This is number fifty-four in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re honored to feature legendary MMA fighter, Jens Pulver. Pulver is a fighter’s fighter. He was a pioneer of the lightweight division, and the UFC’s first lightweight champion. Over the years, he has entertained us with his performances in the cage, but he has also let us inside his heart and mind as he has shared his story and his struggles. He does so again here, in this interview, in a uniquely beautiful and honest way. Jens is a Hall Of Famer, pure and simple, and the story of MMA can never be written without him. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Jens Pulver: I started messing around with MMA in Seattle. Then, coming back to Boise State University, I began to play with the idea of being an MMA fighter more and more. But it really wasn't until I got into the Bas Rutten Invitationals that I really wanted to take a crack at MMA. It was tough because it was only legal in a few states. It truly was being kept alive via the internet and The Underground forum, and there was no 155lb division in the UFC. I had my work cut out for me if I was going to get into MMA. Meeting John Perretti at the Bas Rutten Invitational is how I got started. He gave me the opportunity to fight in the UFC, and after that first fight, I was hooked. I knew that it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the UFC champ and I wanted to pioneer the 155lb division.
JB: What do you recall about your professional MMA debut, at the second Bas Rutten Invitational back in 1999, when you won one fight and lost the other, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
JP: The only difference, between wrestling practice and fighting in the Bas Rutten invitational at that time, was that I took my shirt off. I still fought in wrestling shoes and had no real idea about submissions. My first fight, we decided I needed to stand up and show Perretti that I could be more well-rounded than just a take ‘em down and pound on ‘em type of fighter. The second fight was nuts. We fought for twenty-six plus minutes in that one, and I swear I beat that man with everything including the kitchen sink, but he just would not go down. When he dropped down on my leg, I thought to myself there is no way in hell you will take me down from this position, but sure enough he wiggled around a bit and caught my foot in his armpit and cranked a heel hook. I was clueless that it could even happen. It sucked too. I mean, I beat him up badly, and be damned, I lost the fight. It was crazy to me how fast the tide could change.
JB: You went on to make your UFC debut just months after making your professional debut. That fight, at UFC 22, ended in a draw. Over the next year, you alternated fights in the UFC with fights in WEF. Though you lost a fight to Din Thomas in WEF, you won all your fights in the UFC and you amassed a record of 6-0-1 in the UFC during that initial run. Including beating Caol Uno to become the first UFC lightweight champion, and then defending the belt against both Dennis Hallman and BJ Penn, what were your personal highlights from that time and what helped you become and remain champion?
JP: I still remember sitting on the train for two days, heading out to Iowa with my two duffel bags of clothes, to meet my new team and manager. I remember walking into the gym for the first time and thinking, “this is it. This is home for me.” I could go the easy route and say winning the UFC title was the highlight, but that would not do that time justice. I truly think back to those days and really can’t remember a point or a fight that wasn't a highlight for me. Sitting in the locker room, and waiting for one of my teammates as they got ready to go out into the cage, was easily so much harder for me to deal with. I just wanted it to be my turn because it was easier inside the cage than out. We truly were a band of brothers, and I hated how anxious I would get for their fights. I was way more worked up for them than I ever was for my own fights. In fact, when we would have one or two, or three even, on the same card, I usually would fight first and the only real pressure I would put on myself was, "there was no way I was going to lose out there and have to come back into the locker room and have to face all of them knowing I had just let them down." The one fight that still stands out above them all though was my fight with John Lewis. I had to lay in bed or on the floor the last week and a half leading up to that fight. My sciatic nerve was burning down my left leg and my lower back was a wreck. When I got to the UFC, we would just move the beds aside in my hotel room so we could walk through the game plan, and no one would be able to see that I could barely stand up let alone walk. That was the hardest I ever punched someone because I knew I was on borrowed time just being inside that cage that night, and I had to get it over early or I was in trouble.
JB: After your return to the UFC, you coached the lightweights against BJ Penn in the extremely talented and entertaining fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter. Though you have since become friends, how was coaching against BJ in advance of your rematch, and what was being on reality TV like for you?
JP: It was tough for me being on that season as a coach. I mean, I had been battling horrible anxiety and depression throughout my life, but being on the TUF show really tested me. I am probably my own worst critic in both life and inside the cage, and having to coach this group of outstanding fighters, I was worried that I had nothing to offer. Plus they had a superstar for a coach when I was just, well, me, and I knew I could not compete with that. I met a great group of guys on that show, from both teams, and when it was all said and done, I was very lucky and very thankful to be a part of it. I still, to this day, wish nothing but the best for those guys every time they go out there and fight, no matter what team they were on. I would like to think BJ and I will be friends now and long after we have left the cage. And that goes for all the guys out there, especially on that show. I am the Godfather of the lightweight division, and I hold all of those guys from that season in high regard.
JB: Though the wins have not been as frequent as the losses in this latter half of your career, you have fought many tough guys in the UFC, WEC, and elsewhere. What has this part of your career, including fighting at lighter weights, been like for you?
JP: There is no way to describe it other than I have become my own worst enemy out there in the cage. I have become my own worst critic. No one can put me down more than I put myself down, long before the fight even happens. People ask and wonder why do I still fight? I can only tell them that if I stop now, anxiety and depression will win and take all that I have accomplished and love about this sport away with it. I fight now because training has always been my salvation, my way of not giving up when I was being beaten down from life, my father, and from depression and anxiety. I have always had training to get me through and keep me from giving up. I still need it now just as much as I did back in junior high. Physically, I feel great, but mentally, I am washed up well past my years.
JB: You most recently fought last month, at the OneFC bantamweight grand prix. What do you think remains for you in your fighting career?
JP: Nothing. I am fighting to put a smile back on my face and to walk away from this sport feeling proud for having the chance to even get out there and entertain all the incredible people that have taken time to watch me.
JB: There's been discussion in recent years that you should be one of the next to be recognized as a UFC Hall of Famer. What would having that distinction mean to you?
JP: It would be a great ending moment for me. To have started when we were literally kept alive via The Underground forum, to the UFC now being the biggest brand out there, is unreal. I have always believed that the UFC just needed a chance and it would shine. I am forever thankful for Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta, Dana White, and Joe Silva taking the UFC all the way to the top. Of course, I will also always be thankful and grateful for The Underground forum and for John Perretti giving me that start in the beginning. I am thankful for MMA in general, the fans, and all those who have been involved.
JB: Since you are such a legendary fighter and also a compelling individual, you've been a fan-favorite and the subject of documentaries and books. How has having your personal story being so public affected you and your family?
JP: “Jens Pulver: Driven” (my documentary available on Hulu, Amazon.com, Itunes, and at jenspulverdriven.com) has been inspiring to those who are like me, and battle with the negative side of life, but will not give up on themselves, and choose to keep battling one day at a time. Whenever I am feeling low about myself, I am always reminded by a post or a statement from someone that picks me up and points me back in the right direction. So like I have said before, fans of this sport have saved me and have given me strength more times than they will ever know, and I will never be able to thank them all. So I did the documentary and the book to share with them and let them know that I too am looking for encouraging words from people and that little extra shove to get up, dust myself off, and get back on my horse.
JB: What else do you currently enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
JP: There are too many to name when it comes to supporting me. If they simply read this or have talked to me, they know who they are. They know that I love and thank every one of them for always believing in me and believing that I would amount to something more than what I was supposed to be. There is one person though that I really have to mention, and that is my brother, Abel. He has been with me from the beginning. He was the golden child in my eyes, and I grew up with one thought in my mind: “He was the writer and I was the fighter.” I would not, and will not, let anyone ever hurt that kid, not as long as I am breathing. I love my little brother and I am so thankful to have had the chance to go out there and fight with him in my corner and by my side. He has been the best friend I could have ever asked for in life. Of course, my kids are my life, Maddie Spring, Karson J, and Hayden (angry bird).
I am moving into my gym in Kearney, Nebraska, in July. It is my time to become a coach and a mentor at the 802 MMA Gym. I am also keeping the inner nerd in me alive and still working a lot with Red Harbinger PC. If you are a PC freak, you need to check them out. Also, starting this summer, I am getting back on the river and joining with Crow Creek Expeditions in the guide service. So if anyone ever wants to go fly fishing, with me behind the oars, in Washington, just get at me on Twitter. I also invite people to check out nvrflysolo.com. It’s my personal site that I created to give people a place where they can submit their writing, photos, and videos of things that help them battle with anxiety and depression.
JB: Last question, Jens, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
JP: Fighting saved my life. It all started with wrestling. Wrestling is the reason I graduated high school, the reason I graduated Boise State University, and the reason I became a fighter. Fighting was my tool to build my name, to leave all the dark moments in the past, and to move on to a better, brighter future. Fighting brought my family a lot of joy and recognition. It gave us a reason to get together and see each other, rather than a funeral or a tragedy of some sort. Fighting brought me to here, sitting at my desk, and doing this interview for all of you. Fighting is my life.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow @Jens_Pulver and @Jackjohnbrown on Twitter.
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Thank you to @KirikJenness for @theUG.