Many of you were as disgusted as me when Mark McGwire offered a sad excuse for a mea culpa two weeks ago. I would've hit all those homers without taking enough juice to inflate a 96 pound weakling into a Pumping Iron era Schwarzenegger lookalike, McGwire said, as he lost his last chance to recoup a chunk of his reputation, now as atrophied as his formerly Popeyed forearms.
If he'd said, Yup, I did it, I used horrible judgment, I gained an unfair advantage, I have no excuse, I regret my actions every day and only hope the public will one day forgive me, guess what? McGwire would've been forgiven by the masses, most of whom know deep down that they fall prey to poor judgement and temptation every day of the week. But he swung, and missed, and will forever be mocked as a deluded ex juicehead who cheated his way to fame, fortune and a permanent residence in a self constructed prison of infamy. McGwire would have done well to mimic another athlete, one less well known but of much sturdier character, the UFC fighter Chris Leben. He did steroids, got busted in November 2008, and amazingly in this day and age, fessed up to it.
I did it, I was dumb, I can only hope to restore my credibility among my family, loved ones and fans, Leben said in the soul searing aftermath.
This story, which gets to the heart of what he did, and why he did it, was supposed to appear in an MMA magazine early in 2009. First, it looked like it would appear in Fight magazine. I talked with the editor there, Donovan Craig, he agreed to run it, but somehow, that fell through the cracks. I sent him emails, and left phone messages after he said it'd run, and didn't hear back. Then I shook my head as I opened up his mag, and saw a multi page feature by Craig on his foray into MMA fighting.
OK, the guy thinks his tale is more interesting and newsworthy than Leben's. A deputy of his then offered to oversee the story, but dealing with the Fight way of doing business, I wasn't interested. It's Craig's ball, he can do with it what he wants. By now time has been a wasting, and it was summer 2009. I set my sights on another mag, Ultimate MMA. The editor there, Doug Jeffery, said he'd run the piece. It didn't happen, and after months of waiting, and emailing, and phoning, I came to the conclusion that Jeffery was the single biggest buffoon I'd ever dealt with in my years as a journalist.
Mind you, he might well be a sweethearted soul, who in his off time volunteers all his free time at soup kitchens, but professionally, the guy wasted so much of my time, I have trouble focusing on his likable traits. He wasted so much of my energy, not to mention taking money out of my pocket, because he said he'd run the story, dithered endlessly, and eventually wussed out, saying he was afraid that the story was too hard hitting, and that he feared upsetting the powers that be.
Normally, I wouldn't go there, get personal, but I feel it's my duty to inform any writers out there contemplating doing work for this guy, that my experience–be it atypical or not–was maddeningly unsatisfying. Be forewarned, MMA writers, Doug Jeffrey in my dealings with him, was incompetent in the extreme. I'll lay out some particulars after this story, just to let you know I'm not going off half-cocked here.
Part A of my Chris Leben interview took place when the UFC fan favorite was licking his wounds, and promising that he'd
bounce back from his decision loss to Michael Bisping at UFC 89 on Oct. 18, 2008.
Part B of the Chris Leben interview took place after Leben's world as he knows it shattered, three days after UFC president
Dana White informed the Ultimate Fighter reality show alum that he'd tested positive for steroid usage, and he'd be suspended for nine months. And just in case that backfist to the face didn't sting him sufficiently, he was also told that 1/3 of his purse would be with
withheld from him. For a man who's had his share of backfists to the face—-his dad bolted before Leben turned two—this was a savage shot to absorb. But the analogy to a surprise backfist doesn't quite work, because Leben admits readily that he willingly injected steroids to add some bulk.
I got the steroid test news on a Sunday, three days after White got word that Leben's urinalysis was dirty. I was on the phone with
White, delving into the character of the Oregon born fighter, asking the head honcho if sobriety could possibly blunt Leben's savagery as a fighter. The exec interrupted me and said, “I have to tell you something. Chris tested positive for steroids after the Bisping
fight.” My jaw hit my groin, and when I got off the phone with White, I called Leben to ask all the journalism basics: what, when, where, and most importantly, why.
“How are you, Chris?”
“I've been better,” said the 28-year-old. “I am an idiot.”
Leben explained that he did indeed take steroids, via injection, for a two month cycle before the Bisping fight. It was to put on some muscle mass, and he was assured, by an “expert” that the dope would be out of his system before he was tested. The “expert” was anything but. He took a urine test in England, before and after his fight with Bisping, and expected the test to be absent of chemical irregularities. His expectation blew up in his face.
Four days before Leben came clean to me he discussed the October 18 loss to Leben. He was still slightly irked, that Bisping had fought defensively, pecked away from the outside, and refused to engage Leben repeatedly. Bisping fought a smart fight, in a manner that blunted Leben's strengths, but it didn't make for a fan-friendly attraction.
I wanted to know, wanted assurance, because how can you not root for Leben to redeem himself, and shrug off his demons, if the fighter was still sober. Had he reached for that “old friend” in a bottle to salve the pain and anguish of an opportunity dashed?
“Have you started drinking again, Chris?”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I'm back in Hawaii, my body is healing up. I'm letting the dust settle, gearing up for my regular life.
“This steroid thing is another in a long line of mistakes, and they tend to be one after another for me,” he said. “What do you do know? Time will take care of it.”
He repeated that line, for himself as much as anyone else. “Time will take care of it.”
People in recovery sometimes find themselves repeating seemingly obvious, trite adages. But really, those adages are often all they
have to rely on. They have burned bridges with their family, and squandered chance after chance after promising to walk the straight
and narrow. More crucially, they have burned bridges with themselves, time and again resolving to put a cork in the bottle, only to cave in to the dangerous, seductive lure of blissfully deadened nerves and emotions.
Leben said that facing his friend and mentor Matt Hume, who recommended him as lead instructor at Icon Fitness and MAA Center in
Honolulu, would be horrible. Facing his students, who look up to him as a celebrity, a role model and to some, a father figure, would be horrific.
This dalliance with another substance that has proven to be stiffer than any foe Leben has faced in a cage, Stanazolol, was a one night stand, of sorts. He'd never used before, he said. “I don't know why I did. Curiosity killed the cat.”
He dug deeper into his motivation, as he will have to do moving forward, if he is to get to the root of why he makes poor choices, and
has relied on substances to cope, rather than family, friends, himself, faith in a power larger than him.
“I would wonder, what is everybody else doing? How come I seem fatter than everybody? There is a lot of enticement at my level. It's the biggest stage on the world and you want to look good. I let that get the better of me.”
White broke the bad news to the fighter on the phone, and while he was disappointed in Leben's choice, he applauded his response. “He copped to it,” White said to me. “He was a man about it. He apologized, and said, 'I can't believe I did it. I got my life together.'”
That life, it looked like to many, wasn't going to end in a tidy or upbeat fashion. Leben boozed heavily after his June 2006 loss to
Anderson Silva. He was kayoed in the first, and then looked to finish the job with booze post-fight. His two week binge after that
disappointment, his mom Karen said, “Was enough to kill anybody.” His brother Tyler saw it as a bottom, or the beginning of the bottom: “That was kind of the icing on the cake.” Fight fans saw Leben's boozing and fragile, sensitive side on season one of The Ultimate Fighter (January 2005). They saw him get liquored up and pee on a fellow fighter's bed, smash items in the house, and fall apart when one fighter called him a “a fatherless bastard.” It was clear that this was a complex character, potentially a feel-good redemption story, but also potentially a walking, talking tale of tragedy, someone who would not be able to fit in to polite society, and might well self destruct in humiliating fashion.
“Chris was a guy on the show who we realized we really didn't know until we saw him in that fishbowl,” said White. “Anybody who is fighting for a living, these guys are different than us, different than society.”
There is a deep family history of alcoholism in Leben's father's side, his mother said, so some weren't surprised that Chris liked to booze it up. Growing up, his mom worked her tail off bartending at night after going to school during the days, so the Leben boys had plenty of free time. Chris discovered drinking early, and he drank often.
Asked to name his favorite poison, he blurts out, “Everything. But whiskey.” Generally, his girlfriend of five years June Calabrese says,
Leben is a genial boozer. But he'll tend to throw his money around like it's Monopoly dough, and he has in the past gotten behind the
wheel after getting liquored up. It's not a recipe if you are aiming to win UFC titles, get married, reach the golden years…
June had an inkling that Chris was using something heavy duty to slice off some stubborn fat, and she let him know that wasn't wise, the fighter told us.
“June will have to deal with the social repercussions,” he said. “She was trying to dissuade me. There were arguments.” But as he concedes, Leben is the sort of person who needs to learn lessons the hard way, first hand. He can't be steered away from a situation, or a substance, by a cooler, wiser head. Usually, he needs to immerse himself in the experience himself, decide for himself. That hard headedness can be helpful in the cage, when there is temptation to tap to that excruciating armbar, or utter a No Mas on the stool after a viciously draining round. But outside the cage, for a boozer, hard headedness can be the single worst trait to hold.
Leben has been talking the talk during this sober stint. But will it last? What if the shame from the steroid bust buries him? What if the
temptation of the temporary respite from the bottle calls to him, and his will evaporates? A slip is never out of the question for someone whose brain is wired to drink to excess, even when copious evidence exists that says that booze equals pain, sadness, worries, woes, maybe death.
“Chris, will you drown your sorrows over the steroid bust?”
“No, I'm not,” he said. “I'm going to a self help meeting today.”
And he did to go a meeting. And another. And another. He was told in those meetings that he was up against an insidious foe, one that makes Bisping look like a schoolgirl in comparison. And he worked to regain the trust of his loved ones, and his employer and his community. And I rooted for Leben, and thought of him often as months dragged on. So around the time his nine month ban was up, I phoned him up, wanting an update. I was curious—was he still sober? Was The Crippler in control of those demons that inserted foolish ideas into his head—that if one is good, two is better, three is better yet—or did the demons still hold Leben in a Muay Thai clinch?
“Hey, Chris, it’s Mike Woods. We talked a few months back, after the steroid thing. How’s it going?”
It took him a few seconds but he remembered.
“You behaving?” I inquired.
“Trying to,” he said, with a chuckle.
The fighter, who just got word that he’d be coming back at UFC 102, in his home state of Oregon, asked me to call back the next day.
Good enough. So I did. I first asked him if he was amped to come back to Oregon, to fight on Aug. 29 at the Rose Garden, on the
“I’m pumped,” he said. “Jake Rosholt is a good, tough fighter, and I’m looking forward to it.”
I segued into what I see as more epic fight, the one with those demons, determined to ponder that indisputable adage from the 17th
century English historian Thomas Fuller that, “Wine hath drowned more men than the sea.”
Leben wanted no part of it, he made immediately clear. “Yeah, I don’t really want to get into that stuff,” he said, curtly, but politely.
“I’m looking forward, looking ahead.”
Fair enough. I let that line of questioning drop. I have no desire to be the Harvey Levin of MMA. We parted soon after, the air too
thick with questions unasked, agendas unmet. Part C of the Leben interview never got off the runway.
The fight, the lowercase fight, against the 5-1 Rosholt, a three time national wrestling champion out Oklahoma State, never truly got off the runway either. Sure, Leben sounded right before the bout.
“You’re fighting in my hometown, you’re fighting The Crippler, you’re in trouble, buddy,” he said in a promo. He sounded properly amped, and looked serene, in a jacked-up-days-before-the-bout kind of way. But a rumor, that Leben hadn’t prepared adequately, whipped around the betting booths, and tons of late Rosholt money poured in. Did some tout catch wind of a Leben slip, a return to old ways? That was implied on message boards, those beacons of veracity…Fair or not, that would be the sort of innuendo that would dog Leben on the road ahead…
In the scrap, Leben had his moments, connecting with that chin-checking left a few times. In round one, he fought at a measured pace, bided his time, dished out his fury in controlled bursts, save for an end-of-round Tasmanian burst. He certainly didn’t look out of shape, or unfocused, regardless of the rumor mill churnings. An over-the-top Leben left sent Rosholt to the deck early in the second. In Rosholt’s careful guard, Leben didn’t get free to do much damage, though. In round three, Rosholt took Leben down, hunted for the right submission positioning, and found it, in an arm triangle. Leben tapped, and ref Yves LaVigne missed it, and then Leben went limp. He quivered and quaked, but then came to.
Those looking for a triumphant return to form, a satisfyingly sentimental chapter to the Leben story…no dice. The script didn't get flipped. The narrative actually clung to the spine. PED free, fighting on a fuel of redemption, wouldn't it have been sweet if Leben got the W? But no, he tapped, and he'd have to wait to get that win, the victory that would go a long way in shedding some of the stubborn shame and self loathing.
That liquid, he'd keep on fighting, too.
It can look so placid and peaceful sitting in a bottle, once introduced into some people's systems, flips a switch that should not be flipped. That liquid is a foe more patient, more dangerous, more vicious than a thousand Bispings or Rosholts. That liquid and Chris Leben will, in all likelihood, face off in the cage of life until Leben breathes his last breath on this plane of existence. That liquid can be beaten, but only with a strict regimen of discipline, and humility. Leben has taken some on the chin, throughout his life and especially recently. But today, his record is Leben 1, Booze O, and that is a win he can be as proud of as any.
If the story seems a bit dated, my apologies. This should've come out in a timely fashion. I bear some blame for not being more aggressive on the phone, and relying on emailing to interact with people. But I can't and won't fall on a sword here. I sent a draft of the story to Jeffrey in May of 2009, and he strung me out, and kept stringing me along until this month. He complained that he was swamped with work, as all of us are in this day and age, and counseled me to be patient. Finally, as I grew increasingly terse with him, he finally got into the sphere of truth.
“I know, for sure, the UFC would not love us at all for running it,” Jeffrey told me. Hey, I understand the delicate line that exists as an editor. I don't hammer everyone in the world that deserves to be hammered, because if you do, you'll get your access cut, conceivably. But great god, Jeffrey, why didn't you tell me this EIGHT MONTHS AGO if this is the way you felt?? Anyway…I move on. I've given up on getting a check and a real apology from Jeffrey.
Hope you guys liked the story, and thanks for indulging me, hearing me out on why this story took so long to get released, and most importantly…anyone contemplating doing business with Doug Jeffrey at Ultimate MMA, you've been forewarned.
Ending on a higher note: Leben got that comeback win, on Jan. 11 at UFC Fight Night 20 against Jay Silva. He fought in a manner that his rooters hope he'll mimic in battling the booze: he was patient, looked to take Silva to the mat, didn't indulge in the fan-friendly trading that makes for exciting fights but shorter careers. He showed wisdom and maturity as a fighter, which bodes well for him outside of the Octagon.