A Tribute to Jens Pulver (Part 2)
By Tommy O
Act Two – Antagonism: By the time I went to treatment, near Des Moines, Iowa, the lesser stars that had assembled around Jens had faded, and his championship had vacated. His rigorous pride had become itself a kind of heroism. The poignant warrior had developed an unexpected quality of defiance. At that time it seemed like he was always coming back; back from ultimate wrestling, back from the UFO, the UCC, the EC, the IFC, hardly a season went by without some promotional change. Yet he always did just that; came back. And he always looked like himself. The delicate mechanism of timing and power seemed unshakeable, rigid, somewhat outside his body. But the game had changed since his departure from the UFC. And it was becoming a monster. Growing malignant like a karma cancer. The four lesser stars; Uno, Sera, Thomas and Penn were gathered in a tournament to crown a new champion. And as if the legend of Jens Pulver was taking back what they wanted to steal, none of them would claim it for six more years. Jens dabbled and won in wrestling and boxing but lost his first two MMA bouts after leaving the UFC. They say; a true competitor can only play up to the quality of his foe. Dropping a weight class, the descent in competition and a sense of worth had to be, for Jens, like that hurricane blowing through my mind. The hero was lost, searching, struggling and changing. He came back up in weight and entered the Pride Fighting Championships.
In 2004, well into a prime, so harassed and hobbled by transition and doubt, Jens was granted by the surrendering fortunes another chance at becoming champion. He took on Pride, reigning Champion, Takanori Gomi and lost after Gomi delivered a knockout uppercut in the first round. Jens was not the same fighter. He looked like a ghost of his former self, tired and discouraged and unconvincing. He never looked passionate to me, in the cage after that. There was a certain “bigness” to the cage now, all those high standards and all those lesser stars growing brighter. Time, for Jens Pulver, had become a relentless enemy. And, of course, in the shadows there were the rumors and the doubts. It would take at least one good run to get back to the Octagon and even then nothing was for sure. The final outcome in Pride was; Pulver 2, Time 2.
There was no television, no newspapers, no cigarettes, no coffee; one fifteen-minute phone call per week and the only thing to read was a bible and religious literature. I was in a place that boasted an eighty-five percent success rate although it drew a lot of parallels to a prison. This was not my first rodeo. I had been to treatment three previous times. But I knew this place was different, the first day I arrived. Everyone was smiling, happy. I did not know what was wrong with them. I showed up at 11:22 am, after the night of my final hurrah. I was still drunk. I paid my $400 entry fee and they put me to work cleaning the hallways with another suffragette. Months later, he told me, the odds on me making it more than a month were set at 100 to 1. The place was an Old Spanish style resort that had been neglected over the years and recently bought up by the treatment center. They were in the process of refurbishing. President George W. Bush had visited this place just a few months prior and invited the director to the Whitehouse. And he proudly displayed a handwritten note from the President, on Whitehouse Letterhead, that said, “Good to see you, Big W.” The director was a big man, a former offensive lineman for Iowa State. And for the next nine months I would get to know him and his family like my own.
I made it through the nine months. I also made it through the six-month transitional halfway house in Omaha. I was able to go back to work at my business during that time. The struggles continued for the business until I finally filed for bankruptcy in 2004. It was hard for me to keep track of Jens Pulver during that time. I had other things on my mind. It was as if he had disappeared. For the next two years I worked construction with my friend and trainer Kurt Podany. He trained me for my first Muay Thai fight. I was 37 years old and competing with guys 15 years my junior. I cannot put into words what fighting and training meant to me at that time in my life. It brought to me a calming peace amidst the violence and pain. All of those things that used to run through my mind, that hurricane of memory, fault, money, lost love and subdued aspiration would all go away as soon as I stepped into the ring. The cage had now become the eye of the hurricane for me. I wish I could say that I never touched a drop of alcohol after that but I can’t. I stumbled, I fell and I failed time after time. But now, I knew how to get back up, how to start over and keep going no matter what the consequence. My thinning mortal coil was not that insurmountable enemy anymore. I had always been in that fight but now, I was a fighter. And I knew that I could, and would, eventually win.
In 2006 that rocky marriage had finally found some common ground and a sort of bittersweet reconciliation. The UFC conceded that the lightweight division, newly reinstated, could not legitimize itself without its true inaugural champion. At UFC 63, Jens was matched against Joe Lauzon and the headliner, his old nemesis BJ Penn, would face Matt Hughes. Both men would lose and then face each other in season five of “The Ultimate Fighter.” In the finale Jens would lose to BJ Penn by way of a rear naked choke in the second round. A string of six losses, most in the WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) would soon follow. From January through April 2010, Jens filmed a documentary that led up to his fight against Javier Vazquez. A do or die comeback after suffering four previous losses in the cage. If you have not seen the movie “Driven,” put it on your to-do list. I had no idea what the depth of this man’s character was until I saw it on the big screen. A man who rose from a childhood laced with violence and substance abuse, to become one of the most loved and respected MMA fighters of all time. I understood what I loved about Jens Pulver. I understood why he wore his emotions on his sleeve. He managed to transcend personal tragedy and achieve greatness. All of us have shared in that fight, but not all of us, like Jens Pulver, had it played out in front of millions on pay-per-view. For the next two years his struggle would continue. From January of 2011 to November of 2013 he would take on ten more opponents resulting in a .500 performance.
I had to conclude that my hero was heroic not because of victory but how he recovered from defeat. A hero is ordinary; just a regular guy that finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles and loss. From time to time, I hear about stories of heroism, courage and bravery. Three types come to mind:
- The soldier on the battlefield.
- The famous celebrity. (athlete, entertainer, politician, etc)
- The People who suffer/recover from life-threatening diseases.
Which are the true heroes? Did they just do what most other people would do in similar circumstances (athletes or entertainers, did they do what most other people with similar talents/assets would have done)? Or were they simply involved in situations where they ended up proceeding along a single path, which was somewhat pre-determined? I reserve those words: Heroism, Courage, and Bravery for those exceptional individuals who demonstrate such a distinction. Not just for those who simply did what anyone else would do in their shoes. Instead, I use those words to describe the exclusive few who took off the shoes that they had on, stepped off the well-paved road ahead, and chose to walk a very different and difficult path. These are the real Heroes. Jens Pulver is not my hero because he won battles or achieved notoriety or overcame obstacles. He is my hero because he always gets back up, takes off his own shoes and walks the difficult path along side those who ask.
In 2010 I moved back to my hometown. I had my ups and downs, hitting and missing but my family stood behind me. Thank God for them. I don’t know if I would have done the same for someone that was like me. After another DUI, I finally said enough is enough. I found a counselor and a group of friends that would eventually help me come to terms with my life and my struggle. I was working with my family again and doing contract film and photo work on the side. The antagonism of life had set in at times and it made me wonder if there was a purpose to all of it. Contemplating a resolving bullet revolved in whatever semblance of reason remained in my soul. It’s funny how life happens while you are making other plans. In late 2012, my friend Nathan Rogers and I decided to begin broadcasting MMA events locally. We started small, covering just three events our first year. We launched a website and started traveling, visiting gyms in the region and interviewing up and coming fighters. We wanted to tell their stories but we had no idea where that would lead.
PART 3 COMING SOON…