by Tom Hamlin – MMAWeekly.com
Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight Chris Leben is walking the streets of Oahu, Hawaii again after serving 11 days in a Portland, Ore. jail. After being released, he visited Seattle for a brief training stint with former coach Matt Hume at AMC Pankration, assisting Jorge Gurgel for his bout with Cole Miller at UFC 86. Now, he’s back at the ICON Sport gym in the Aloha state, putting his life back together.
The original cast member of “The Ultimate Fighter” turned himself in to authorities on April 30 after a bench warrant was issued for his arrest. Leben was sentenced to 35 days in jail for violating the terms of his probation stemming from a 2005 DUI charge, but was allowed an early release to serve the remainder of his time under “home detention.”
He was originally scheduled to fight Michael Bisping at UFC 85 in London, but was forced to cede the fight to Jason Day when his sentence was passed down.
It was not the first time Leben had been to jail – he says he was imprisoned for the same charge in his last stay – but it carried greater consequences than ever before. Sitting in his cell, Leben had nothing but time to think about the mistakes he had made.
“I was really down,” he told MMAWeekly.com. “I really, really wanted to fight Bisping.”
For all the gripping images that jail sometimes conjures, it’s a monumentally boring experience. Especially for a guy like Leben, who isn’t exactly a mellow-yellow personality.
“It was claustrophobic,” he said. “The roofs are really short, you’re breathing in all this recycled air, everything’s white concrete. You don’t have a lot of space; there’s no windows to see outside. Sometimes you have to sit down, take a deep breath, (and say) time will pass.”
And it did, albeit like watching paint dry. There was no way for Leben to stay in shape. He was a highly trained athlete with nowhere to work out. He went old-school, doing push-ups and sit-ups in his cell. A modern MMA gym it was not. The prison administration wouldn’t even let him outside into “the yard.” It’s not clear where he got this fact, but Leben said the jail had the distinction of being the third most dangerous in the nation.
“As soon as I started to do anything, everyone was like ‘what are you doing?’” he recalled. “Training martial arts probably isn’t the best thing to do around a bunch of felons.”
You’d think that being a professional fighter might paint a target on his back, but Leben encountered more curiosity from his fellow inmates than anything else. They wanted him to show them some moves. Happy to oblige, he once demonstrated a choke on an inmate while 20 others watched.
“I told the guys it’s a blood choke, so you don’t have to squeeze hard,” he said. “So I was just kind of choking him with one arm while he’s standing up. And I told him just tap when you start to feel like you’re going to pass out. Well, he didn’t tap, and at the time I’m going wow, this guy’s pretty tough, I’m surprised he hasn’t tapped yet. He just drops to the floor in the cell.
“Now I’m standing there with 20 prisoners around and they’re freaking out. This guy’s laying there, snoring like crazy. I’m like ‘it’s all right, it’s all right,’ then I realize they have cameras in here. I’ve just choked this guy out in jail – I could get in trouble for this. I kept telling them, ‘he’s fine, he’s fine,’ and it took this guy a minute to wake up. Finally he woke up and we had a laugh, and luckily I didn’t get in any trouble for it. That was beginning and the ending of my inmate coaching career.”
Not surprisingly, Leben said the entire experience was a wake up call for him. He realized he wasn’t a 21-year-old anymore, and there was a lot more for him to lose. He couldn’t run away from his problems, or punch through them.
“I’m more or less someone who’s got a few issues,” he said. “It made me realize I should have just taken care of it. You’ve got 150 students who want to know where you’re at; you’ve got a top-level fight you’re missing. You need to be taking care of yourself. It gave me a lot of time to evaluate my life.”
Leben has not spoken to UFC officials since getting out of jail, but feels confident he will be fighting in the next few months. He would seem a prime candidate for the UFC’s impromptu “Ultimate Fight Night” card being held on July 19, but says he doubts he could be ready in time. As of now, he is eyeing an August return to the Octagon.
“I don’t want to go out there and compete because I can,” he said. “Right now I want to focusing on making me the best I’ve ever been.”