Jens Pulver (left) needed a change of scenery. | Photo: Keith Mills
They are the popular refrains, likely to be uttered more than once by anyone who has fought at a high level for a significant period of time. They usually include “best ever” or a similar variation: best camp ever, best shape ever, best mindset ever. Such hyperbole is best taken with a grain of salt.
However, when a pioneer of mixed martial arts -- an inaugural weight class champion and original member of one of the sport’s most decorated teams -- says such things, it tends raise eyebrows.
Jens Pulver, the UFC’s first lightweight champion, has trained at the legendary Miletich Fighting Systems camp alongside accomplished veterans like Matt Hughes, Robbie Lawler and Jeremy Horn. He has waged entertaining battles over different eras with the likes of Caol Uno, B.J. Penn and Urijah Faber. Still, while struggling through the roughest patch of his 40-bout career, “Little Evil” insists he has never been as well prepared for a fight as he is right now.
At the Team Curran camp near Chicago, Pulver literally lives at the gym founded by UFC and WEC veteran Jeff Curran. There, he has been allowed to attain the type of focus that escaped him even in his native Iowa, where Pulver admits work and home life would sometimes conflict.
“[It’s great] to be able to focus and stay as close to the gym as I have now -- I’m working out every day and I’m learning new things. These guys are phenomenal grapplers. They’ve got everything inside this gym. It’s helped me a ton, because, for the first time, I’m actually in an actual training camp,” he tells Sherdog.com. “It’s different when you stay at home and then you drive to the gym. It’s not as easy [as] when you wake up and you walk downstairs and there’s the gym, or you got people kicking on your door for practice.
“When you go home, outside life, the real world, catches up to you [and] kicks you,” Pulver adds. “All of a sudden, you’re too tired; you don’t want to go to practice. But when you’re here, you’re living the fighting. This is the first time I’ve really committed myself to doing that.”
Pulver will put his new method to the test on Saturday, when he takes on fellow WEC veteran Coty “Ox” Wheeler at MMA Fight Pit “Genesis” in Albuquerque, N.M. Pulver might not be the favorite against Wheeler, a Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts product who was born on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, but he appears to have come a long way since his WEC swan song against Javier Vazquez 17 months ago.
A Vazquez armbar at WEC 47 hyper-extended Pulver’s elbow and saddled him with his fifth straight loss. In the cage after the bout, Pulver hinted at a possible retirement: “I love you all way, way, way too much to put you all through this again. You guys have made my life a miracle.”
As it turned out, the Sunnyside, Wash., native was not ready to call it a career, toiling on the regional circuit and splitting four bouts. His most recent outing was a setback against Brian Davidson via rear-naked choke at Titan Fighting Championship 18 in May.
Submissions have been an Achilles’ heel for Pulver, especially recently, as his last five losses have ended in a tapout for the 36-year-old. Some of it can be attributed to a lack of ground aptitude, as Pulver can attest. The lack of a consistent training environment in recent years is also responsible, as Brian Butler points out. Butler met Pulver while helping to promote a local MMA show in Virginia some four years ago. Butler was heavily involved in his own 12-year-old advertising agency at the time but did not have much experience with professional fighters. The pair hit it off at the event.
“That’s not surprising,” Butler says. “Jens is a very easy-going guy, and everybody who meets him hits it off with him.”
Soon Pulver was calling Butler to ask for help with marketing and sponsorships. Butler’s agreement to do so marked the beginnings of the sports management and marketing company currently known as Suckerpunch Entertainment. The relationship between Pulver and Butler has evolved into more than just client-representation. Today, Pulver counts Butler among his best friends.
“There’s been personal times where he’s called me,” Butler says, “and there’s been personal times where I’ve called him, having nothing to do with MMA, where we’re helping each other out.”
The two had a falling out during Pulver’s stint in the WEC, but after the former UFC champion had some trial-and-error experiences with other management types, they patched up their relationship and resumed their friendship.
“It sounds real corny, but we joke around with it all the time that it was us breaking up,” Butler says. “I think that caused us to become better friends.”
As Butler witnessed Pulver’s struggles in the cage, he realized that a move to Team Curran -- just a few hours’ drive away -- could do his friend some good. Pulver had led a nomadic fight camp existence since leaving the Miletich gym.
“He’s bounced around from camp to camp, and everywhere he went, everybody’s, like, ‘Oh, Jens Pulver.’ Not to say his coaches didn’t do good for him; he was just able to still do what he wanted to do in training camp,” Butler says. “Jeff is the perfect personality type to get in there and make Jens do what he doesn’t want to do.”
Though three years younger than Pulver, Curran already had a few professional fights under his belt when “Little Evil” made his professional MMA debut. Yet it was Pulver who attained fame more rapidly, capturing the UFC lightweight strap against Uno in 2001 while Curran was competing on a variety of smaller circuits.
Curran periodically made the drive from Chicago to the Miletich camp, where he formed a friendship with Pulver through multiple sparring sessions. Beneath their burgeoning friendship, however, was a hint of jealousy. They were both managed by Monte Cox, but Curran became frustrated that he was not receiving the same opportunities as his counterpart.
“There was a period of time there where I was really wanting to get my shot at stuff,” Curran says. “I’d see Jens doing it -- and [he is] basically the same size. And here I’m out doing all these things, and he’s getting all this credit for it. I remember just being like a jealous kid with Monte. I’d be like, ‘Man, you just need to get me something; you’re getting Jens something.’ I started building this envy.”
Curran did have his chances in larger promotions, falling to Matt Serra at UFC 46 in 2004 and suffering four straight losses in the WEC to a murder’s row of opponents in Faber, Mike Thomas Brown, Joseph Benavidez and Takeya Mizugaki from 2007 to 2009.
As Pulver’s career began to meander following his exit from the WEC, both Butler and Cox urged the Iowan to give Team Curran a try. Not only would it give Pulver a stable environment where he could potentially revive his career, but Curran’s jiu-jitsu background could help aid in shoring up one of Pulver’s biggest weaknesses.
Before the move could happen, a phone call had to be made.
“When he called me, I cleared the air right away,” says Curran, who recently signed an agreement to fight Scott Jorgensen at UFC 137. “I said, ‘I gotta admit, man, all this stress between us over the years is because of this [jealousy], not because of you. He was, like, ‘I’m with you there 100 percent. I just want to be with you right now because I think you’re the best shot I got.’ We just brushed everything aside and went to work. We’ve been like family ever since.”
Each day has been a learning experience for Pulver, particularly when the focus shifts to grappling.
“Pat Curran, Bart Palaszewski and Jeff himself -- their skill level being black belts is ridiculous,” Pulver says. “It helps me a lot in learning how to get that fundamental base down, because I can’t use my wrestling ability and my scrambling ability as much as I could when I was 26 or 27. You gotta learn to be much more fundamentally sound.”
Pulver remains a work in progress that may not even be complete by the time he squares off with Wheeler, but the process figures to sharpen his all-around game at the very least. Instruction is only one part of the equation. Restoring Pulver’s shaken confidence is another.
“I see him being like a young kid in training. He’s picking up on things -- I don’t want to say [he] never saw [them] -- but a lot of it is because he’d never come from a traditional Gracie Jiu-jitsu school. He came more from a wrestling, when-I’m-doing-damage-I’m-winning-the-fight kind of school,” Curran says. “I think that’s been his problem: getting himself in too deep sometimes and not really being on that side because the level of the sport has evolved so much. He’s a sponge right now; he’s trying to learn everything. He’s putting a lot of time in. We just hope that it’s the right amount of time we need to get him ready.”
Pulver claims his conditioning is light years ahead of where it was for recent fights.
“I’d do my fight, [and] for about two months, you wouldn’t see me and I’d come walking into training camp [with] about 25 percent body fat and [weighing] 190 pounds,” he says. “I spent my camps getting the weight off and getting in shape rather than already having the weight down and learning and sharpening skills. That’s the big thing about being up here. I don’t take the kind of breaks I used to.”
At the moment, Pulver has no timetable in regards to when he will call it quits. Friends like Butler and Curran believe it is up to him to decide when it is time to go. Their primary objective is to make sure that when he does exit the game, he does so in a positive light. Pulver keeps going, in part, because he believes that he sold himself -- and others -- short in previous years.
“I owe it to all the coaches in the past. I owe it to all my teammates in the past; the gyms I trained at, where it was me, man,” he says. “I just never gave 110 percent. At the end of the day, I don’t want to go out and retire knowing I didn’t do that. That’s really what’s motivating me right now. When I’m done and I’m sitting in that rocking chair at 65, I could say, ‘You know what? I went as hard as I could at the end.’”
Regardless of how -- and when -- his career comes to a close, Pulver’s legacy is already firmly etched in the sport’s history.
“Am I one of the all-time great 155-pound champions? I’m not gonna say that. Do I deserve to be in the [UFC] Hall of Fame? Hey, that’s for the powers that be [to decide],” he says. “I may never get there, but at the end of the day, you still have to look it up. Who’s the first-ever world champion [at 155 pounds in the UFC]? And my name will be there.”