“My name is Johnny Lee Tapia. I was born on Friday the 13th.
A Friday in February of 1967.
To this day I don’t know if that makes me lucky or unlucky.
When I was eight I saw my mother murdered.
I never knew my father.
He was murdered before I was born.
I was raised as a pit bull.
Raised to fight to the death.
Four times I was declared dead.
Four times they wanted to pull life support.
And many more times I came close to dying.
But I have lived and had it all.
I have been wealthy and lost it all.
I have been famous and infamous.
Five times I was world champion.
You tell me. Am I lucky or unlucky?”
The late, great, Johnny Tapia posed the above question in the introduction of his autobiography, Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia. In all the ups and downs of his turbulent life, Tapia, boxing’s most colorful of characters and a former world champion at several weight classes, wasn’t sure if he was the luckiest or most unlucky man in the world. Through his brutal past, his struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, Tapia found equal measures of great success and great tragedy.
This weekend in Las Vegas, the turbulent life of UFC middleweight Chris Leben will continue on with an appearance at UFC 162. While he may not have quite endured the struggles of Tapia, he has endured more than most – and enjoyed considerable fame along the way.
Leben has described his upbringing as difficult, as he was left behind by much of his family. But he describes enjoying the freedom that came with that abandonment, as well.
Fighting proved both a focus, and an escape. Leben quickly made a name in the growing Pacific Northwest MMA circuit of the early 2000s. Leben trained at Team Quest in Oregon, becoming known for a technical acumen – something which he didn’t always show in his actual fights. I saw him in an amateur bout in Edmonds, WA back in January of 2004 against Boyd Ballard, another local standout, at a show which also included future stars such as Chris Wilson. Leben, then as (often) now, swung for the fences from the opening bell against Ballard, scoring a dramatic first round knockout.
He would become one of the original stars of season one of The Ultimate Fighter, in what was still an outlaw sport, but his appearance included a drunken meltdown and a one-sided loss to Josh Koscheck which, as Kelsey Mowatt reported last week, he still aches to avenge.
Leben would become a popular and steady performer, as his development as a fighter seemed to time perfectly with the sport’s mainstream acceptance, but then also found himself in legal trouble for DUI’s, and suspended due to infractions of the UFC’s drug policy. Dramatic losses on his ledger to Anderson Silva and Michael Bisping are balanced by a triangle choke finish of Akiyama in 2010 and a legendary knockout victory over Wanderlei Silva in 2011.
It’s been a wild ride, but Leben also notes in that interview he is enjoying sobriety today.
So where does he stand now? Leben, on a two fight losing streak, is approaching a bout with Andrew Craig – a fighter of today’s MMA generation, who didn’t struggle with issues of legalization as Leben’s, but who risks being lost in the shuffle in a way that Leben didn’t. Craig even refers to himself as a “younger, more refined version of Leben.”
So was Leben lucky, or is Craig, in this fighting life?
On Saturday we’ll find out what fight Leben has left, in his own crazy life.
Front-Page Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports