Even three years later, Chris Leben can’t bring himself to sit down in front of a television sit and watch the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter.
He cringes at what little he does see, unhappy and unimpressed with the desperate character seemingly crying out for help.
Chris Leben was one of an odd assortment of fighters cobbled together by UFC president Dana White and owner Lorenzo Fertitta to compete on the first season of the reality series on Spike TV, which wound up fueling the UFC’s current success.
Leben’s wild, drunken behavior, unpredictable mood swings and overbearing attitude on the show makes it difficult for him to even speak about it now.
He is one of those who became a star as a result of his appearance on the series, but in his mind, the Chris Leben whom many loved to hate no longer exists.
He’s headlining UFC 89 on Oct. 18 in Birmingham, England, in a three-round middleweight bout against Michael Bisping, but British fans expecting to see the man they met in the show will be disappointed.
“Thank God,” Leben said quietly. “I had to change some things.”
Leben’s character almost seemed liked exactly that – a character – and not a real human being. He was portrayed as a frequently drunk, constantly obnoxious loudmouth who urinated on a fellow competitor’s bed, who raised tensions in the house where the fighters lived by bragging about his skills and who went on a violent rampage after he was insulted.
Spike, which eventually opted to air the series when the UFC picked up all of the costs of production, recently re-aired all episodes of Season 1 in a marathon on a Saturday.
Leben, though, couldn’t bring himself to watch. He hasn’t drank alcohol in four months and is trying to live a different type of life than the person who existed on the show.
“I’ve seen very little of it, honestly,” Leben said. “It’s tough for me to watch. It’s kind of heavy. There are some tough moments in that show for me. It stirs up a lot of things.”
He erupted on the show when, in one of the most classless comments in network television history, Bobby Southworth confronted a drunken Leben and called him a “fatherless bastard.”
Leben opted to sleep outside that night to avoid Southworth and Josh Koscheck, who had formed an alliance, but Southworth and Koscheck snuck up on a sleeping Leben and doused him with a hose.
That sent Leben into a violent rage in which he punched his hand through glass in a door and then walked through another door, dripping blood throughout the house.
It took Leben several years to come to grips with what had occurred during the show. Alcohol seemed to be the one constant during every ugly incident, both those which occurred on the show and those which happened throughout his life.
He was a promising fighter and was trying to teach the sport he loved when he came to a realization: He couldn’t teach properly if he were drunk half the time. Four months ago, he quit and hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since, he says.
“The show helped me realize kind of how other people viewed me,” the heavy-handed Leben said. “When you can stand back and see yourself and watch how you act, it puts things into a different perspective. I am training and I’m coaching now and I began to understand better that it is pretty hard to tell kids to do one thing and to do this and do that and I was doing another. I had to be an example.”
He’s worked diligently to make himself an example now by the way he fights. He said that even through all the drunken episodes, he’s always had a good work ethic and trained hard.
But now that he’s not drinking, he is taking a more determined approach to his preparation, which is always a good thing when you’re facing a fighter the caliber of Bisping.
“On the show, Chris was obnoxious, but it painted over a lot of insecurities he had,” White said. “But the reason I’m really excited about this fight is that I am convinced that Chris has grown so much, as a fighter and as a person. He was always a guy who had a great chin and was willing to fight anyone. He didn’t give a (expletive), he’d fight King Kong if we wrote him a check.
“But now, he’s dedicated himself to training and living clean and studying the business and he’s so much more dangerous now. Both he and Bisping are guys who want to come out and knock you (expletive) head off and that’s going to make for a great fight.”
Leben is excited because he loves a great fight, but even more, because he loves going into the fight with a clear mind.
“My life is out there for everyone to see and they’ve seen it,” Leben said. “But this is a new chapter and I’m doing things the right way now. This is a new era for me, in my life and in my fighting. Things are going to be a lot different.”