Chris Leben on new career venture: “I’m going to be a phenomenal ref, a phenomenal judge”

Many fighters take different paths or journeys when their fighting careers come to an end. Some venture into coaching, some into business.

For former Ultimate Fighter legend and UFC veteran Chris “The Crippler” Leben, a new calling has come in the form of mma judging and refereeing.

Fondly remembered for his amazing fights inside the Octagon, Leben officially retired back in early 2016 with a 22-11 record (12-10 in the UFC). 18 months later, Leben has made the return the MMA cage, but in the form of the ‘third man’. Now looking to do his part in improving the sport, Leben most recently earned his license to judge and referee in the state of California.

“It is a responsible job. I’ll tell you what.” said Leben in a sit-down interview with “It’s a lot. It’s a very intense job, extremely challenging. I feel like it’s easy for all of us to sit at home and watch the UFC, or Bellator, or whatever promotion we’re watching and go ‘Oh that f**king ref, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He f**ked up’. And I feel like this sport has continued to grow relatively organically. And it’s time for people like myself, you know ex-competitors that live and breath this sport of mixed martial arts to step in and do the job of refereeing. Because I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on in that cage. I feel like if there is anybody that can keep those two athletes safe, it’s me. And knowing that, I feel like it’s almost a disservice if I don’t look at refereeing and judging. It’s a disservice to athletes and to the sport of mixed martial arts. I have all the qualifications. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m not getting rich doing it. It’s really kind of a calling. Much like fighting was a calling for me, it’s just one of those things. It’s something I have to do.”

Leben announced on September 15 via social media his certification to both referee and judge amateur mixed martial arts bouts. After taking the time to sit down with MMAWreckage’s Nick Peralta, Leben gave his thoughts on the judging controversy that continues to scourge combat sports.

“We’ve obviously all seen judges where a judge has a fight scored 10-9 and another judge has it 10-8 for the other guy.” said Leben. “We saw what happened recently in this last boxing match (Canelo vs. GGG). Like how did she come up with that score? How is that possible? What fight was she watching? Where did she get her training to make that decision? When hopes, and dreams, and finances and all that’s on the line, the bottom line is the better guy needs to win. The guy that won the fight needs to win the fight. That’s how I feel, and that’s not always the case. As a coach I tell all my fighters, you better not leave it to the judges because you’re going to get your heart broken. That’s something that needs to change. We all need to be on the same page. Whether I like the judging criteria or not, what’s important to me is that we’re all on the same page so that the athlete can go in there and know ‘Ok I won or I lost’. Whether we’re scoring one thing higher than we should, that’s not as important to me as all the judges scoring based on the same criteria and we’re all educated enough to know what it is we’re looking for. That being said, it is extremely challenging. Trying to score an mma fight with so many variables using a 10 point must system and the criteria that we do have, I believe that some of the judges that maybe came over from boxing were maybe grandfather’d in. They may not even know 100% the judging criteria an the unified rules that Herb Dean, Big John and the other commissions have come up with.”

“I see scoring sometimes, and it’s not the way it should go. Which is where California in particular is extremely progressive. Right now I’m a judge and referee for CAMO, or California Amateur MMA Organization. After every fight, all the judges and referee’s, we all come together like this last show I did where I was both judging and reffing. So if I wasn’t judging the fight, I was reffing. The head of the show goes ‘Alright, you Chris, you scored that round 10-9, and so-and-so over here you scored it 10-8. Defend your 10-8. Tell me why you scored it that way. And Chris, tell me why you scored it that way’. Now the issue isn’t necessarily that we scored it wrong, but you have to be able to defend your score. You’ve got to be able to go ‘This is what I saw, and this is why I saw it’. And it’s the reason we have three judges, with three different vantage points of the fight because we are going to see different things.”

After speaking on the accountability that he is faced with as an amateur judge, Leben wasn’t afraid to point out that that same accountability likely isn’t implemented at the higher level. Most recently in the world of Boxing, NSAC judge Adalaide Byrd controversially scored a boxing bout between Saul Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin heavily in favor of Alvarez. A sentiment so very few agreed with.

“I mean, in that case (regarding Adalaide Byrd), that was so bad I feel like she needs to be under investigation. I’m not going to go Teddy Atlas on you and lose my mind completely. But the bottom line is we have to look at that because freaking out doesn’t do anything good. But because of that fight in particular, in the sport of boxing, and the disservice that that does to both the fans and the athletes, some changes need to be made. There’s no way that should’ve kept happening.”

While Leben is certainly excited about the prospect of making a fundamental difference in combat sports, he doesn’t plan on rushing the process of moving on to the professional level.

“But I plan on taking my time.” said Leben. “I’ve seen other refs where they just want to go up the UFC or Bellator and that’s not the case with me. Because even though I’ve cornered thousands of fights, I’ve been in my share of fights, I’ve watched X amount of fights throughout my lifetime, I haven’t reffed or judged a lot. You don’t watch somebody juggle a lot and then you just (know how), you gotta drop some balls. You gotta go in there and make mistakes.”

“Right now, the way the criteria is, CAMO would like me to have 100 matches with them before I even apply to get my pro referee license. I’m looking at about that. I’d like to get those 100 matches. And that’s not saying that I would stop doing amateur fights. I can do pro and I can do amateur. So that I’m continuing to stay busy and stay active and get more comfortable and learn and grow. As far as refereeing goes, it is a very challenging job because you want to give every fighter the best chance possible and you want to keep both fighters safe. And then also there are some rules and criteria that we have to abide by. Amateur is different than the pros, you gotta take all that stuff into consideration. So the bottom line is when there is nobody else to blame, the finger is going to get pointed at the ref, and also you gotta learn to be ok with that. I’ve got to learn that in order to help this sport grow, help these athletes and protect them, I’ve got to be ok with people being mad at me.”

Nearly a month in, Leben has already refereed seven match-ups. One of which gave Leben a wealth of experience to take with him into his newfound career.

“This is something I went through where both kids, really amped up, raring to go. All their hopes and dreams are on the line, you could see it in their faces. And in the first round, this one kid just took a beating. He took a beating, he got mounted, but I didn’t stop the fight because he was intelligently defending himself. The second round starts, his eye is swollen up, and he does a little better but takes a beating. The round is ending, his opponents in mount and he sits back on an armbar. The arm is fully straight and extended. And there is three seconds left in the fight. At that point, I’ve got to have the confidence to do what I did which was jump in and stop the fight. Because in a pro fight, if you don’t tap, we’ll let it break, right? But in an amateur fight, you’re there to gain experience, you’re there to grow and progress and come back and fight another day. A lot of these guys have to go to work on Monday. There is a lot more factors to take into consideration. In the pros this is how you make your money, this is what you do. If you want to let your arm break, I’m going to let it break. But this fight, I had to stop it. And I knew, with three seconds left, that corner is going to be mad. I got to do what I gotta do because that arm was totally straight, it was locked in and that arm was in danger of being broken. But the one person that wasn’t mad at me was the athlete. His friends and family are mad but in the rules meeting I told him ‘Hey, this is an amateur fight, if for example you get put in an armbar and I think it’s going to break, I’m going to stop the fight. We’re not going to let that arm break, not in an amateur fight’. So he understood. And that I think is a decision, that I feel like a lot of people that didn’t have the experience that I have in the sport and the compassion for the athlete and the understanding. I think they might not have made that decision. I know that it was a right decision.”

Now fully committed to honing his craft as a referee, as well as to taking on a serious responsibility in judging, Leben is adamant that he will go on to do right by the fans of fighters of the sport.

“You know, this sport has given me so much, and I’m excited to have an opportunity to give a little something back. I’m going to do my absolute best. Please just some support. Watch and you’ll see, I’m going to be a phenomenal ref, a phenomenal judge. I’m going to be one that the fans and fighters can rely on and have faith in.”

To see the full interview click here.

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Nick Peralta

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