Jens Pulver - Bringing A Lil' Evil Back To The UFC
Nice interview from Jens. Says he wants Penn again! HELL YEAH.
BJ Penn was unbeatable. After wins over Joey Gilbert and Din Thomas, the question wasn’t whether Penn would win the UFC® lightweight title, but when. Simply put, Jens Pulver, the current champion, was merely a placeholder until ‘The Prodigy’ decided to take the crown.
Penn had just one more obstacle to get by before he would get his title shot, and that was highly ranked contender Caol Uno at UFC® 34 in November of 2001. Uno had lost a hard-fought five round decision to Pulver almost nine months earlier, but he bounced back with a first round TKO of Fabiano Iha and was on the road to a rematch with ‘Lil Evil’.
Sitting ringside to offer commentary on the bout was the champ.
He wasn’t there long.
In one of the most memorable moments in UFC® history, Penn blitzed Uno, knocking him out in 11 seconds, and followed up the demolition job by sprinting from the Octagon™ to the backstage area and back.
Oh yeah, no one was going to beat BJ Penn. Not even Pulver, who put on a brave face for the fans watching the pay-per-view broadcast.
“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.”
But despite his 5-0-1 record in the Octagon and his status as not only a champion but as one of the good guys of the game, Pulver just wasn’t going to beat Hawaii’s ‘Prodigy’ in Connecticut on January 11, 2002. Or so people thought. And the disrespect motivated him.
“Leading up to the fight and being a 6 to 1 underdog drove me nuts,” he remembered. “I just had to train harder and train harder because I wanted to beat him more than anything. He was the best guy on the ground, decoration-wise, and he’s knocking people out standing up. I was worried, absolutely. But when the week of that fight came, I could see it in him that I had it, because I was coming to fight.”
Early on though, 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 into the fight over the next three rounds, showing the experience and heart that true champions have a patent on, and he rightfully earned a five round majority decision over Penn to retain his UFC lightweight crown. It was a great night for Pulver, and for the sport, which saw the 155-pound weight class take center stage for the first time here in the States.
Then it was over.
A contract dispute saw Pulver leave the UFC and his title behind, and with it, the lightweight division hit a wall. An elimination tournament to crown a new champion produced a final draw between Penn and Uno, and by the time Yves Edwards knocked out Josh Thomson at UFC® 49 in August of 2004, the division was put on the shelf.
Some MMA scribes called it ‘The Curse of Jens Pulver’, but in the time after he left the Octagon, the Iowan wasn’t exactly living a charmed life. Two wins in 2002 were followed by back-to-back knockout losses to Duane Ludwig and Jason Maxwell, and though he bounced back in the latter half of 2003 with victories over Joe Jordan and Richard Hess, it was a far cry from the high profile exposure he enjoyed in the UFC.
In 2004 though, Pulver started to get his groove back. He put together two wins in the Shooto organization in Japan, and went 2-2 in Pride, with his only losses coming to Takanori Gomi and Mach Sakurai. In between these trips overseas, ‘Lil’ Evil’ kicked off a pro boxing career, going 4-0 with 3 KOs and even getting some TV time on ESPN2.
Yet there was still something missing for Pulver, and this was never more evident than just by watching the scene in a restaurant at Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel in June. Pulver sat with friends having lunch, and around him were members of the cast of the third season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter™’ reality show. These young fighters were getting swarmed by autograph seekers and fans, and some were even being followed by camera crews. But Pulver, the one and only UFC® lightweight champion, wasn’t approached. I asked him what goes through his mind in a scene like that.
“This sport’s grown and I’m extremely excited,” he said. “I don’t think anybody doesn’t deserve it because the way the show and the hype is, anybody that can get in and do a good job, these fans are hungry for it, and we knew from the beginning that if it was done right, the fans would be hungry for it. But the part that has always haunted me, when I parted ways in the beginning, was the incompletion for me. 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.”
It could have ended up as a story full of what ifs. But in 2006, the UFC® reinstated the lightweight division on a full-time basis, and what better way to celebrate the return of the sport’s most exciting weight class than by bringing back the original king. At least that’s what conventional thought would have been. But Pulver, whose teammates Spencer Fisher and Roger Huerta are already in the UFC’s lightweight division, didn’t think that the return of 155-pounders automatically meant his return to the Octagon.
“I never did, because we had Spencer and because I was gonna help out and corner Roger for this one, and they have some stacked ’55 pounders,” he said. “I kinda felt like the old man has passed – my window as far as the UFC® and that belt has come and gone. The biggest thing was that the new fans, the reality show fans, have no idea who I am. So they could have started over. But I’ve got a lot of love for (UFC® President) Dana (White) and one of the things, when it was all said and done, is that he said that when they had the TV time and had enough fights available, he was bringing them back. And four years later he lived up to it.”
In June, White made it official, announcing the return of "Lil’ Evil". Did Pulver ever think this day was coming?
“Never,” he admits. “I never thought it would come. I didn’t know the future of the lightweight division or my future, what I was gonna be doing. But when I heard this, it was no decision for me. I knew immediately that this is where I want to be.”
“I missed being home,” Pulver continues. “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. My team’s here, my family’s here, and to me, that’s been the hardest part. Everybody’s missing that I had to go off on my own, do my fight, and I come back and try to help everybody do their thing. And that was tough.”
But he’s home now, and he’s got designs on rising to the top of his weight class once again.
“The 155-pound division is what I built – that’s mine in this sport,” he said. “I’m afraid to talk about it and say I’m back – I don’t want to jinx it. (Laughs) I’m afraid it’s too good to be true.”
So despite the vacant nature of the lightweight title, does he still consider himself the champion even if other fighters may fight for it and win it in the interim?
“No, I left,” said Pulver. “Am I the only champion they had? Yep. Nobody ever beat me. They can find somebody, but they ain’t touching my belt because I didn’t lose my belt. But I am coming after them. If I have to win two, three, or four fights, I will go after their new belt and trade in my own belt and we can fight for both.”
Spoken like a true champion. But what about some other business in the UFC® that fans may be itching to see, maybe, say, a rematch between Pulver and Penn? Does this fight have to happen considering that both are back in the organization?
“I think it has to,” said Pulver, his grin widening. “I’ll make him a deal – I know he’s fat and he’s lazy, so I’ll help him out. (Laughs) If this is what people want to see and he can’t get under 160, I’ll fight him at 165. I know everybody wants to see it, so I’m not gonna be the one to stop it from happening. I’ll be the little guy taking on the chubby guy – that’s okay.”
This time they won’t underestimate the power of a ‘Lil’ Evil’ though.
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