This is how I'll remember Jens Pulver -- as a champion.
A couple of nice shout outs to MMA legend Jens Pulver on the occasion of his seventh loss in eight fights. First Josh Gross:
Jens Pulver had a tremendous career --As kids continue to change the sport, mixed martial arts' "second generation" is finally being betrayed by the same thing that claims all athletes. Fading youth. Punishment to the body. Fleeting motivation. There is, after all, only one RandyCouture.
Judging by the emotion in his voice and the tone of his sentiments, we're done seeing Jens Pulver (22-13-1) lace up four-ounce gloves. At least for a while. Pulver is mixed martial arts' first great lightweight. He won the UFC belt on Dana White's debut card as a promoter. He defended it in Las Vegas, a first for MMA, on the UFC's return to pay-per-view. And then he validated it by winning a decision against B.J. Pennin the first lightweight-headlined UFC.
Time worked its magic and Pulver, now, is 35 and a loser in seven of his last eight fights, the last four in the opening round. I don't doubt he'll fight again. At some point his heart, the thing that really made Pulver special -- both in the cage and out -- will churn up enough dander that he has to get out there again. But as a professional fighter Saturday night, he acknowledged he doesn't have it anymore. And, essentially, that's the same thing.
"Lil Evil" -- a nickname that worked and didn't work at the same time -- should have a great future in color commentary. The sport needs great voices on television to tell the audience what's happening. So long as he does it with impartiality, he'll be great.
And Mike Chiappetta:
...he told me that he was going to have to face his mortality twice in life: when he's dying, and when he's told he's too old to ever do it again as an athlete. It struck me because while some athletes have that level of self-awareness during a time of sadness, change and in some cases desperation, few have the level of honesty needed to acknowledge that in one way, he is dying right before our eyes.
Pulver might not have gone quietly or in the blaze of glory that his fans had hoped. Instead, he went out the same way he came in, fighting fiercely. At 35 years old, with a record of 22-13-1 and losses in seven of his last eight fights after losing to Javier Vazquez, Pulver might be forever done in the cage, but the numbers hardly matter. What matters is what he gave us, and what he gave us was generous; he was a pioneer, a building block, an ambassador, a champion.
For years, he'd thought the past was worthless. He'd stored his belts away in boxes, ignored them, let them get dusty. They no longer mattered the way his abusive childhood no longer mattered. But with his mind clear, he came to understand it all mattered. These were all things that could not be taken from him. His painful experiences had given him drive, and that drive had led him to championships, and those championships had led him to today.
And that, he finally realized, was a good thing.
Chiappetta's piece also includes some great quotes from some of the younger fighters on last night's WEC 47 card honoring Pulver. Well worth a read.
For those who missed Pulver's glory days as the first UFC lightweight champion, you missed seeing one of the pioneers of the sprawl and brawl style that later carried Chuck Liddell to superstardom. Pulver used his wrestling base to keep fights on the feet where his crushing left hand came to bear.
His crushing 0:15 win over MMA pioneer John Lewis at UFC 28 was one of the most stunning moments of the "dark ages" when the UFC wasn't widely available. Pulver's retirement of Lewis was a clear signal that there was a new generation of lightweights in MMA. Pulver's epic battles with the other captains of that class like Caol Uno, Dennis Hallman, Din Thomas, Takanori Gomi, Duane "Bang" Ludwig, and Steven Palling, cemented MMA's lightweight division as one of the most exciting brackets in the game.
And of course his epic five round victory over B.J. Penn at UFC 35 will always be the greatest part of Pulver's legacy. Coming in as the defending champion only to be a 3-to-1 underdog against the fearsome undefeated Penn, Pulver showed what it means to have the heart of a champion. Surviving Penn's early blitz and being saved by the bell at the end of the second round from a Penn armbar, Pulver came back hard against the rapidly gassing Prodigy and forced Penn to respect his power, and most of all, fear his champion's heart.
Sadly Pulver immediately left the UFC in a contract dispute and immediately went 2-2 outside the organization.
But his glory days weren't over yet, he had a second run in PRIDE where he lost to some of the best of Japan in epic wars with Takanori Gomi and the much larger Hayato "Mach" Sakurai.
Happily he got to end his career with a final run in the UFC and Zuffa's little brother organization the WEC. His championship challenge to featherweight champion Urijah Faber in 2008 was not only the biggest fight in that promotion's history, it was also an epic battle between two great champs. Pulver couldn't quite beat the lightening fast California Kid to the punch, but he forced the fight to a decision and landed many a hard-staggering blow along the way.
His autobiography, Little Evil: One Ultimate Fighter's Rise to the Top, which tells the hair raising and heart breaking story of Pulver's childhood and horrifically abusive father, is recommended reading as well.
So long Jens, I hope that Josh Gross is right and we can look forward to hearing you in the broadcast booth for many years to come. I know I'll be re-watching your greatest fights, including the losses to Gomi, Sakurai and Faber, for years to come and showing them to my kid when it's time for him to learn about heart.