Leben aims for two wins in two weeks
Story & photos by Anthony Springer, Jr.
Eleven days ago, Chris Leben was looking forward to a long break from the Octagon.
This Saturday, he’ll co-headline UFC 116: Carwin vs. Lesnar.
After earning knockout of the night honors with a win over Aaron Simpson at The Ultimate Fighter 11 finale, Leben (20-6), 10-5 UFC) will replace the injured Wanderlei Silva in a bout with Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-1, 1-0 UFC).
So what made Leben, who swore he was taking a long hiatus to improve, take the fight on such short notice?
“The UFC presented me with an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he explained.
Despite the potential to catapult himself back into the upper echelon of the middleweight division, Leben admits that his first thought was to turn down the fight. It took UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, UFC president Dana White, and Leben’s coaches to convince him to take the bout.
“First I said no. It was Monday morning and I was already getting called to fight. The more I thought about it, it became clear “I’m a fighter, this is what I do.” This fight is a huge profile fight. It was an offer I couldn’t turn down. I was their first pick to replace Wanderlei. That’s a huge compliment.”
In the days following the announcement of the bout, Akiyama threw a bit of fuel on Leben’s fire. In statements to the media, the Judoka expressed disappointment in not being able to face Silva and hinted that he might pull out of the card. The perceived lack of respect rubbed Leben the wrong way.
“I take it a little bit personal,” he said of the comments, which Akiyama’s camp says were misinterpreted. “Bottom line is [Akiyama] fights for the UFC; he’s signed to fight on this card. His opponent got hurt, it happens in this industry. His job is to get in there and mix it up; for him to say I’m not a worthy opponent throws me off.
Coming off of a tough fight just two weeks prior may cause some to believe “The Crippler” is at a disadvantage. He vehemently disagrees with that assertion and thinks the last minute substitution puts Akiyama at a disadvantage.
“He’s been training for a right handed Wanderlei Silva; he’s never fought a left hander.”
The stakes are high for Leben, who knows that a victory in the co-main event slot places him high on the list of UFC middleweights.
“I win this fight, I have three wins in a row,” he says. “Hopefully it’ll put me right up there in the mix again. I need to go out there Saturday night and perform.”
As for Akiyama’s acclaimed Judo skills? Leben doesn’t think that’ll be a major factor once the bell rings.
“The big nullifier for judo and wrestling is my left hand; I get to punch [Akiyama] in the face. I want to see him try to hook up, get me in the clinch and throw me when I’m punching him and elbowing him in the face.”