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Chris Leben has had quite a month.
The “Ultimate Fighter 1” veteran started his November by ending a five-year retirement brought on by serious health concerns, appearing in a bare-knuckle boxing promotion opposite fellow ex-UFCer Phil Baroni.
Prior to the fight, Leben touted lifestyle changes he claimed had left him symptom free after a heart condition nixed a comeback contract with Bellator. In the ring, he looked reborn when he sent Baroni crashing to the canvas inside one round.
“I didn’t want to come out of retirement and be one of those people that everybody goes, ‘Oh, he should have stayed where he’s at,’” Leben told MMAjunkie.
It took even less time for Leben to reacquire his taste for active competition. The 38-year-old keeps his phone on for promoters who might call offering opponents that offer excitement and a good payday.
“After a showing like I had, it’s hard to stop now,” he said. “I’m kind of hooked again.”
At the same time, “The Crippler” wants to be the next Herb Dean or John McCarthy. He gave fans a surprise this past Saturday when he stepped into the cage at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., wearing a referee jersey at Golden Boy’s inaugural MMA event.
Two years ago, Leben attended Dean’s referee certification course – a requirement for working with the California State Athletic Commission – and was shocked at how difficult it was to oversee the action.
“I thought I would just breeze through it, being that I’ve been fighting my whole life,” he said. “But you’ve really got to know the ins and outs of the game.”
Leben got his start with the California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO), which regulates amateur fights alongside CSAC. For the first 10 events, he worked for gas money.
“I started shadowing referees,” he said. “Eventually they started letting me ref and judge. I’ve been doing that for at least a year-and-a-half. I’d have to add it up, but I’ve probably done 100 fights.”
This past Saturday, he was working as a CAMO official and was an official part of the event. He judged several fights and stood cageside to check fighters before they competed.
Unofficially, the CSAC requires prospective referees to have at least 100 fights, though recommendations and experience in other states also determine the selection of officials. Leben is nonetheless holding off on making the jump to big shows. He wants more experience.
As a fighter, Leben knows his decisions can have a profound effect on someone’s career.
“Scoring a fight, versus watching it for fun, versus watching it as a coach, those are three completely different things,” he said. “If I’m coaching a fighter, I’m watching to see what’s working and what’s not working. If I’m watching a fight for fun, I see an exchange, and I go, ‘Whoa that’s awesome.’ If I’m judging, there’s no emotion. It’s check marks – he’s doing this, he’s doing that.”
Leben is known to MMA fans as a fighter who wears his heart on his sleeve; his meltdown on the “TUF 1” set remains an indelible moment in the show’s history. Since getting sober, however, he said outbursts are a thing of the past.
“I found out over the years I’m not an emotional guy,” he said. “I was just drunk – a lot.”
Clarity is at a premium when he’s sitting outside the cage. Leben takes seriously the tasks of a judge when evaluating the outcome of a round, even if it’s often hard to discern who’s ahead when the action goes so fast.
“Some of it is subjective in a lot of ways,” he said. “One judge might say it’s a 10-9 round, and another judge might say it’s a 10-8 round. You’re supposed to know the difference between almost a 10-8 and a 10-8, and that stuff can be relatively difficult with time and duration to make sure all those criteria are followed properly. I always want to affect the outcome in the correct way.
“Having been a fighter, I feel like there’s no job more important than getting in there and representing those guys properly.”
Between new rule changes and close judging calls, Leben said there have been moments of “panic” while he’s worked as an official. He remembers overseeing a recent fight in which he saw a fighter take a body kick and react as though it was a groin shot, which caused his opponent to back off.
Although Leben was at an odd angle, he said he was “95 percent sure” the blow wasn’t illegal. He nonetheless called a timeout, but resolved to poll the judges – an accepted, if underutilized practice – to verify what had happened.
“He kind of slid through on that one,” Leben said of the fighter who got extra time.
The UFC veteran now has lot more sympathy for veteran officials like Dean, who repeatedly bear the brunt of fans’ disapproval for controversial sequences in the cage.
“You have to make split-second decisions in there,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been fighting or coaching – refereeing is a whole other art form. It’s just like juggling – until you drop some balls, you’re not going to figure it out.”
But by all appearances, Leben is on track to work professionally. CSAC Executive Director Andy Foster said Leben performed well at Golden Boy’s event. All that would hold him back is his desire to stay in the cage.
“Obviously, he can’t do that and be with us,” Foster told MMAjunkie. “If he’s interested in coming to us when he’s done fighting, I’d be glad to have him.”
Leben has other big events coming up, anyway. Over Thanksgiving weekend, he proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Brittany Wainio, with whom he has a one-year-old son, Liam.
If there was any reminder of the price of hanging on too long, it came this past Saturday when Leben watched Chuck Liddell, his old opposing coach on “TUF 1,” get knocked out by Tito Ortiz after ending an eight-year retirement.
“Tito had stayed active and continued to train, and I think that showed in the fight,” he said. “To come back and step in against Tito Ortiz, one of the best in the world, who hasn’t taken a day off in six or seven years, it’s a tall order. I knew that, and I think most people that are educated in the sport knew that.
“There was a moment or two where he landed a shot or two, and I was going, ‘Could he maybe do this?’ But ultimately, it was kind of what was expected.”
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