Chris Leben is no stranger to new beginnings. In July, he’ll put his latest one to the test and so far, it seems to be working out just fine.
Leben (22-9 MMA, 12-8 UFC) meets Andrew Craig (8-1 MMA, 2-1 UFC) at UFC 162. He’ll do so after a major camp switch that saw him move from Hawaii to San Diego to train at Alliance MMA.
Leben uprooted from his longtime training base on Oahu and moved to California in part because his wife now is in law school in San Diego. But it may turn out to be perfect timing all the way around.
“If you’ve got to move from Hawaii, San Diego’s probably your only option,” Leben told MMAjunkie.com Radio (www.mmajunkie.com/radio). “I love Hawaii. But there’s just not a lot going on out there. If you’re looking to retire, Hawaii’s fantastic. But I’m training at Alliance, and the quality of training there, it’s phenomenal. I think it’s a really, really good move for me.”
UFC 162 takes place July 6 at at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena. The evening’s main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on FX and Facebook.
Leben gave up the gym he was running in Hawaii to concentrate full-time on fighting. The opportunity to teach and coach and train will be there later, he figured. Right now, he wants to take one more run at things in the UFC’s middleweight division.
And after some high-profile scrapes with substance abuse and suspensions from the UFC, Leben believes he’s on the right path right now to make that run as a 32-year-old fighter.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career,” he said. “But with the new gym and sticking to my diet and actually walking the line, I feel 10 years younger now than when I was competing earlier. I’m performing better in the gym and we hopefully get to have that transfer over come (fight) night. I don’t see myself hanging my hat up anytime soon.”
Those ups and downs have caused more than few people to raise eyebrows in Leben’s general direction through the years, and he knows it. In fact, when it came to training at Alliance, Leben knew his new training partners and coaches might be a little skeptical of him joining the team.
“I can’t tell you just how nervous I was,” Leben said. “But obviously everyone at the gym is concerned because one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. And what they have at Alliance is, there’s such a camaraderie and a team feeling. At first, I feel like it was a probational period. But I feel like I’m getting to the end of that now where I’m showing them I’m 32 years old, I’m married, I’m not the crazy ‘Crippler’ that you guys saw on the first ‘Ultimate Fighter’ – that’s not me anymore. I want to go in, train hard, do my work and be a productive member of this team. I think those guys are starting to see that now. Everyone’s starting to open up and we’re starting to talk a little more. So it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Leben will get to see that direction when he meets Craig at UFC 162. And while the Texan may not have the same name recognition as recent Leben opponents like Brian Stann, Wanderlei Silva and Mark Munoz, Leben isn’t taking anything for granted.
In fact, just the opposite. With three losses in his past four fights, plus a suspension in there, he knows a win is crucial.
“Everybody’s tough nowadays,” he said. “In the UFC, either you’re fighting a hardened veteran or you’re fighting a young and hungry newcomer who needs to win to keep his job. There’s really no easy fights anymore. The skill level in the game has just accelerated and gotten so much higher in the last few years. I’m training harder than i ever have and there is absolutely no looking past Andrew Craig in any way. I have to go out and make a statement, and that’s what I plan to do.”
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