A tribute to Jens Pulver (part 1)
By Tommy O
The Octagon, in Atlantic City, was a hypnotic Sancho dressed to the nines. It was bright and loud and reflected a sharply focused rainbow, like the glistening mirrored ball that hovers above every septic dance floor. But this gilded cage has been built, rebuilt, formed and reformed, and fuses, as most heroic monuments, a pact between mankind’s Cartesian sense of being and God’s indiscriminate justice. I remember, it was a Friday, February 23rd, I was struggling with my own demons at the time, thinking. If I could, how I would edit my life, cutting and rearranging it in my mind. The day was cold, misty and drowning in mediocrity. I spent the evening on the couch staring at the television waiting for the fight. Caol Uno was one of the toughest fighters in the world. A clattering jumble of unorthodox striking and battlefield composure, Uno was the clear favorite but I could not help, at this point in my life, relating to the underdog. This fight was for the first ever, Lightweight Championship, a necessary title for a much-needed champion. Myself, and a minute television audience, had shown up primarily because this was the only thing on since the haphazard Ravens stole the Super Bowl from my Giants.
Then, “God decided that he would rather have him in the ring with me here tonight, than watching on TV,” said the announcer. A quote by Jens Pulver, speaking of “Dusty” the terminally ill fan that Jens had visited and dedicated his last fight to. Dusty had passed away just a week before, after a long battle with cancer. Jens Pulver had just explained to all of us, the true nature of his own soul in less than twenty words. I was now a fan, Jens Pulver had given me a real reason to applaud, a real reason to hope and a real reason to believe. His heart was bigger than any other fighter I had ever seen.
Bruce Buffer called them out and they touched gloves with John McCarthy the middle of the ring. The first round was an uneventful package of hugs, unfinished takedowns and unanswered strikes. I wanted to change the channel but that voice in the back of my head told me to stay put, so I did. The second and third rounds were equally uneventful with the exception of a few sledgehammer-like, left hands by Jens Pulver. After each round that instinctual pull again urged me to change the channel, I stayed. The fourth and fifth rounds were the same pedestrian ping-pong but more and more dictated by Jens Pulver. I have to admit, I was not impressed. There was no blood, no knockout, no submission and no domination. Woody Allen invaded my thoughts, “Showing up is eighty percent of life.” And that’s what Jens Pulver did and that is what I did. He showed up with his game and I showed up to watch. Jens Pulver won by unanimous decision and became the inaugural Lightweight Champion of the World.But it was not his victory that caught my attention. It was his words, “I love you momma. Dusty I could feel you in here with me the whole time.” His eyes fixed on the camera and I could have sworn that he was talking directly to me. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. Jens Pulver wept. I wept. “Caol Uno, you are my idle, I watched you for so long, your heart is ‘this’ big (gesturing the size of the moon) and I want you to know that I respect you forever,” said Pulver as Uno grabbed Jens’ hand and raised it in victory. I was a boxing fan. I had never seen anything likes this before. There was an unspoken brotherhood, an unbreakable bond between these men. That was the day I fell in love with the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Jens Pulver, in five minutes had convinced me that I had been fighting the wrong demons. I needed to forgive, respect and strive to defeat these demons. I got off the couch, put on my running shoes and ran until I could not run anymore.
I am not going to pretend to know the profundity of Jens Pulver. I am a fan, a fan that was lucky enough to share a common goal with one of his heroes. But I do know what he has meant to me in my life and how his path has run parallel to my own. And how on one fateful day in January, those two paths crossed. I watched the torrid love affair between the UFC and Jens Pulver over the years and it was not some puerile high school romance. It was a rocky marriage involving arguments, mutual disappointments, and in the end, a careful collection of shared memories. I expect it fell into three stages, just like all marriages; Romance, Disillusionment and Resignation or Act One – Exposition, Act Two – Antagonism and Act Three – Return.
Act One – Exposition: There was a legend growing when the new bridegroom came out after that first championship fight. He did not announce his aspirations to be the Greatest Fighter of All Time, Ali style. Jens Pulver was humble. He took the fights as they came and kept winning. The MMA community and media attempted to call him out and give lessons to this man who did not thunder and roar and to their dismay did we, Jens Pulver’s fans, admonish them. Thus began the long exchange of animus, which has been the signature of this temporal matrimony.Greatness necessarily attracts naysayers, but in Jens Pulver’s case the resentment has been systematic and unspoken. His greatest offense, to question the policy of Dana White and put his fans, family and those that needed his help first. He was pedaling benevolence in the vacuum of a Machiavellian capitalism. But against all odds, in 2001 he was the one and only champion of the world. He defended that title in September 2001 against, Dennis Hallman and again in January 2002, against B.J. Penn. And that was when the rumors started.
In March of 2002, I checked myself into an eighteen-month rehab facility in Colfax, Iowa. I had finally decided to face my own demons head on. Television, newspapers and anything else from the outside world were not allowed. I could not keep up with Jens Pulver but I would hear things, bits and pieces, after all I was IN Iowa. I had failed at everything that mattered to me. But I was finding a discipline deep within me and a sense of being that I never knew was there. It was the condition of my soul, at that time, which was the mystery to me. There is a reason I am telling this story now, alongside his. I have held this story close revealing it to only those closest to me and I have never told my story publicly. I tell it now because there is a sense of admiration for heroes like Jens Pulver. But more than admiration, I am paying homage and bidding farewell to whatever residue of shame remains from those days that had born such burdens. I know Jens Pulver has. It is for this common ground, the struggle and the farewell that I share, cemented together, my story and my memories of Jens Pulver.
Before the Hallman fight, America was still reeling from the attack of September 11th. It was as if we were all sitting at that point on a chair where you lean back and at the last minute, catch yourself. Emotion was thick and dry, and I was thirsty. I had heard that Jens had moved to train in Idaho with Team Curran. I didn’t know why and I didn’t care. I just knew that Dennis Hallman was the guy that humbled Matt Hughes and that this would be a great fight. I had recently opened up my own business in Omaha after moving back from West Hollywood; it was like going from high definition back to black and white. But Nebraska was home for me and my family was there. There was a shameless little bar up the street from my townhouse that pirated all of the pay-per-view events. All the hard-cores went there to watch the fights. I pulled my guards-red 911 in between the pick up trucks and walked in. I knew that the headliner that night was Tito Ortiz; we shared a common sir name and the fact that neither one of us spoke a lick of Spanish. I looked above the bar and Matt Sera was on the screen waiting for the decision. He radiated, the solid desolate glow of high purpose, Sera won. I sat by myself at the bar, taking in my usual two-shots of Patron with a Budweiser chaser. Chuck Liddell was fighting next. I had heard that he was opening a bar, right up the road in Lincoln. I liked Chuck Liddell, who didn’t? He won by unanimous decision. The next fight was a blur, I didn’t even know who either of the fighters were but it came down to another decision, at this point, I was thinking how offended I would be if I actually had to pay to watch this window dressing. Watching a fight that is decided by judges holds just a razorblade-thin difference between a good deed and an insult. MMA is a sport of combat, of relentless and decisive clobbering. Nobody wants to see a decision. Imagine the United Nations deciding the battle for the Normandy beachhead, I’d rather see Patton kick Rommel’s ass. But Jens was up next.
In the first and second round, Jens was slightly less boring than Hallman, taking both rounds. I had a few more shots and a beer. In round three I could tell Jens wanted to throw down, but Hallman took him down and back to the guard with nothing really going on there either. At least Jens was throwing shots from the top, however weak they seemed. Rounds four and five were much of the same. “That was the worst fight I have ever seen,” said a fellow drunkard. I wanted to agree with him but it was Jens Pulver and Jens came away with a unanimous decision. I was okay with that. I heard that it was because of that fight that the UFC implemented the stand up rule. I did not even stay to watch the Tito Ortiz fight. I heard that it too went to a decision. And even Dana White admitted that UFC 33 was the worst show they have ever had. I stumbled to my car and decided that it was far better to drive a few blocks with one eye closed than to leave a Porsche parked in front of the Red Eye overnight. I made it home and evidently lost my keys on my way from the garage to the front door. I woke up the next day on my neighbor’s couch. “You need to take better care of yourself bro,” my neighbor lectured me as I looked for my shoes. I thanked him, closed the door behind me and dug through the grass, finally finding my keys. I knew that my life was getting out of control but I had thirty employees and my parents, who had backed me in this business, that were counting on me. But it was those damn dispassionate mathematics, which seemed best suited to persecute me. We were losing money and I was becoming more and more of an ornamented loner.
The leaves on the trees turned and the snow fell. But there was a hurricane blowing in my mind. It seemed the weight of the world was bearing down on me. I was drinking a fifth or more of Kettle One, a day. The warm burn was a one-way ticket to the eye of that hurricane. I felt the facade of peace there, in the middle of the storm, if only for a few moments. The holidays came and went. The business was suffering and I was at my wits end to figure out how to fix it. I was training recreationally in Muay Thai, between blackouts, with my friend and coach Kurt Podany. Everyone at the gym was talking about some prodigy fighter named BJ Penn. And how he was a Gracie Jiu Jitsu guy that was plowing through the UFC. I remember the days leading up to that first fight between Pulver and Penn. There was a lot of trash talk and disrespect for Jens Pulver. Nobody thought that he was going to be able to hold off this kid. The popularity of MMA in Omaha and across the country was growing. Some of the guys like Chuck Liddell were becoming household names. Although my business, my relationships and my bank account were at the point of collapse, I found an escape through MMA. It was the only thing at that time that seemed real to me.
I remember the Friday of the fight, unusually warm for January. There was a tension in the air at work, and uneasiness that was unspoken but clear. My throat was crowded with angst. I started to drink early that day and decided to get a tattoo from one of my employees. He was also an MMA fan. We talked about the fights that night. He didn’t like Jens Pulver so I spent three hours, under the needle, convincing him otherwise. He finally came around. I left work early and found the nearest bar. I was doing what I did best, a feat of debauchery unparalleled in my own archives of selfishness. I made my way to the Red Eye for the fights. The first thing I noticed, there was nowhere to sit. And there was an unusual ratio of women to hard-cores, a far cry from the usual ‘wurst tag’ festival. Remarkable, the Red Eye was so branded chauvinist. I found a place to stand right next to the bar, lining up the shots of Patron. Chuck Liddell had just won a unanimous decision over Amar Suloev. There were two more fights preceding Jens Pulver and BJ Penn.
An old man was sitting at the bar next to me. He spoke with a syrupy, Russian sounding accent, “Can I have one of those?” I nodded. As he grabbed one of my shot glasses, I noticed that he had hair the color of boiled meat and leopard hands. He smiled buttery. There was a tacit familiarity to him, as if we shared some sort of self-loathing camaraderie. We drank together like long-lost friends and watched the next two fights end in knockouts. Jens was the headliner, the first time in UFC history that a Lightweight bout was the headliner. It was crazy; Jens was a 3 to 1 underdog going into that fight, a champion underdog. It was an insult, the hyperbole for Penn. They came out in the usual Michael Buffer fashion, Jens like solid rock and BJ Penn like a pudgy kid. Jens escaped a standing choke and slammed Penn to the ground in the first round. Jens continued to pound Penn from the top. I gave that first round to Jens. The second round was already the longest fight of BJ Penn’s career. Jens pressed him, fighting angry but spent most of the round on his back in full guard. And barely escaped a submission arm-bar in the last few seconds of the round. The old man said, “Your guy don’t look so good.” I had to agree. If it were not for the bell, Jens would have submitted. I gave that round to Penn. In the third round BJ Penn started to look tired. Jens spent most of that round on top with BJ in full guard. It was an even round. In the fourth round BJ Penn looked lethargic. Jens stayed on top and pounded methodically. When they stood up, Jens was on his toes and BJ Penn was flat footed. I knew that being flat-footed in boxing meant trouble. I gave that round to Jens. The entire fifth round, both fighters were on their feet. Jens simply out-boxed the worn out Penn, delivering a multitude of strong left hands. The round was stopped with 30 seconds left for a low blow by BJ Penn. They boxed on, ending in a flurry of blows by both men. I gave that round to Jens. And yet again, it went to the judges. The old man and I worked out the politics of drunken nonsense as we had two more shots and waited for the judges. Jens won by majority decision! I cared about the win because I was a fan but more than that, because I felt like Jens Pulver WAS me. I knew what it was like to feel that derision and the pressure to succeed. But more importantly, to be the schadenfreude subject of those coattail critics who so look forward to our failures. Jens Pulver spoke for me and for all of us after that fight when he said, “Sometimes hype just ain’t enough.” I felt that. It would be two years later when I would realize the prophecy in those words. We cheered and slapped hands. Then, the old man and I drank Patron until the lights came on and they kicked us out.
I wrecked my car that night and woke up in the hospital. I had broken my nose for the eleventh time with a steering wheel instead of a fist. My L-shaped nose, although reminiscent of Vinny Pazienza, did not solicit a invitation from Mensa. My mom took me home from the hospital. A few days later I received a DUI violation in the mail. I moved out of the townhouse that I had shared with my now, ex-fiancé, I lost my car, my license and was a pariah to my own business. But that was only the beginning. Under the weight of it all, depression set in, and I crawled further and further into a bottle. I remember waking up in a hotel room, not knowing where I was or what day it was. I called my mom in desperation. That day I decided to step away from the business and get some help. None of this relates to Jens Pulver except for that struggle. I had heard that he was leaving the UFC. I don’t know his reasons. Only Jens Pulver knows that. But it felt like I was leaving that same fickle Sancho that was such a temptation to all of us. The illusion of that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of drudgery had vanished.
NEXT FRIDAY PART TWO.