Chris Leben talks retirement, health, and new venture into mma refereeing and judging


MMAWreckage writer Nick Peralta, along with Fight Camp Radio Show host Dave Manly, visited Chris “The Crippler” Leben at his gym, The Arena MMA, in San Diego, California and the former Middleweight slugger spoke candidly about a wide array of topics pertaining to his heath, new lifestyle, his future and new venture into judging and refereeing:

MMAW: First of all Chris, how are you?

Leben: I’m doing great man. Having a good time.

MMAW: Now to start off, you actually retired around 18 months ago, early last year. How has retirement been treating you?

Leben: Well it took some getting used to, you know? You do something the majority of your life, and you’re on this certain schedule the majority of your life. When that ends, all of sudden you’re like ‘well what now’. You’re used to having this goal. How you eat eat, sleep, (that) was my whole program, it was for fighting. so making that transition to not competing and being a coach. It does take a little bit but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

MMAW: What did you do upon retirement to get you used to the schedule that you’re basically on now?

Leben: Soon as I retired, I started coaching. I originally was over at Victory (MMA and Fitness). And that first year when I was over there was a bit rough. I had spent so much time training and training for fights and I was slightly burned out on training personally.  I really love coaching, it’s one of the nice things that I really enjoy. Maybe more so than being a competitor. But as far as my personal training and stuff, I wasn’t really taking care of myself as well as I’d need to. I never had to make weight, so I certainly wasn’t dieting. My weight kind of blew up and my health kind of went downhill a little bit. And I realized, ‘hey just because you’re not training for a fight doesn’t mean you don’t have to take care of yourself’. So from that point, (after) moving over here to the Arena, I made some lifestyle changes, some modifications, and really started putting my health and welfare at No. 1. So now my goal in life, besides coaching and helping these young competitors grow is I want to have the best quality of life possible. For me, that means there are certain things I can’t do or enjoy right now because I know later, it’s going to suck. That’s kind of where I’m at now.

MMAW: I know you’re coaching and still training. Have you picked up any fun hobbies or anything else that takes up some of your time?

Leben: You know, I still skateboard, every once in awhile I go to a skate park and ride around. I’m getting a little old for that now *laughs. I’m definitely the old guy at the park. It’s a little scary because I certainly have a lot more mass than the other kids at the skate park so it doesn’t matter if they cut me off, if I run into them it’s my fault. I don’t move then they go flying. *laughs

MMAW: Do you wear a helmet?

Leben: No. My argument there is if you look at my head, it’s already big enough *laughs. But you know I also surf occasionally, I do some hiking, I live right in Ocean Beach. So pretty much on a daily basis my girlfriend and I talk a walk around the neighborhood, walk down the sunset cliffs. Just kind of relax and enjoy. Other than that, I actually kind of took a step back from a lot of the hobbies that I used to have. Everything that I did involved putting my body in danger you know. Whether it was skateboarding, snowboarding, or wake-boarding. Motocross racing. All that stuff, but now I’m in my late thirties, and you put the fighting at the end of it, I only have so much energy. You can do whatever you want, that’s true. But you can’t do everything you want. Making that realization, you know, I only have so much energy to dull out each day. So I try to save it for what’s going to progress my life the most.

MMAW: Do you feel like that is your way of compensating for training, you just get to schedule what you want and live life?

Leben: What I do to have fun is my job. You know? I come to the gym, I teach a couple privates in the morning, generally I do a jiu-jitsu gi/no gi (session). I go home, I take a nap, I come back to the gym at 4 o’clock i work with the fight team, then at 5:30 I teach no-gi grappling. Then from there at 6:30 I teach an mma fundamentals class and to be honest with you, I love it. Being at this gym, being a part of this gym, it gives me all that comraderie that I need, all the interactions with other people that I need. Believe it or not, don’t really have a lot of friends outside of this gym, outside of the sport and what I do. And to be honest with you, I really don’t care to because I don’t have time for it. I want to help people, I want to help them improve their lives. Whether that’s by losing weight, getting in shape, self-confidence. These young fighters that are so hungry to grow and progress, become pro and make a name for themselves. I get to be a part of all of that. And to me, that is my hobby.

MMAW: Do you feel like coaching is the next big venture for you? Head coaching? Like getting heavily involved with specific fighters and their careers?

Leben: Coaching is something that I’ve always done. It has always kind of paralleled my fighting career.  However, for example, when I was living in Hawaii and I owned my own gym out there. And I was trying to run a fight team, run my own gym, and be ahead coach AND personally train myself for the UFC, and schedule my training, things were getting passed up. Things were getting missed. Everybody told me ‘you know, you can’t run a gym and be a pro fighter at the same time’. But of course, you know being me, I want to do everything. But I realized that certain things get neglected. Whether that’s your relationship or your sleep time. Something was always having to get left out.

You know that ‘head coach’ word is weird because we’ve got a phenomenal team of coaches here. Baret Yoshida, he’s won Abu Dhabi, he’s won all of the biggest tournaments in the world. His name is synonymous with grappling. And then between coach Chuck (Martinez), coach Vince (Salvador), we all work with the fight team, as a team of coaches. To train and work with the fighters. We all have our specialties that we kind of dial in but then we also collaborate with each other like ‘hey you know, we need to work a little bit more on this, or I feel like the guys are missing this. Or we could pick this up’. Chuck handles the majority of the scheduling for the fighters. Coach Vince is a phenomenal striking coach, very progressive. That wasn’t ever a part of my game, I’m not the most technical striker in the world. So for me to sit back and let him handle that, he does a better job than me. I feel like the system is really symbiotic and it ultimately makes me better as a coach. When I was running my own gym, I was the head guy and I was really the only person there teaching. I’m teaching what I know over and over and over again. In this gym, I get to teach but then I get to learn a bit more too. I get to see what these guys are doing, what drills that they’re utilizing, the techniques, and I think that’s great.

MMAW: Circling back, early last year you were going to compete for Bellator but those plans ended up getting nixed. What happened there?

Leben: Health issues. So I went through a divorce. Had some pretty rough life stuff going on, a downhill slide. I was working on pulling myself out of that. Getting my life back together and I started training here at The Arena, and my game was coming up. I talked to Bellator. I was excited to fight for them, they were excited to have me. So they sent me off to do all my medical stuff. I took care of all my paperwork. And then there was the EKG (electrocardiogram) test. I kept failing that. And it turns out that my heart was pumping at 18%. Which is looking like ‘dude you may need a transplant’. At that time, doctors were recommending that I don’t do any exercising whatsoever, much less fight at the highest level. And there was no doctor in the world that was going to sign off on my fighting with a heart like that. So from that point it was like ‘Hey, Bellator, thank you for the opportunity but I can’t do it’. And it was the day that I found that news out, I came in and I was really bummed and I was talking to the Jamar and Mike, the operators of the gym and they said ‘hey we just had a team meeting today, and we were already going to ask you today that we want to bring you on as a coach’. So that’s when I made that transition here from just training to being a coach. Since then, I think it’s been about 18 months since then, I’ve continued to work and progress as a coach and I’ve put my health and well being at number one. And you know it’s pretty amazing, Lucas, the owner of The Arena, is kind of an expert on the heart and how it works. He wrote out a diet plan for me, he put me on all these chinese herbs and supplements. And with that was cutting out drugs and alcohol. Which was probably key for helping out the heart and giving it a little bit of a break.

The bottom line is between the partying and the alcohol, the extreme training and working out. That lifestyle, that crazy Chris Leben “The Crippler”. The guy that could go all night and then train all day. As much as I loved having that reputation, you don’t last long burning the candle from both ends like that. So after having that realization, cutting out drugs and alcohol, putting in the proper diet and supplementation my heart went up from 18% to 22%, and then to 26%. So then the doctor said ‘Ok well you don’t need a transplant, but we need to go ahead and put in a pace maker’. So I asked ‘ Well can I grapple?’ ‘Well not really, it’s metal in your body, the wires in your body. You’re not going to be able to grapple hard.” And I said that I don’t really want to do that. Then they said ‘Well you have X percent chance of dropping dead in the next year if you don’t’. I said that I understand, and when they established those percentages, they’re looking at society as a whole. There are people with my ejection fraction (left ventricle heart pump rate) that are doing the right thing, and people with my ejection fraction that are doing the wrong thing. I knew I was doing the right thing. So I said I was going to hold off. And then luckily, this last visit that I had, I think I’m like up to 42%. So it’s nearly tripled the output capacity, if you can imagine a car running on just one cylinder instead of four. That’s what I was operating and training all day like that.

MMAW: What does the average human run at? It can’t be 100% right?

The average human runs at 60% perfectly. 50% is good. So I’m now on the low end of healthy. But I’m definitely trending in the right direction. In my opinion it’s only a matter of time before that heart gets into the solid green. And my doctor even said that if I wanted to fight again, she would sign off. That my heart was good enough for the excess working out and everything else. I thought about it, I talked to Lucas again, and he said ‘You know what, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing’. Bottom line is I’m very happy with where I’m at and what I’ve got going on, especially with the referee thing taking off now so it’s like you know what, everybody’s career comes to an end eventually. I think one of the biggest problems in our sport in particular is these guys, the way they define themselves is being a fighter. That’s what defines them. So when they are faced with that decision of retiring they can’t handle it because they are nobody else, and if you’re not fighting who are they? I think that’s why we see a lot of guys continue on past their prime or past maybe where they should’ve went ahead and stepped back.

I don’t think I have a plan to compete in mma. I feel like what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished is I guess enough. I feel like if I did step back in I’m not going to be in the main event of a UFC or where I was. The excess money would be nice, but you know that’s just temporary. So balancing it out, I’ve got a child on the way, I’ve got everything going on at the gym so it’s like why do that. Competing is important to me though. So I did recently sign up for No-Gi Worlds. So I’m going to go ahead and do some competing in Jiu-Jitsu. It motivates my training and my personal growth. So I don’t get comfortable just resting on my laurels and I don’t get comfortable just being a coach. I’m still trying to learn and grow and progress as a martial artist. Nice thing is at this point I’m in the masters two division so I’m competing against older guys my age. It’s exciting. I haven’t competed in Jiu-Jitsu in probably 14 years.

MMAW: What level will you be competing at?

Leben: For this tournament I will be competing at purple belt?

It’s great that your health is trending up. When do you see yourself being at moderately average or at around 50%?

Leben: Right now doctors have me going in every 6 months to recheck my (EKG). As long as I maintain, three more checks. I’m at three already. Maybe three more, I should be right where I want to be. I hate to speculate just like a year ago, people were asking if I was going to fight again. You know, I don’t want to speculate. I just want to do what I’m doing and let the universe or whatever guide me to make those decisions. Not put a number on it. As long as I’m moving up, I’m happy you know what I mean. My family is about to grow by one. So I need to be around for a few years.

Congratulations on that big news. Obviously big news. Has that changed your mindset knowing that you’re about to be a father?

Leben: It definitely plays a factor. In particular (to) returning to the cage. I’ve got a lot of injuries over the years. My body has definitely taken its share of damage. That being said, I still pass a CAT scan, the brain is still good. You know what I mean? I’m not completely crippled. I’m a little sore in the morning. But I want to be able to go out there and throw the football and do all those things that a dad is supposed to do. I’ve seen fighters that do go past their prime and unfortunately they rob themselves of those good healthy active years later in life. And I certainly don’t want to do that for a temporary influx in money now.


MMAW: Another adventure in your career now, and one of the bigger things that we’re going to talk about is you recently got your mma referee and judges license. What pushed you to want to take this responsible job?

Leben: It is a responsible job. I’ll tell you what. It’s a lot. It’s a very intense job, extremely challenging. Those are two of the reasons. Another reason, especially with the refereeing, 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.

MMAW: To do both, both refereeing and judging, was there a problem that you saw in each industry that you felt needed to be corrected?

Leben: *Laughs. Oh man absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing. 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. 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.

MMAW: So the accountability that you’re talking about with CAMO, is that accountability in place now at the highest levels?

Leben: Not as much. I don’t think so. California with CAMO and then CSAC (California State Athletic Commission), we’re really the front runners of unifying and dialing in this mixed martial arts criteria. The system, the functionality of it. As a state, we’re by far the most progressive. And really a lot of the other states in turn are slowly but surely looking at California and going ‘Ok let’s do it like them’.

MMAW: Without this accountability for the higher level judges, like say Adalaide Byrd, who controversially scored the Canelo/GGG fight 10 rounds to two. When a judge makes a wild score like that, where very few people agree, if anybody, what kind of accountability needs to be there for said judge?

Leben: I mean, in THAT case, 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. Now, how do we prevent that from happening again?…

MMAW: Regarding where you’re at now and judging and reffing amateur fights, do you see yourself judging and refereeing professional fights in the future?

Leben: Absolutely. But I plan on taking my time. 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.

MMAW: What kind of timeline are we looking at?

Leben: 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.

This is something I went through (recently) 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 (again). The round is (close to) 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 to 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 experiance 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.

MMAW: Do you feel the fighter supporting you justified the position you were in? 

Leben: That and I feel like I’ve got to have the confidence to not think about anybody supporting my decision. That split second when you need to make a decision as to whether to stop the fight or not, the only thing that should matter is the safety of the athletes. It doesn’t how mad the crowd or the fans are going to be at you. Trust me, I took some s**t for it. But would I do it again? I would do the same thing again. The nice thing is being an ex-fighter, most of these fans know who I am. So I feel like I get a little bit more leeway because they go ‘Hey this guy is a pro fighter, he knows what he is doing’. So that definitely benefits me in this case.

MMAW: Why aren’t more pro fighters going in the direction that you’re going with the judging and the refereeing?

Leben: You know that’s a good question. I think it probably doesn’t even cross their mind. Once they’re retired, they usually are working in their gym and they’re coaching and cornering guys every weekend. Maybe they don’t have the desire. I don’t know. It’s a no-brainer for me.

MMAW: Is there any referee that you’ve taken to or tried to mirror the way you work based on?

Leben: Absolutely. Both Herb Dean and Big John. The two mainstay faces of refereeing. Herb was refereeing my fights before I even made it to the UFC. It’s so amazing as I was taking his class. I’m talking to him about fights 15 years ago. You think about how many fights this guy has reffed, and he remembers the details of my fights 15 years ago that I can’t even remember. And with them being so involved in the sport and the way that it’s evolving, those two guys really have their finger on the pulse of the sport. And to see the level of professionalism that they bring to the game and how serious they take it, and how much of an honor it is to do what they do. Both of those guys take refereeing deathly serious.

MMAW: You mentioned earlier that some semblance of accountability that also must be taken. Do you feel like at all if ever you were to make a mistake, you would be willing to say I made the mistake?

Leben: That’s a fine line right there. Becuase you are going to make split second decisions, right? And there are certain decisions that a referee is going to make, when in the moment from their vantage point, it’s the right decision. And I see a lot of where the crowd gets so mad, even the commentators bust on the ref. Well look you guys got instant replay, you guys got seven vantage point, the ref is right there and is trying to protect the athlete. From his vantage point he made the right decision. Hindsights always 20-20. Unfortunately, life is not 100% fair or equal all the time. When you have a sport, there is going to be a level of error. To some extent. Our jobs as referee’s is to try to minimize that. Is it going to happen. Are we going to make mistakes? Absolutely. That’s why I said that I am going to spend time in the amateurs, I’m going to get my 100 fights before I even attempt to go pro. Because if I’m going to make any mistakes I want to make them now.

MMAW: When you do decide to go pro. Do you see yourself only doing that in the state of California? Or do you see yourself branching off into other states??

Leben: Oh absolutely. I don’t mind traveling and staying at a hotel for a few days. To go get the best seat in the house and watch fights. I would love to. Talking to Herb during his class about his lifestyle, it sounds pretty cool to me. He’s got the middle of his week at home with his family, he’s got lots of time for them. Then Thursday or Friday rolls around and then he flies over to Singapore stay at a nice hotel, ref some fights and then boom back home with the family. Paying the bills everything else. I could do that.

MMAW: Would you say that becoming a pro referee is your number one goal? And is this a job that can support you?

Leben Yes I would. And as you progress and you work up to the bigger shows, Jason Herzog, one of the head refs out here in California. Those guys have second jobs. They have their main job and they’re refereeing on the weekend because they love it. We’ll see where the sport goes. If years down the road and I can 100% support myself reffing, that’s great. But if I was in it for the money, I’d go back to school to be a lawyer. It’s not the money that is drawing me to this position.

MMAW: Do you see yourself refereeing for these big shows like the UFC or Bellator?

Leben: Absolutely. I hope and believe so. That’s ultimately the goal.

MMAW: What has been the immediate reception from those in the fight business? Positive or negative?

Leben: Everybody so far has been extremely supportive. Really happy to see it. I was working alongside Frank Trigg the other weekend, who’s another ex-UFC guy that has made the transition. And his last couple years of reffing, he’s really grown and progressed as a ref. And to see the level of respect that he gets from the other people in the community, that’s where I could be 18 months down the road.

MMAW: Final question. Fans are excited and it really sets a big precedent for someone of your stature in the fight game to now be making this transition. It’s positive. A lot of people are excited. For all the fans, and fighters looking forward to you going into this venture, what would be your last words to them?

Leben: 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.


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Nick Peralta

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