Saturday, March 5th. Illinois is in deep cloud cover, awash with snow and icy rain. Forty minutes west of Chicago, in the town of Villa Park, inside the Odeum Expo Center, Jens Pulver is hounding local palooka Wade Choate around the cage. It's the closing minutes of their three-round affair. The arena is already half emptied out.
For Pulver, having just snapped a six-fight losing streak last January, this fight is the first chance in nearly five years for him to put two wins together and begin to change the story of the end of his career. Wade Choate is in a hole almost as deep. Dubbed "The Last Dog Man," he also just recently emerged from a stretch of losses, which saw his record fall to 12-12-0 before a win last August. He's a little younger than Pulver, but he's never reached the heights the former UFC champ has seen. As if he'd like to erase the past two years of his career, Choate's introduction states his record as it stood in January of 2009, before his five-fight skid: 12-7-0. It's easy to imagine how desperate he is to string a couple of wins together, and though outside the cage he may have observed Pulver's recent downward spiral with due sympathy, in the fight it's every man for himself. Hence Choate's refusal to stand in the pocket, and his stubborn adherence to a stick-and-move game plan. It's been surprisingly effective. Pulver's had trouble chasing him down all night, and his power shots have come slow and fallen short time and again. It's enough to draw angry boos from the crowd. Unthinkably, the words "You suck" rain down from somewhere in the audience.
Pulver and Choate fight it out for a final, lonely couple of minutes. When it comes time to hear the judges' decision, Pulver favors his left foot as he walks over to the referee. It's a close fight to call, but people nevertheless crowd the exits.
The doldrums of the main event belie the enthusiasm surrounding the night's preliminary fights. In a small town, at an event like the Chicago Cagefighting Championship, most of the audience can be broken down into factions of family and friends, each dedicated to the support, invested in the fate, of one young fighter. Across the aisle to our right, elderly men and women cheer for lightweight Will Brooks who, in his second professional fight, obliges his mother--"Choke him, baby!"--and submits fellow novice Guillermo Serment with a rear naked in the second round.
Down in the floor seats, Carson Beebe's family falls silent as he goes unconscious from Giovanni Moljo's inverted triangle choke. Beebe failed to tap, and now his legs are stiff, stuck at a gruesome thirty degree angle in the air.
Middleweight Dan Bolden defies logic by walking out to a Limp Bizkit song, despite living in the 21st century. He's from Chicago, but that does little for the partisan crowd firmly supporting Schaumburg, Illinois's Mike Pitz. The local favorite is dropped twice before dragging Bolden to the mat. Shouts of "Get him Pitzy!" erupt behind us. Bolden reverses, only to land in a fight-ending triangle choke. Prior to his post fight interview, Pitz coughs up vomit and blood. Thankfully, the cornball announcer plants his foot right in the mess before leaping back in disgust. After changing, Pitz takes a seat behind us, and humors his wise-cracking buddies.
Andrea Miller traveled all the way from Salt Lake City, only to suffer a first round TKO to Felice Herrig. To our left, a woman calls for slaughter: "Rip her head off, Felice! Kill her!" Herrig plants Miller on her back and unloads with elbows. The referee stops the bout as Miller goes fetal. After the fight, speaking into the announcer's microphone, Herrig says hello to all the old faces she hasn't seen in a while, and the bloodthirsty woman from the stands rushes down the steps to the door of the cage.
By the time Pulver makes his entrance, the remaining audience has grown a little chilly, and everyone's patience seems worn thin after Chase Beebe's workmanlike decision victory over the well-traveled but unheralded Steve Kinnison in the co-main event. Pulver and Choate go to work before an apathetic, murmuring crowd. A lone fan calls out Pulver's name, and some rotten son-of-a-bitch nearby promptly scoffs and ridicules him for it. Heckling starts as Pulver and Choate come out for the third.
For most of us readers, it's unthinkable that Pulver should receive anything but limitless good will. Indeed, it seems that Pulver has almost become more popular, more dear to fight fans, since his tumble down the ranks. It soon becomes clear, though, that for this audience, the name Pulver--the two-tone eyes and crooked grin that we associate with it--has little weight. Someone behind us asks, "Does the guy in green wrestle much?"
Pulver, in green shorts, limps his way to the final bell. It turns out he broke his foot, somewhere in the first round by his reckoning. The handicap nearly sticks him with another loss, but the third judge's scorecard reads 29-28 Pulver, and "Li'l Evil" scrapes by.
Pulver apologizes to the near-empty stands, and confesses that he's taking small steps to rebuild his career. Strange to see him like this, down in that small-time cage, rendered anonymous by so many small-town Americans. If I didn't know any better, I'd think that Pulver didn't mind a bit, as he flashes a smile and says he hopes to fight here again real soon. For whatever reason--a pinch in his wallet or his nonstop-fight-loving heart--Jens Pulver can't walk away.