Thirteen Questions with Jens Pulver

By Joe Hall Dec 10, 2007
Jens Pulver (Pictures) was the UFC's first 155-pound champion. He was there when the promotion created the weight class, he helped build it and he watched it dissolve not long after he left.

Now 155 is the UFC's best division, and Pulver is poised to help usher in another weight class, in another show. On Wednesday he debuts in the featherweight friendly World Extreme Cagefighting, where he'll meet Cub Swanson (Pictures) in a 145-pound bout.

The match marks a potential turning point in Pulver's eight-year tenure in MMA. He could be embarking on the kind of revival that occasionally finds fighters when they've grown older and smarter. Or he could be done, too, set to fade behind the best moments of an already memorable career.

In this interview, Pulver reflects on his stint in the sport, including his July 2004 shootout with Stephen Palling (Pictures), his sparring sessions at the Miletich camp in Iowa and his toughest opponent.

Joe Hall: What was your greatest moment in mixed martial arts?
Jens Pulver (Pictures): I think there are two. One of them being the fight with Stephen Palling (Pictures). That was one of my favorite fights, not really so much because I won. I don't really look at that part, but to have the kind of respect I had for him -- just a huge liking for the guy. To go out there and put on that kind of show. I mean, the shots he hit me with, they're the ones you just wish did knock you out because, man, they hurt so bad.

You're just in the middle of that ring going, "Oh my God, my hands are killing me, my legs are killing me, my head is killing me." You just gotta keep pushing. I think that was the epitome of being able to overcome everything he was throwing and just being able to work through it.

I went to Hawaii to corner Robbie Lawler (Pictures) this year, against Frank Trigg (Pictures) I think it was. For the first time me and Stephen Palling (Pictures) got to sit down at the hotel -- we were out on the beach -- and we got to sit there and just talk about it. We were laughing and having a good time. He became like a soul brother after that fight. You don't have to hate the guy. It's not a street fight. You can still go out there and throw down the way we threw down -- we beat each other senseless. I got a really good friend out of that. He and I, we stay in contact. It would have never happened if it wasn't for that fight.

The other moment for me was this last fight with B.J. Penn (Pictures). It really opened my eyes to see how far I had let everything slip as far as my training, my skills. Everybody that knows me knows that I'm on, I'm off. Some days I'm just in there, just going through the motions. After this fight with B.J., it really sparked me and woke me up. It really put me on this path of achieving a lot more success in this sport on the second half of my career.

To me it was an extremely defining moment to have that reality show, to fight B.J., to be able to take that kind of butt-kicking the way I did really woke me up. It's really pushed me to get back to where I used to be.

I never really watched all my old fights or never really cared. Now I've pulled them all out. I've pulled out old training videos, everything I've ever done. I just watched, thinking, "This is what you used to be. This is what you used to be." I just started remembering again.

Hall: What was your most disappointing moment?
Pulver: I would say the [Joe] Lauzon fight was definitely disappointing. I never even really got going. I dropped my hands in that clinch and never even seen that shot. I just got caught. It was this big, exciting moment, and I had really waited a long time to get back in the UFC. I always felt incomplete -- I left with an empty feeling in my gut. This was one of those moments when you have the chance to make something big.

And the irony is a lot of great things came out of it. I got to coach the show. I had the big fight with B.J. It was just a really disappointing fight for me because I didn't grab the moment. That's one of those things that really, really kicks me in the butt every day when I get up. I was just so happy to be back, so caught up in being back in the UFC that I just completely forgot that there was a fight.

Hall: You had an emotional exit from the UFC in 2002 over a compensation disagreement. If you had it to do over, knowing what you know now, would you have stayed or left?
Pulver: With everything the way it is now, I would have made the same choice. I would have handled it differently, but the choice would have been made. I mean, that was the best choice, we felt. Period. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think it was the right choice or the right thing to do.

Am I glad to be back? Absolutely. But when it comes to that kind of choice and the way that things went down, yeah, I would have had to leave because that's just what we thought was the right choice. I couldn't change anything because I couldn't predict the future, but now having everything that's been done the way it has -- yeah, it hurt, but I would have just dealt with it differently than the way I did. I wouldn't have sulked.

Hall: You had some hard times after leaving. What happened?
Pulver: I don't know what it was. I was just a show. There was nothing really inside of me. It was just weird to go from fighting in the main event in the Mohegan Sun to fighting in just small shows. I was just really kicking myself in the ass everyday: "What did I do? What did I do?"

I just wasn't geared up. It wasn't until later on that I went, "You know what? It doesn't matter where you fight. This is what you choose to do -- so get out there and fight. Quit playing around." I was just sulking. Beating myself up, and when I want to beat myself up, I allow other people to beat me up. As you know, I found myself knocked out twice. No fight, no real understanding why I got that way -- I just did.

Hall: Did you think you'd fight in the UFC again?
Pulver: No. I never thought I'd be back. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I'd be back. But Dana was true to his word with me. He was true to his word, and I will always say that about him. He did exactly what he said he would. When the UFC got on TV, when they got things going, when they had more opportunities, more fights -- we were only doing six shows with six fights, which was not too many opportunities back then -- but now with "The Ultimate Fighter" and everything else, he brought the [lightweight] class back.

And when he did, he brought me back. He came through and did exactly what he said he was going to do. No, I never thought I'd be back. I spent years just trying to let it go. The belts, I put them away, never looked at them again.

Hall: What's the hardest you've ever hit someone -- in training or in a fight -- and the hardest you've been hit?
Pulver: The hardest I've ever been hit was Stephen Palling (Pictures). It was constant. Those shots when you get knocked out, you don't know how hard they were. Definitely Stephen Palling (Pictures) hit me the hardest I've ever been hit. Behind the ear. I normally don't think about things when I'm in the middle of a fight, but this whole time I was like, "Oh my God, what is this?"

As far as when I hit somebody, I'd have to say it was John Lewis (Pictures). Everything broke. It was just a hard connection and it just shattered everything. My hand got cracked, his jaw got broke. He got knocked out. That was definitely the hardest I've ever hit anybody.

Hall: The training sessions at the Miletich camp in Iowa are legendary. Who's the guy no one wants to spar with?
Pulver: Well, weight-wise, nobody's lining up to spar with Robbie Lawler (Pictures). I can tell you that. It's like pulling teeth knowing I have to stand there and stare across from Spencer Fisher (Pictures). You basically go in there like, "This is going to hurt. But dammit, I'm going to hurt him back." And just kind of hold out. But I don't see people jumping for joy when Robbie Lawler (Pictures) and Spencer Fisher (Pictures) put the gear on.

Me and Spencer would tattoo each other so bad. I remember one time we were sparring I hit him with a kick to the head, and it stunned him. I was like, "Yeah! I finally caught this guy." And then a year and a half later, all of a sudden he just came thumping in. I was like, "Oh, sweet lord." Back then, I came in out of shape. I used to put it on him. The roles kind of reversed. I started really basing myself on being able to spar with him. I had to catch up with him.

We wail on each other. I remember one time we were getting ready to spar. I walked up to Pat [Miletich] and I go, "Hey, I don't want to sound like a sissy, but how about just tell Spencer no knees." We would hit each other with these knees. Little did I know, he had walked up to Pat and said the same thing: "Hey, what do you say? Tell Jens we can go with no knees?" Pat started laughing. We would fire back and forth. The same thing with Josh Neer (Pictures). We would stand there and hurt each other.

Hall: You're 33 years old now. How old or young do you really feel?
Pulver: I feel pretty good, especially now. I'm learning how to train like an old man. I've accepted the fact that I can't just go from zero to 100. I can't just get off the couch and be in shape in a few weeks. My bones are old. I've been competing in wrestling since fourth grade. I've been beating this body to death for 20 some years.

I had to learn that you have to keep a good pace, even when you're not fighting. You have to stay in shape. Now the bones and the muscles, well, they don't just stiffen up; they turn old and creaky. It's like a car: You can't just leave it in the shop for six months. It's not going to start. But my outlook right now in life, right where I'm at on this day, I feel great. This is probably the best I've felt in a long time.

Hall: How do you compare to the Jens Pulver (Pictures) who was the UFC lightweight champion?
Pulver: I was more well-rounded then. I was more willing to clinch, tie up. I was more willing to go the distance, to take the pain. I was more willing to do whatever it took to win. Where now I kind of got diverted to this one-dimensional style where I push everything away, rely on my power and just try to out-strike people. Back then I was a lot better getting prepared for a fight. It wasn't because the training but the mental side. I was bulletproof back then. I was unbeatable. I trained like an absolute savage. Where now, up until now, I trained slow. I was lethargic, and the intensity just wasn't there like it was in 2002. I just had a different outlook. I was a lot meaner back then.

Hall: You're dropping to 145 pounds for a fight against Cub Swanson (Pictures) in the WEC. Is there a big difference in the two divisions, 145 and 155?
Pulver: I don't think there will be much difference. The difference for me was I had seven fights at 145, and I knocked out all seven. Even boxing at 140 was fun. I'm not going to be the smallest guy, which will be a big difference. I don't have to worry about [Takanori] Gomi weighing 180 pounds come fight time, when I weighed in at 148 with a sandwich in my mouth. Every fight where I'm in shape, I've weighed 152, 151. I'm a natural 145 pounder.

Hall: You've fought several top fighters: B.J. Penn (Pictures), Takanori Gomi (Pictures), Hayato Sakurai (Pictures). Who's the best?
Pulver: Oh, B.J.'s the best. People asked me before the rematch, and I told them straight up: I'm going to get the best B.J. Penn (Pictures). No ands, ifs or buts about it. I'm going to get the one that's trained. I'm going to get the one that's trying to get back in the saddle, the one that's aggressive and will get after it. I definitely woke a sleeping giant with that show. The B.J. Penn (Pictures) that I fought, that's definitely the best fighter I've ever fought -- hands down.

When people see him fight again, they're going to see it again. He's redirected in the aspect that he knows he's a great fighter and now he's training like one again. That's what it takes. He woke me up too. It takes that rivalry. That rivalry brought me back. That rivalry I know was what brought him back -- he told me. I'll be silently cheering him on -- and I mean silently. I'll be rooting for him because I definitely think there's a lot more to B.J. Penn (Pictures) that you haven't seen.

Hall: How much longer will you be fighting?
Pulver: I'd say another four or five years. If it's shorter, it's shorter. If it's longer, it's longer. But I'm definitely taking this momentum that I've got from the B.J. Penn (Pictures) fight, going into the next fight. If it stays like this, and I'm as hungry as I am right now and feel good, then I'll keep going. If I'm going to half-ass it and not give 100 percent, I'm done. I'll just play it day by day. But right now, the way I'm training, it's probably the best I've trained in a long time.

I'm just trying to ride the wave. How long it keeps me up, we'll see. I don't know. There's a big part of me that's not done. There's a small part of me that is done. I just have to accept where I'm at. Like Duke Roufus just told me, "You have to train like an old man." I have to take my naps. I actually do have to sit down and ice. I have to stretch a half an hour before practice. I have to warm up. I can't just go out there; things will start snapping. The rubber bands are getting frayed, you know.

Hall: What's after fighting?
Pulver: I can't leave this sport. I love it. I know it's just starting to explode. Look how big it's getting. I can only imagine what it's going to be like in 10 years. I helped start this. You see all these little lightweights -- at one time, I was the best at 155 pounds.

Bettendorf has been my home for almost eight years now. I've got my family here. Monte Cox is my family. Period. The fighters are my brothers, but the Cox family adopted me a long time ago. It would be tough to leave them, but I know that day's coming. When it comes time to open up our gym, I'm going to have to leave here and branch out.

There's so much to this sport. It can give a lot of positives to the community. I want to train kids, I want to train fighters. I want to look into their eyes and see the same starry look that I know I gave Pat [Miletich] and Monte when I got off the train. I want to be able to help them. I'm working on my gym. I'm probably going to be moving to Virginia, and I'm really looking forward to that next level when it comes.
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