By Thomas Gerbasi
Nothing about his 22 pro wins, his reign as the first UFC lightweight champion, or his legacy as the man who put the lighter weight classes on the map here in the States; we’ll save that for later.
November, 2000 – Atlantic City, New Jersey - Its a couple days before UFC 28, the organization’s first show in New Jersey, and my first live mixed martial arts event. I had come over from boxing, and on that end of the combat sports street, fighters usually don’t get put in the same room before fight night – at least not without plenty of space and barriers to avoid conflict. It’s just the way it is.
In MMA though, there were fighters’ rule meetings before the event, the media was allowed in as well (well, at least the handful of media that covered the sport then), and the fighters not only sat in the same room, they socialized. There were no mean mugs shot across the room, no trash talk; just a bunch of guys trained to fight who were about to compete against each other. It may as well have been basketball night at the Y.
Anyway, I was covering the event for Bruce Buffer’s LetsRumble.com and had my teenage nephew in tow to take pictures (he worked cheap – some KFC on the Garden State Parkway usually did the trick). I had been watching the UFC since its debut in 1993 and my nephew had gotten up to speed pretty quick on all the stars at the time. So as we’re scoping out the ballroom at the Trump Taj Mahal for photos and interviews, we spot Jens Pulver, a rising lightweight star with dynamite in his left hand and a cool nickname – “Lil’ Evil”. We approach him, days before he’s about to fight jiu-jitsu ace John Lewis in a pivotal lightweight bout, and before we can say anything, he shoots out his hand, with a big smile on his face, and says “Hey, I’m Jens.”
It was almost as if he didn’t expect us to know who one of the top young stars in the game was. Either that or it was just his manner. We stumbled back with ‘C’mon man, we know who you are,’ everybody laughed, and so it began.
But that’s Jens Pulver.
October, 2007 – Cincinnati, Ohio - Rich Franklin is fighting a middleweight championship rematch in his hometown against the man who took his crown, Anderson Silva. In town that weekend, with his wife to be Kannika, is Jens Pulver. Recently signed to the WEC’s featherweight division, Pulver was not only watching the fights; he was going to take the chance to take care of some media obligations to pump up his debut in the organization later that year against Cub Swanson.
So on the morning of UFC 77, Jens and I found a little spot in an area near the hotel escalators. The recorder went on the table and we began. It was a familiar ritual for the two of us by now, and if anyone was comfortable when the tape was rolling, it was Jens Pulver. But just as we got the interview underway, Jens was approached by a fan with a story to tell and a piece of paper to be signed.
“Do you mind?” Jens asked me courteously, not that my answer was going to make a difference. He was going to talk to this young man regardless.
‘Nah, go ahead.’
Autograph signed, story heard, thanks given, we continued.
Then, another interruption, and another and another. Each one, he apologized to me, and then went about treating each and every fan like he or she was the only person in the room.
As he told me later, “It’s cool for a guy like me, who has been in the sport for years, to feel wanted. Most people come up and say ‘thanks for taking the time to do this’, and I always say ‘no, don’t thank me. I thank you. That’s you taking two minutes out of your day to walk up and tell me ‘hey, I appreciate what you do in the cage or on the show.’ And people don’t have to do that. So to this day, people wonder how I can stand for two hours and do this. Hey, if that’s how long it takes and if that many people want to come up to me and say hello, then that’s how long I’m gonna stand there because I appreciate them and I appreciate them taking the time out of their day to come up and see me.”
We finished our interview a week later over the phone.
That’s Jens Pulver.
Sometime between 2004 and 2006, during Pulver’s four fight stint in PRIDE - For a lot of fighters who made their bones in the United States, specifically the UFC, fighting in Japan was always a goal, even if it was just once. Pulver got his chance for the first time in 2002 in a UFO show, then had a couple fights in Shooto before debuting in PRIDE against Takanori Gomi in a 2004 classic. We talked about fighting in Japan, and then came the shocker, as Pulver admitted that he had not only a fear of flying, but a fear of large crowds.
“Ain’t that a bitch?” he laughed.
That’s Jens Pulver.
When you cover someone long enough, it’s these little moments you remember the most, and not necessarily the spectacular ups and inevitable downs that take place over the course of an athletic career. But despite his loss to Javier Vazquez last weekend in Columbus, Ohio, this isn’t going to be a funeral for Jens Pulver. Yeah, maybe we have seen him fight for the last time, but this is one 34-year old husband and father who has plenty of life left to live, so let’s just call this a celebration of one chapter.
Pulver arrived in the fight game after battling through an abusive childhood and not only surviving, but thriving, graduating from Boise State University with a degree in Criminal Justice / Sociology. But the 9 to 5 world was not for him, and the former college wrestler sought out a new life as a mixed martial artist. But after a trip to California to train with the late Bob Shamrock didn’t pan out, he was at a crossroads.
“When I quit my job, I thought, ‘oh god, I just left security, a steady paycheck’ and I just gave up everything I had in college: my house, my car, I left everything,” Pulver told me before his 2001 fight with Dennis Hallman. “And I packed up my stuff and went to California. And when that failed, I thought that I had completely ruined my life. I got really scared, I was really paranoid, and then I got the opportunity to come out to Iowa. That’s when I said, ‘you know what, this is my second chance. I’m going to go out and give it 150%.’ I’m not going to play around. I’m doing this dead on, dead serious. I’ll fight anytime, anywhere, anybody. This is what I’m doing. I made the sacrifice, now I’ve got to go out there and make it happen. My family was scared. Everything was stable and perfect in Idaho. I was renting a house, I had a car, I had clothes, friends, a job, a paycheck, and retirement fund. And they were very scared for me. They thought it was a huge mistake. Not so much that I had failed, but just maybe because the fight world wasn’t ready for people to come out like I did, wanting to do it full-time, needing the attention of trainers full-time. So for a while, everybody was holding their breaths, leaving it up to me, like ‘hey, we trust you. You go do what you’ve got to do.’ So that’s what I did. I got on a train with two bags and two and a half days later I showed up in Iowa.”
In Iowa, training with the Miletich Fighting Systems team, Pulver found his home. He turned pro in April of 1999 with a TKO win over Curtis Hill, and he was off and running. Five months later he was making his UFC debut, battling to a draw with Alfonso Alcarez.
By March of 2000, he got his first Octagon victory, stopping David Velasquez in two rounds, and after victories over Joao Roque and the aforementioned John Lewis, he had earned a shot to become the first ever UFC 155-pound champion when he took on Japanese star Caol Uno at UFC 30 on February 23, 2001.
And after five rounds, Pulver did it, earning a unanimous decision over Uno. He was a world champion, but not without some tense moments after the final bell as he waited for the final verdict.
“You never want to leave it in the judges’ hands,” he recalled. “If you can finish it, you want to finish it. (trainer) Pat (Miletich) was like, ‘you did it, you’re the champ.’ I think it all rained on me that I had just gone 25 minutes with the best fighter in the world, and I held my own. And I did a lot of thinking about everything that I’ve trained for and done, from a little kid wanting to be a world champion in boxing. I’ve always wanted to be a world champion. So many things rushed through my head. The first time I watched UFC, and the second that I decided that this is what I wanted to do. It just all came running into my head. I’m a decision away from reaching something that I’ve been chasing after for three, four years in Ultimate Fighting alone. All the hard work, and it all comes down to a decision. I was just holding my breath, and I was ecstatic. I loved my life at that moment. A lot of people have dreams but they don’t get a chance to accomplish them. I was a decision away from achieving the biggest dream of my life.”
There would be no rest for the new champion. Media tours and appearances filled his days between training sessions, and six months after winning the belt he was back in the Octagon to defend it against rival Dennis Hallman. The pre-fight war of words between the two was a memorable one, with Pulver laying out just what he brought to the table when the bell rang.
“I might not have the submissions, I might not have the all-around rounded skills, but I’ve got something inside of me, and that’s what ‘Lil’ Evil’ is. There’s something inside of me that says, ‘hell no, I ain’t going anywhere.’ I’m not kidding. You hit me, I enjoy it. Punch me, I enjoy it. Come at me, come as hard as you can. All it does is make me want to fight harder. I love it. I love being punched. Uno hit me, and I was like ‘yeah, come on, we’re gonna fight.’ I want to be in a war. I get beaten by people three times my size over here in this gym. The more you come at me, the more I’m going to come at you. I know I’m walking out the winner. I know you cannot break my heart and you will not break my spirit. I know I will melt you down. That’s something you can’t train for.”
“And you can’t train for a left hand,” Pulver continued. “You can’t train for the power. When power hits you, it hits you. There’s nothing you can do about it. What are you gonna do, let a block bust you upside the chin to try and numb it so maybe you won’t get knocked out? I’m the kind of fighter where if I was fighting a guy like Dennis Hallman, I’ll walk out and say, ‘yeah, he hurt an arm, or he hurt something.’ But when I go in there and fight, people have that fear that I may bust something. Like when I shattered Lewis’ jaw. I’m going to go in there and inflict the kind of damage that’s painful. You have to worry about that. When I throw a punch, it can break something. Every time I throw, I’m trying to throw as hard as possible, and I hope something snaps, be it my hand or their face.”
It was a stark reminder that while Pulver was one of the most affable people in the game outside the Octagon, when the door closed, he was a fighter. This dichotomy was what made him a fan favorite and one of the media’s ‘must-haves’ when it came to pre-fight coverage.
After defeating Hallman via five round decision, Pulver was matched up with unbeaten Hawaiian wunderkind BJ Penn. This one wasn’t going to be pretty, and Pulver’s Cinderella story was going to end in spectacular fashion in Connecticut on January 11, 2002.
At least that’s what most believed.
"I just can't believe it," Pulver told me before the fight. "I'm dumbfounded. At the same time I'm glad. If they think he's that unbeatable and unstoppable, then more power to him. I felt that making me a 3-1 underdog just showed a big-time disrespect to me. But I get to prove more people wrong. I ain't losing this fight. He can train all he wants, it doesn't matter. I think he's a great fighter, he's skilled, he's explosive, and I like the guy. He's always been respectful to me and I've always been respectful to him. I'm battling a fighter in front of me, respect issues, the fans, my career, and things inside my own head. He just happens to be the person that's got to receive the punishment that I'm going to be dishing out because of it."
What ensued over the next five rounds turned into what I consider one of the best fights of all-time, and not just because it pitted two of my personal favorites against each other. It was because of the drama, of the talent and heart of both men, of the twists and turns, and of the final result, when Pulver shut up the critics and took home a well-deserved five round majority decision.
But before it got to that point, so much happened, and before the two fought again in 2007, I had the opportunity to ask Pulver about that winter night in 2002.
With the years wearing off the pre-fight anger he felt before his first clash with Penn, Pulver admitted that he was a little nervous after ‘The Prodigy’ blasted out Caol Uno in 11 seconds; the same Uno that Pulver went 25 minutes with. Unfortunately, Pulver was doing commentary on the fight, and had to put on a brave face.
“I watched the 11 second smacking, and I couldn’t be on TV going ‘oh my goodness, I’m worried,’” laughed Pulver. “So I said, ‘he might be good, but he ain’t evil.’ That’s what I had to tell myself, that I had something inside of me that can’t be taught.”
Early on, the fight went according to prediction as Penn started fast and even locked in an armbar late in the second round that almost ended the bout. As Pulver walked back to his corner after barely escaping defeat, doubt flooded his mind.
“After that second round ended, when he had that armbar which I did not tap to, I remember sitting in the corner and going ‘oh my God, I’m gonna walk out in this third round, he’s gonna take me down, he’s gonna mount me and beat the hell out of me again – what am I doing?’”
Then inspiration came from an unlikely source as he stared across the Octagon and saw a member of Penn’s camp mocking him.
“Somebody in his corner, one of his little entourage, was jumping up and down and doing the cut throat (gesture) at me,” chuckled Pulver. “And I looked right at him and I was like ‘are you kidding me?’ So because of that guy, I said ‘no way’ and he never got another takedown. That was the thing that I needed in my head. If I get beat, I get beat, but I ain’t going out like this.”
Pulver roared back over the next three rounds and won the bout. It would be his last in the UFC for over four years due to a contract dispute. Over those four years, Pulver continued to fight, but there was always something missing for him.
“The part that has always haunted me, when I parted ways in the beginning, was the incompletion for me,” he said. “Along the way I had to find some way of surviving, more or less, because I was the original – Matt (Hughes) wasn’t even champion, it was just me traveling around with Tito (Ortiz). And the rest of the team was like, ‘aw, you’ve got to do your own thing – you’re too cool for us.’ And all of a sudden it 180’s and I’m not in and here comes all of MFS – now you’ve got Team UFC here at Miletich camp. All right, whatever. But in order for any kind of survival for me and my career, I had to say, ‘you know what? This is business.’ I’ve got to fight because I need the money, I gotta fight because I need to pay my bills. And it helped. But in the back of my mind and in my heart, there was a lot of incompletion.”
“I missed being home,” Pulver said at the time. “I missed being part of something extremely special in the United States, something that was growing. I was a kid the first time around, had a belt, and had everybody telling me how good I was. A lot of politics got in the way and it was so long ago now in my head and what I’ve changed to, that I’m just glad to be home.”
Fights against Joe Lauzon and Penn followed, along with a stint as a coach on season five of The Ultimate Fighter that introduced him to a new generation of fans. Next up was a debut in the WEC’s featherweight division, where he submitted Cub Swanson in 35 seconds back in December of 2007. Ironically, if Pulver never fights again, the man whose legendary left hand led to scores of knockout victories will have had his final win by submission.
And despite his subsequent losing streak over the last couple years, who cares? Who cares about Willie Mays in a New York Mets uniform, or Joe Namath taking the field as a member of the Los Angeles Rams? You remember ‘The Say Hey Kid’ roaming the outfield with grace while striking fear into opposing pitchers, and Namath pulling off the impossible as he led the Jets to a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III. For me and so many others, Jens Pulver will always be the kid knocking out John Lewis, defeating BJ Penn, and going to war with Takanori Gomi. He is a pioneer for the lighter weight classes in mixed martial arts, an inspiration to a generation of fighters 155 pounds and below, and that’s just based on what he did in competition.
Outside the cage or ring, Pulver continues to inspire, and will do so long after his gloves are hung up. Surviving what he has over the years is impressive enough; being open and talking about it lifts it to a new level, and despite all the great things he’s done as a fighter that may be his greatest legacy.
So for us on the other side of the cage, I think I can speak for all my colleagues in saying that it’s been an honor to cover Jens Pulver all these years. There hasn’t been one like him in this sport, and probably never will be again.
Thanks Lil’ Evil.