Five years ago, Chris Leben walked away from the sport of MMA, calling the end to a career that spanned 33 fights, including 22 in the UFC’s middleweight division. Known for his fan-friendly style, Leben engaged in some brutal back-and-forth wars and always was down to take a shot to deliver one in return.
Just when it seemed like we may never get the pleasure of seeing this style again, Leben strolled back onto the scene, signing to fight under the World Bare Knuckle Fighting Federation (WBKFF) banner this Friday against Phil Baroni.
While this is not quite MMA, we were all far closer to seeing Leben back in the realm of combat than we thought.
“I would’ve,” Leben said when asked if he was going to return to MMA. “I was already talking about it as a matter of fact.”
Not only was Leben talking to friends and training partners about the idea but contacts had been made to start looking at possibilities.
“I had already put a few feelers out there. We had contacted Bellator," Leben said. "We had contacted some other leagues, trying to see where the best opening was."
However, as Leben was getting ready to make the leap back to the sport he gave everything to, the phone rang. That phone call was a game changer.
“That’s when I got the call from the bare-knuckle people. It was right about that time,” Leben said. “So it was really perfect. Everything happens for a reason.”
The timing made sense to Leben, but the answer wasn’t a resounding "yes" out of the gate. In fact, that first call came from the “other guys” of bare-knuckle boxing and Leben wasn’t immediately down.
“It’s kind of an interesting story. I got a call originally from the ‘other guys,'” he said. “I said ‘No, I’m happily retired.'”
Shortly after, Leben took a closer look at the sport and his tune changed there.
“Then I started looking at it on YouTube, and I was like, 'Man, this sport is kind of handmade for me,'” Leben said.
So after that, he returned the call to the “other guys."
“Ultimately, I called them back and said, 'How much money we talkin’?” he said.
However, the contract took a bit too long to arrive on his desk, and he wound up hearing an offer that was a tad more enticing.
“That’s when I got the call from [WBKFF]," Leben said. "They offered me Phil Baroni, who is just a spectacular opponent for me for where I’m at and what I want to do.”
Knowing the style typical of Baroni was important for Leben, who sees entertainment as the prime reason he wound up with this company.
“The important thing to me is to have good, exciting fights,” Leben said. “To have the opportunity to fight a guy like Phil Baroni—who, win lose or draw, his fights are never boring—it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
And with that, Leben signed with WBKFF. Unsure if this is a one-time showcase or not, Leben hopes the fans appreciate the style of the two former UFC fighters as they trade blows this Friday, Nov. 9.
“The biggest change of my routine, as the fight grew closer, is that I had to cut my grappling back,” Leben said. “I’m in the gym six or seven days a week anyways. I coach full-time, and really not for a day have a stopped training. It’s who I am. It’s what I love to do.”
Leben then shared some specifics he's been working on ahead of his bare-knuckle debut.
“Once the fight was signed, I started dialing in to more specialty stuff: working on my footwork, my striking," he said. “My grappling rounds have been more clinch, dirty boxing, off-balancing—all that fun stuff that you get to do in bare knuckle that you can’t do in regular boxing,”