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Chris Leben shows maturity, dedication in three-fight win streak

Following win over Yoshihiro Akiyama, Leben says he’s finally ‘walking the line’

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Sam Morris

Yoshiro Akiyama catches Chris Leben with a left during their middleweight bout Saturday at UFC 116. Fighting on short notice only two weeks after his last fight, Leben submitted Akiyama in the third round.

UFC 116: "One of the Greatest Cards Ever"

Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, Middleweight Chris Leben and Light Heavyweight Stephan Bonnar all contribute shocking victories to one of the UFC's most memorable cards.

UFC 116 Leben v. Akiyama

Chris Leben gets tagged by Yoshiro Akiyama during their middleweight bout Saturday at UFC 116 . Fighting on short notice only two weeks after his last fight, Leben submitted Akiyama in the third round. Launch slideshow »

Looking at Chris Leben’s submission win over Yoshihiro Akiyama in the UFC 116 co-main event, it’s hard to determine which part of it was most impressive.

The fact it was his second UFC win in a span of 14 days — or that he was basically unconscious when he won it.

Before catching Akiyama in a triangle choke late in the third round of their middleweight fight Saturday, Leben had clearly fallen into zombie mode after taking several big punches to the head.

Sitting in his front-row seat at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, UFC President Dana White saw it and said there was only one way to describe Leben’s condition.

“He was literally knocked out, standing straight up,” White said. “He was knocked out and in typical Chris Leben fashion, you could see him just snap out of it and keep fighting.”

The half-dazed Leben (21-6) was so good on his feet early in the final round that Akiyama chose to take him down and try to control the fight the rest of the way.

Even with Akiyama (13-2) in the more dominant position, it appeared that Leben was staying active fighting off his back.

Not wanting to rely on the judges to notice that, however, Leben consciously went for the late submission win after he noticed Akiyama was allowing him to put his legs high up on his back.

“I think a lot when I fight and when I went for the armbar I realized he was letting me walk my legs up from the bottom,” Leben said. “That’s when I decided I was going to go for the submission.”

Leben’s abilities to fight hurt and finish opponents have always made him one of the sport’s top prospects, but a lack in commitment has kept him from ever emerging as an elite middleweight.

As his recent three-fight win streak suggests, however, Leben seems to finally be taking his career seriously.

When the UFC called on him to replace Wanderlei Sivla, just two days after he had defeated Aaron Simpson at the TUF 11 Finale on June 19, they half expected to find him already out of fighting shape.

As it turned out, the worst thing Leben had done following the win was enjoy a post-fight pizza.

“It’s different for me than it used to be,” said Leben on his renewed focus. “It’s not about proving I’m tough anymore. It’s about the guys in my gym. The older you get, the wiser you get. I’m trying to stay in better shape and live a cleaner life.

“I’ve (expletive) up before but I’m trying to walk the line now.”

Following his win Saturday, Leben stated he’d like to fight the man he filled in for next — Wanderlei Silva.

According to White, however, that matchup is unlikely as Silva is scheduled to undergo knee surgery soon that will keep him sidelined for the near future.

Regardless of who he fights next, Leben may not find himself the underdog he was in his two recent wins.

Less than a year after rumors surfaced he hadn’t taken training seriously prior to a third-round loss to Jake Rosholt at UFC 102, Leben said he was moved to tears leading up to his fight against Akiyama because he didn’t want to let his camp down.

“I laid in bed last night crying because I wanted to win so bad,” Leben said. “I didn’t want to let my coaches down. The emotions after (the fight) were just mind boggling.

“There’s nothing like winning a fight in the UFC. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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