Opening Round: “Crippler” Put in Check

The time has come once again in the wake of a recent UFC event to acknowledge reality rather than live inside a bubble built out of hype and hope. When the curtain closed on UFC 138 this past weekend people were left with a number of images to fill their memories with – the raucous crowd in England, Terry Etim’s submission brilliance, and Renan Barao‘s ascension to legitimate title-contender among them.

Another is that of Chris Leben, moments before his main event match-up with Mark Munoz, as it should mark the last time fans ever view “The Crippler” as a potential top contender in the middleweight division.

That’s not a bad thing per say. Leben has always been and will always be an entertaining competitor, at least until his chin gives out in a few years. He embodies the true warrior spirit so often sought after in high-level Mixed Martial Artists, possessing a desire to leave every ounce of himself in the ring even when his body has physically given out. The pink-haired, painted-nail-having brawler is a man’s man; a fighter’s fighter.

But he’s not a “Top 10” talent and he never will be. Again, not a slight on him as a person or pugilist – just an truthful observation after another stumble from an athlete who has improved moderately at best in the six years since entering our homes and hearts on the first season of TUF. If you are under the illusion Leben will one day make a run at the gold he always seems so close to I invite you to write it on a post card, slap a stamp on that sucker, and send it to “Santa Claus c/o North Pole” because you’re living in a fantasy world.

Losing to Munoz was a stark reminder Leben can be beaten by polished striking and superior grappling, the very issues plaguing him since entering the upper ranks in 2006. At 31 Leben should be in his prime, yet he hasn’t gotten away from the wild style of striking that, while successful based on his power and endurance, opens him up to more-rounded athletes. He is 7-6 since being poster-ized by Anderson Silva at Fight Night 5 (ah the memories), even losing to opponents like the nefarious Kalib Starnes and Jake Rosholt in the wrestler’s biggest victory to date.

With stumbles to Brian Stann and Munoz in two of his last three bouts it’s time to admit Leben is a showman for sure but nowhere near the level of fighter one needs to be to sit atop the division’s elite. Even dropping to welterweight, if possible, would only serve him so well when it came to the mat-based prowess of a Jon Fitch or Jake Shields, let alone the precision of Nick Diaz or Georges St. Pierre. He is a showman to be sure but not a champion in the making.

And to be quite honest, that’s okay with me. I appreciate Leben for his contributions in the cage and heart. Though he’ll never touch UFC gold, it seems MMA and his success thus far have helped him grow as a person and get away from the path his turbulent life would have likely taken had he not been afforded the opportunity to excite the world inside the Octagon. That in itself is an incredible victory.

Call him “The Crippler,” call him “The Catsmasher” – just not top contender. In the meantime, I’ll simply call him a cage-fighter and tune in for his next outing, the one after that, and so on.

What do you think about the subject on today’s “Opening Round”? Tell us on our Twitter account (@mmatraining)!

PHOTO CREDIT – UFC

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