Benji Radach faces training partner Chris Leben for his 185-pound title
By Joe Hall
It's being billed as the biggest MMA bout in the history of the Northwest. Indeed, the Sportfight 4 main event between heavy-handed middleweights Benji Radach and Chris Leben looks like a wild fireworks extravaganza on paper.
They know each other well, having trained together considerably over the last two and a half years. Radach trains primarily with Dennis Hallman and the Victory Athletics team, but has stepped onto the mat and into the ring with Team Quest -- and Chris Leben -- regularly over the last two years for friendly sparring sessions.
"I like Chris and he's a tough fighter," says Radach. "I have nothing but good things to say about him, except that he started to get a little cocky after he beat some fairly good guys."
Leben denies that he began talking trash as he accumulated wins. "Benji knows me," he says. "I know him. That's total bullshit, man. Everybody that knows me, that's ever trained with me knows that I'm not a person to talk shit about anybody."
Neither fighter sounds especially enthusiastic at the thought of fighting the other. Talking to them gives you the sense that the grapevine has generated just enough disdain to get them in the ring together for a couple high-powered exchanges ... and then they'll go back to being friends.
"A lot of other people want to see us fight more than we really want to fight each other," says Radach tellingly. "I think this fight is kind of stupid in one way because we are teammates and there's lots of other guys we could be fighting."
Leben traces the claims that he ran his mouth back to when he requested to fight Radach's trainer Dennis Hallman. The fight was expected to happen, but when the UFC called Hallman to fight Frank Trigg, Leben was asked to square off against Radach instead. "I said I didn't want to fight him because he's my friend," says Leben. "I don't really like to fight my friends."
A series of indirect exchanges however, will bring the fight together this Saturday in Gresham, Oregon, at Sportfight, a promotion ran by Matt Lindland and other Team Quest luminaries. "He says I started talking shit about him and now I'm scared to fight him or whatever," explains Leben. "If it gets like that, I'll fight anybody at 185. Now we can fight and I can worry about being his friend after the fight."
A CLASH OF STYLES ... VERY REAL IMPLICATIONS
Radach is the better known of the two, as he has fought in the UFC three times, losing only to Sean Sherk on a cut. He has since moved up from 170 pounds to the 185-pound middleweight division, and has taken knockout power standing and on the ground with him. "He's a hard-hitter, we know that," says Leben of his foe. "He's a hard-hitter and he's fast.
"All-around, he's a good fighter. I don't think he's great at submissions. I know he can't submit me. I mean, if (Joe) Doerksen can't submit me, then Benji can't submit me. He might be able to take me down, but if he takes me down he's not going to be able to hold me down. As far as standup goes, he hits hard, but I hit harder. And I can take a hit. If you look at some of my fights, I've been hit by the best of them. If he wants to play rock'em sock'em, that's fine with me."
Leben is steadily building his name as a heavy-fisted slugger with a jumbo-sized heart. "Chris is a brawler," says Team Quest teammate Matt Lindland. "He fights on heart. I don't know if I've seen anybody that enjoys beating people up as much as I do .... Chris may be that guy. He loves fighting."
His biggest asset, says Lindland, is the training room at Team Quest. Leben has been training for a mere two and a half years, but that's 30 months with names like Couture and Lindland and Henderson and Tanner and trainer Robert Follis. The results have been swift and violent, including several knockout wins and only one loss, a recent decision he dropped to future UFC participant Joe Doerksen in a fight that may have established Leben more so than any of his wins.
"He's not a technical fighter," says Lindland. "He likes to get in there and mix it up. I think this is going to be an exciting fight. Benji has the power; Chris has the toughness and the chin to take that kind of power, and he can deliver it back just as hard."
Although Radach says he's never had any problems with Leben's striking in their past, he says there is a dangerous stylistic clash. "Our standup styles are bad for each one of us. I'm a straight puncher. I have a straight right. And he's a left-hander with a hook. I'm open to his hook and he's open to my straight right. So it's kind of like, whoever hits the other first ...."
It was almost exactly eight months ago when Radach was hit first by little known Danny Lafever. The punch was an overhand right. Radach never saw it, not in his dreams or anyone else's. He's seen the stunning knockout blow several times since however, through the bitter replays that have run in his mind, reminding him of how he got cocky and got beat in front of family and friends by someone who shouldn't have even been in the ring with him.
Asked whether the knockout, which came in his last fight to-date, may render him just a bit gun-shy against Leben, Radach doesn't hesitate in replying. "No," he says quickly. "It's kind of opened my eyes to a lot of things. I know I can get knocked out. And I know if I am hesitant or if I'm not fighting my fight, then that's more of a chance for you to get knocked out. If you are gun-shy ... that's when you get knocked out because you're not taking it to him and you're not setting the pace."
Hence, Radach plans on striding out of the gate at a pace he intends the fight to follow. Leben, however, feels his opponent will indeed be affected by the nasty knockout he suffered in his last bout. "He has to be a little wary about his chin," says Leben. "I think he's going to be timid to overcommit. I don't think he's going to rush me. I think he's going to try to draw me out and look for that one big shot."
Regardless, neither fighter really throws anything that isn't packed with power and the intention to blast a hole through its target. The implications of this are very real: one friend could make a highlight of another tomorrow night, and one could be leaving the ring not exactly sure how to feel about his win as the other exits with a confused stare from a foggy and recently regained consciousness.
Perhaps the most overlooked skill of either fighter, though, is Radach's wrestling ability, which is better than that of most middleweights in the sport and could be his ace in the hole. Leben remains undaunted, however. "I think he's probably, technically, a better wrestler," he says. "He probably knows a little bit more than me on the ground, but no way is he as tough as me."
INSECURITY AND BLOODBATHS
Despite all the physical attributes that both fighters bring to the table, general health may be the most vital element. There's a marked difference between the two that can be heard when talking with them over the phone just 48 hours before their showdown. Leben sounds confident, eager now when he wasn't before; Radach sounds like he belongs in a hospital somewhere.
"I've had a lot of obstacles," says Radach, "like a staph infection and I got bit by a brown recluse spider. That kind of threw me out for a while. It's just been kind of a tough time. If he's going to beat me, this is the best time."
Radach's tone is less complaining and more genuine realization that he can't work full-time and fight at this level much longer. "It's just kind of kicking my ass," he says. Leben is in the same boat, but he's getting out of it very soon to concentrate on fighting. Radach is stuck until this fall at least, and his weary schedule coupled with infections and spider bites have stirred up an air of uncertainty.
"My body's so crazy right now," he says. "I'm actually really worried about how I'm going to perform strength-wise and stuff like that because I've had a lot hold me up."
It's not a good time for Radach's body to be going haywire. Leben is hungry, and figures that a win over his friend could catapult him into the UFC. "If I have it my way," says Leben, "it's going to be a bloodbath. It's going to be all over the place and, in the end, he's going to be knocked out."
Radach feels a win will keep his name a familiar one at 185, which will assist the major breakthrough he expects to make as soon as he can fight full-time. As long as he holds up physically, says Radach, he will beat his former and probably future training partner. "If I'm on my game and my conditioning is where it needs to be," he says, "I should have no problem beating him. No one's really stopped him at all. He's run through people and then he had that war with Doerksen. I want to be the first guy to put a stop to him real quick."
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