Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Chris Leben is as calm and relaxed as he can remember being in the days before a fight.
His camp ran smoothly. He’s happy in his personal life. He trained clean and sober. Things couldn’t be going better in the final hours before stepping into the octagon for the 20th time in his UFC career.
But Leben is feeling a bit uneasy as he prepares for his UFC 155 main card middleweight fight against newcomer Derek Brunson at the MGM Grand Garden on Saturday.
“It’s almost like, ‘Whoa, everything’s going OK. What am I supposed to do?’ ” he said. “I don’t have a traumatic issue to deal with right now. I don’t know how to prepare for that. I’m used to dealing with some kind of catastrophic event right about fight time. Everything is pretty mellow, pretty low key. It’s good.
“There is a level of anxiety about that. I’m used to having something to freak out about and it takes some of the attention away. Right now, I don’t have that and I think that’s probably what’s making me more nervous about how I’m going to perform. It gives me more time to think about that. There’s definitely some nerves.”
Leben is known as one of the UFC’s most exciting fighters, becoming a fan favorite with his dramatic flair and comeback victories, as well as an eagerness to stand in front of opponents and trade big punches with reckless abandon.
That style has also been a perfect parallel to his turbulent personal life.
Leben has battled alcohol and drug addiction for much of his decade-long professional career, having been arrested twice for driving under the influence. His substance and aggression issues have been well-chronicled since they helped make him a breakout star on the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
“I was 23 then. After that, my career has kind of been a whirlwind, both my life and my career,” he said. “That fight star-rock star kind of life that I let suck me up a little bit. I’m 32 now. It’s been a long road. You learn some life lessons.”
Leben was thought to be sober last year before he tested positive for pain pills after a loss to Mark Munoz in November 2011. Leben said he was out of control and wasn’t trying to cheat, but called the situation a “cry for help.”
It was answered. Leben received a one-year suspension from the UFC, but the organization helped him get into rehab and he is now returning from the layoff with a fresh perspective and a clean body.
“The suspension was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It allowed me to slow down and really step back. Do work where I needed to do work, which was outside the cage and outside the gym, which I truly think is going to reflect inside the cage more than anything else I could’ve ever done.”
He’s hoping his second chance translates into renewed success in the cage after losing two of his last three fights. Mainly, Leben is happy to have the opportunity to compete again.
“I’m just so excited to be back. It’s coming up on a new year. The last year has been a year of trials and tribulations. Heck, my career has been full of trials and tribulations. I definitely took care of some things in my personal life,” he said. “I really feel reborn. I’m starting fresh. New lifestyle, new camp. Everything feels new again and it’s exciting. I really feel like the sky is the limit for me right now.”
He has made other changes in his life, as well. Leben is now married and spends time volunteering at prisons in his adopted home of Hawaii trying to reach other people who are still struggling with some of the same demons.
It’s all part of moving on with a life that Leben insists he wouldn’t change.
“If I was in some of those same situations now, there are absolutely things I would do differently, but I’m a firm believer in fate and everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I truly believe with where I’m at in my life and what’s going on now, everything has worked out to put me here.
“Who knows what the future holds, but there’s a purpose to all of it. From that standpoint, I wouldn’t change a thing. I lived my life the way I lived it. I made the decisions I made and I learned from those decisions.”
The fight is part of an event that will be headlined by a heavyweight title bout between Cain Velasquez and champion Junior dos Santos.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.