UFC 116 was a big night for the UFC. Headlined by a heavyweight title unification bout between the enormous Brock Lesnar and the only-slightly-less-enormous Shane Carwin, the show would turn out to be the promotion's second biggest pay-per-view event ever,
For the co-main event of the night, the perpetually entertaining Wanderlei Silva had been tapped to fight Japanese superstar judoka (and pop singer) Yoshihiro "Sexyama" Akiyama. Unfortunately, the "Axe Murderer" was shelved with a rib injury just two weeks before the event and the UFC had to scramble to find a replacement. They found their unlikely savior in Chris "The Crippler" Leben.
Leben had joined the UFC in 2005 as the most volatile cast member of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, where he made a name for himself battling his castmates as well as his personal demons. Inside the Octgaon he became known for wading into striking exchanges, content to absorb shots for the opportunity to land his own; outside the cage he became known for drinking too much and occasionally punching doors. And though the previous two years had been disastrous for Leben, punctuated by two straight losses and a suspension for steroid use, by 2010 he was in the midst of a comeback. His two victories already that year included a TKO victory over Aaron Simpson just two weeks before he was tapped to face Sexyama.
On fight night, the two men showcased every aspect of mixed martial arts, from takedowns to punching exchanges to submissions. Their back-and-forth-battle won the crowd's approval and "Fight of the Night" honors..
Throughout the first, Akiyama was able to derail Leben's offense with judo throws and superior grappling.
Leben, though, refused to cede any ground and continually threw up armbar attempts and strikes from the bottom.
In the second round, the tenor of the fight shifted. The fighters fell into wild striking exchanges and Leben went into his notorious "Zombie Mode," eating numerous strikes but refusing to fall.
Eventually, however, Akiyama was able to take the Crippler down and remain in top position for the rest of the round.
When the third round started the crowd was on its feet. Akiyama caught a kick to start the round and took Leben down, where he would hold him for the duration of the fight.
Any MMA fan knows that when a fight is close the judge's decision leans heavily toward the fighter with multiple takedowns and more top control, so while both men were exhausted things looked bleaker for the Crippler. But there is something about Chris Leben--he is a fighter from bell to bell. He fights to win and to finish. With less than 30 seconds left in the fight, Leben threw up a desperate triangle, locked it in, and grabbed his opponent's head to secure the choke. Akiyama tapped and Chris Leben completed his redemption. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last time he'd need it.
(Artist's note: The image of Leben attempting to triangle/armbar Akiyama in the first round is based on 19th century Japanese woodcuts of Kabuki actors playing samurai warriors.)
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