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LAS VEGAS – Few fighters in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship know what it's like to scrape themselves off the deck and win an important bout as much as Chris Leben.
And Leben, who stopped Aaron Simpson in the second round of his fight Saturday on "The Ultimate Fighter Finale" at the Palms Casino, knew the men sitting on each side of him had done just as much.
To Leben's right was light heavyweight Matt Hamill, who made it to the UFC despite being deaf. Hamill, who won a majority decision over Keith Jardine in the co-main event that earned each man a $25,000 bonus for Fight of the Night, had a series of maladies bothering him on Saturday.
He had a sore on his back that he said is a Staph infection. He broke his left hand early in the first round. He was poked in the eye. And he said he had a series of other injuries. "What wasn't hurt?" Hamill said, joking, after arguably the most significant win of his career.
To Leben's left was Court McGee, who won the TUF 11 title by tapping out Kris McCray with a rear naked choke in the second round. McGee is a former heroin addict who was once declared clinically dead.
McGee broke up Saturday as he accepted "The Ultimate Fighter" plaque from UFC president Dana White in the cage. Asked later about his emotions, McGee said it was because of the struggle he had to get to the top.
"That was seven years all in one minute right there," McGee said of the moment when he broke down and cried. "I dedicate that fight to anyone who's struggling. If you came from where I came from to get to where I'm at today, you'd have done the same thing."
Leben shook his head knowingly as McGee spoke. Leben's got enough personal demons to fill a set of encyclopedias.
He said all fighters are wired differently than the average person and said that's what makes them good at what they do.
"Fighters are like strippers: They ain't paying their way through college," Leben said. "If you don't understand what that means, you have to realize that there is always something underlying with all of us. Nobody in their right mind, no normal, sane person, goes '[expletive] college, screw my guidance counselor. I'm going to put all my chips in one basket to become a cage fighter so I can get the crap kicked out of me in front of other people.' Obviously, there is something wrong going on there.
"This guy (McGee) right here is the perfect example. It's that obsessive energy that we have that makes us different. It's that obsessive energy that, yeah, makes me cause a lot of problems for myself in my life. But look, look at where he's at now, willing to do whatever it is. Most fighters I know do whatever they do 110 percent.
For me, it's all or nothing," he said. "It's either full throttle or nothing. Either I'm eating ice cream and candy or I'm dieting 100 percent. I'm yin and yang. If I go out and have a drink, I'm going to go out and get [expletive] trashed. I know that. That's why I'm not going to do that tonight. It's the same thing in the ring and it's that type of personality that makes all of us up here in front of you, it's what got us here. We all have something like that in us."
The win for Hamill was probably the biggest of his career. He's coming off a victory over the highly regarded Jon Jones, but that came by disqualification in a fight in which he was being handled fairly easily.
On Saturday, Hamill pushed the pace and outslugged Jardine in a back-and-forth bloody fight in which guts and desire played as big of a role as talent. Hamill got inadvertently poked in the eye in the second round by Jardine and went to the mat in pain.
But he wasn't about to give in.
"I fought my heart out," Hamill said. "He poked me in the eye and I thought I was going to be blind as well as deaf. That's two major handicaps. Bottom line is, I wasn't giving up. I was going to go all out."
Jardine went all out in an attempt to break a three-fight losing skein. He came at Hamill hard, but never landed the huge fight-changing punch he needed.
The loss was his fourth in a row and the fifth in his last six fights. White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva are going to have a very difficult discussion in the next several days about Jardine's future with the promotion.
He laid it all on the line on Saturday, but he came up short again.
But the theme of the night was overcoming odds. Leben did it, overcoming a broken home, a drinking problem and an arm's length of other woes. Hamill did it, getting past deafness to become one of the top mixed martial arts fighters in the world.
And McGee, who was declared clinically dead, rallied from his addiction to black tar heroin, among other things, to make something of himself as a fighter. Even once he qualified for the show, he did so with next-to-no money in his pocket.
"I was only making about $100 more a month than I had to spend in bills," he said.
McGee lost a controversial first-round fight to Nick Ring, but got back into the competition when Rich Attonito broke his hand and had to withdraw. He progressively got better each time out.
Like Hamill, he's going to become an inspirational figure for those who are down and seemingly out.
"There's nothing too much to overcome if you really want it enough and care enough," McGee said. "I'm the perfect example of that. I was as low as a human being could get, not that low ago, and look where I am right now. Incredible."