Brennan Ward’s certainly, you know, everybody’s younger than me at this point,” The 38-year-old Leben says with a laugh.
“He’s a tough guy, you know? Boxing is where his foundation is, you know, boxing and wrestling are what he does and he does well. He’s got a lot of first-round knockouts; he’s a big hitter. So, definitely, I think my toughest challenge to date. He’s a competitor; he’s somebody that wants it. He wants it, I want it, you know, and only one of us get it.”
Though Ward has yet to compete in bare-knuckle, Leben has been tirelessly studying his previous MMA fights to find the openings to exploit in their upcoming BKFC 6 matchup.
“Of course I have, absolutely. I mean, like, I want to win, you know? I’ve been doing this for a while now, you know, and [my coaches and I have] developed a way that I do things from the beginning of the camp to the end of the camp. Anything you’ve seen me do before in the past, probably, I’m doing that plus some for this fight to prepare.”
Despite his first two fights against Baroni and Baesman combining for a fight time of approximately two minutes, Leben is anticipating a longer, tougher fight with Brennan Ward.
“I think he’s a more educated fighter than either one of those guys, you know, so I don’t see him doing what Baroni did, which is rushing straight forward, and I also don’t see him doing what Baesman did, which is backpedaling. You know, I think he’s going to circle; a lot more technique, and he’s going to make me settle. If the fight doesn’t end quick, obviously, you can’t fight five rounds at that tempo. Eventually, you’ve got to settle in, you got to start to pick your shots, you gotta set things up, and I believe that’s what’s going to happen.”
With that said, Chris Leben is certainly alright with scoring another, lightning-quick knockout.
“Now, obviously, quick knockouts are great, you know? If that’s all I ever get from here on out, I’ll take them. But that’s certainly not what I’m counting on, I’m certainly studying tape and developing a game plan to outsmart this guy for five rounds.”
Chris Leben’s future in bare-knuckle
Chris Leben is in a unique position to address the future of bare-knuckle boxing, specifically, BKFC. He was an early star of MMA, one of the first personalities to truly break through to a mainstream audience from his time in the Ultimate Fighter house, and he has competed in two different bare-knuckle promotions.
For Leben, the sky is the limit for BKFC.
“Let’s look at it this way: look at what MMA has done in the last ten years; if you look at how mainstream MMA has gotten. But then you look at your average MMA fan. I’m talking about guys who don’t train jiu jitsu; guys that live somewhere in Middle America, and they watch their MMA fights after Monday Night Raw… to understand the advanced jiu jitsu… you’ve gotta do jiu jitsu yourself to even understand what’s going on the ground. Now, everybody understands a fist fight. Everybody can watch and go, ‘This guy’s winning, this guy’s losing.’
“[BKFC’s] exciting for everybody. Some of us like the ground game. I mean, even me – I love jiu jitsu – but when I watch two high-level strikers go at it and someone gets taken down, I’m like, ‘Dang it!'” said Leben.
“There’s no shortage of excitement for [bare-knuckle]. I think that it’s more open to your average person and your average spectator to be able to tune in and enjoy it. I think ten years ago, I don’t think it would’ve been dubbed ‘too raw, too dangerous’; it would’ve had a lot of backlash. But I think now, education for combat sports has gone up. I think it could do really well. The people that would be against it ten years ago, they don’t seem to be lashing out as much. More people understand and can enjoy this than a high-level MMA match.”
With his health better than ever and some of the fastest wins of his career coming in quick succession, Chris Leben is staving off any calls for retirement from his newfound passion. In fact, he’s gunning for gold.
“At this point, I’m kind of trying to appreciate the ride a lot more than I did in the past. You know what, I’m really trying to take it one fight at a time and then, you know, after each fight, you know, I kind of reassess things. Obviously, after the last two fights, there wasn’t a lot of reassessing to do,” Leben said with a laugh. “Nobody retires when they’re winning like that!”
“But, [I’m] just taking it one step at a time, and we’ll see what happens. You know, I never try to start looking past an opponent as far as calling out other guys and stuff. Like, let’s get through Brennan Ward, first. Ultimately, speculation if this fight with Brennan Ward works out well for me, I’d like to see a 185-pound title in my future, and whoever that takes to get belt would be who I want to fight.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.