Having overcome terrible physical and psychological abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father, Pulver turned to wrestling as a youth, eventually earning two Washington state championships for Tahoma High School and becoming an NJCAA All-American while at Highline Community College.
When an injury forced him from continuing his wrestling career at Boise State University, Pulver earned his degree anyway while readjusting his focus to the emerging combat sport of mixed martial arts.
He would become champion — the UFC’s first-ever lightweight world title holder.
In the decade following, Pulver would travel the globe, squaring off against some of the very best fighters in the world — B.J. Penn, Takanori Gomi, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Caol Uno, Urijah Faber. He’d win some, he’d lose some, but he was always in the fight.
Throughout it all, one singular purpose continually manifested itself in Pulver’s life and career: He was driven to compete. Through thick and thin, through wins and losses, Pulver never got tired of competing; he never soured on fighting.
So it’s no surprise that his current losing streak isn’t having its intended effect. Yes, he’s lost four in row. Yes, he’s lost six of his last seven fights, and eight of his last 12. What do you want, him to just roll over and go away?
This is Jens ‘Little Evil’ Pulver we’re talking about. He’s made a career — no, a lifetime — of overcoming odds most of us would balk at. And although he’s got the scars to prove it, although he might be battered, he’s not beaten, and he’s not ready to give up quite yet.
Pulver, now 22-12-1, makes his return to the cage this Saturday, March 6, at WEC 47: "Bowles vs. Cruz," live from the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Welcoming Pulver back from a nine-month layoff is Javier Vazquez (13-4), a talented grappler on a two-fight skid who’s still looking for his first win inside the WEC.
Both are desperate for a win.
We recently caught up with Pulver, who shared his thoughts on opening up his new gym, battling back from the brink of retirement, and continuing to serve as a pioneer for the sport of mixed martial arts. And of course we talked about the upcoming documentary film, "Driven," that’s documenting his return to fighting.
Let’s get to it:
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): This will be your first fight since June 2009. How was the break? How does it feel to be back in action?
Jens Pulver: Yeah, I’m pretty excited. It was good, it took a lot of time, I had to work on a lot of things. It didn’t really seem like I’d taken that much time off. I’ve been having fun opening this gym, moving back to Boise, Idaho — or Nampa, Idaho, right outside of Boise — and opening up the gym and training center. I had Tony Fryklund, he came up from Vegas. So we’ve been doing that, all the while getting ready for this fight. So it’s been a lot of fun.
You gotta make those transitions, you know? As far as getting in the gym and creating my own atmosphere, the way that I would want to do it. So that part’s been a blast, man, it’s been really easy, good, it’s been a lot of fun.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Is the gym something you’ve always wanted to do?
Jens Pulver: Yeah, it’s a piece of my big puzzle, for sure. Having the gym, we got to build it the way that Tony and I … we put our minds together. From all the gyms that we’ve seen, all the things that we’ve done, being in MFS (Miletich Fighting Systems) and everything else for the last 10 years or whatever, nine years, to be able to come back and then build it the way that we want it, that always helps. That’s always cool to me.
We have a USA Kids Club that we’re gonna start next, and then a learning center right next to that, and then just keep going and keep going. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): In the post-fight interview at WEC 41, after the loss to (Josh) Grispi, you hinted at retirement. Did you contemplate retirement while you were away?
Jens Pulver: Yeah, yeah. Oh, I definitely battled. I faced my mortality, for sure. What I tell people, it’s kinda weird to sit here and talk about. It’s hard to explain to the everyday individual what it feels like, but it’s basically, you know you’re gonna die, and this is basically you dying twice. It’s hard. It’s hard to say goodbye, because I just love competing, I love being an athlete, I love training, and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. So it’s hard to face (that) one day it’s gonna be over, and knowing that that day’s closer than you think, and that you’re not going out on top. You know you always dreamed of it in the beginning, the way you’d do it, but then you just kinda go day by day. Yeah, I definitely battled with the idea, I definitely listened to what some people were saying as far as, you know, "You’re done," and this and that.
At the end of the day, I just enjoy competing. I have my world titles. I may not be rich financially, but I’m rich in life. I’m in a great place right now, I’m happy. When I put all that together, I want to keep fighting, I want to keep training. So, here we are.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Excellent. Well, your next opponent, Javier Vazquez, has lost his last two fights and remains winless in the WEC. A loss could potentially be the end of his contract. These thoughts could be going through his mind, which may or may not affect his performance. At this stage in your career, do you let those types of thoughts get into your head, do you let them go through your mind?
Jens Pulver: No. No. It isn’t so much the … contracts or where I’m going to be tomorrow, fighting-wise. It’s just, I wanna win because I’m a competitor. I wanna win because I know I can do better than the way that I’ve performed.
I know with the kind of training and the workouts I’ve had now, being around the people that I have, having the ability to work on the mental side of things, I’m just a lot happier. So I don’t really worry about, "Am I gonna have a contract?" or "Am I done?" I’ll face that music when it gets here. I’ve lost four, (but) I’m still here and still fighting. I don’t worry about that, because the drive and the will to win, because I’m a competitor and because I’m an athlete, means so much more to me to make my folks proud, to make my team proud, to represent my friends and my family, that means more to me than if you’re gonna cut my contract, or let me go, or whatever. I’ll figure it out after that.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Vazquez is a dangerous grappler with nine submission wins. He holds a win over UFC lightweight Rob Emerson. He’s never been finished. What’s your take on Vazquez, where do you see him strong, and where do you see him weak? Have you watched tape to prepare?
Jens Pulver: Yeah, I’ve watched, I’ve seen the tapes, I’ve seen the videos. I know he loves his rubber guard. He can grapple, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. But I think from the day I started — from Joao Roque, who was a five-time champ; to B.J. Penn; to all these other guys; Cub Swanson, he’s supposed to be a blackbelt — they’re all … nowadays, they’re around grappling, they’ve all been grapplers. I’ve faced great grapplers. I did a grappling match against "Parrumpinha" (Marcos Da Matta) — his soccer legs are disgusting when it comes to grappling. He’s phenomenal. He coaches grappling at (American) Top Team. I beat him. So where there might be blackbelts in jiu-jitsu, well, then I’m more than a blackbelt in wrestling. And if I utilize it and use it well, I’ll take that wrestling. But that’s where (Vasquez) is strong, he’s very strong down there. And then he’s always got the power — he throws hard, hard punches because he’s just trying to get the clench. Those can land, man, these are little gloves, things can happen. He’s never been finished. He’s lost two fights to split decisions. So be it. He’s been the distance twice and he got beat. I’ve been stopped, I’ve been bumped, I’ve been caught in a guillotine. Things just happen. And I know his strong points are definitely on the ground, but go ahead and try to get me there. It’s like anybody else — get me there. You get me there, then I’ll work from there. Until that point, we’re on our feet, so I need to make the most of it and have the most fun with it.
Jens Pulver: Yeah, it’s (director) Greg Bayne, man. He’s incredible. My gym is called "Driven," my clothing line is called "Driven," and this documentary is called "Driven." It’s basically just a way of life. We don’t do fight gear, we do life gear. Everything has a meaning. It’s just more about what drives you, what wakes you up every day, what gets you going, what makes you driven. And some people, that’s what we lose. We lose that drive. The everyday person may lose their drive to wake up every day to go to work. They may lose their drive to be a better parent. They may get frustrated with the money woes that we’re having, just as an economy. It’s just what drives you to get up every day and keep pushing. And that’s us. So that’s what this documentary is about. I’m not the super famous, super rich B.J. Penn, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, I’m not those guys, man. I’m your everyday individual. I’m just like everybody else, and I gotta wake up every day and find what drives me. And that’s why we’re doing this documentary … A lot of people stepped up and supported it. They donated the money to make the (film) happen, and I’ll forever be thankful for them. So I want to make sure I give them the kind of documentary that they’re expecting. And so far the way things have gone, I think it’s been a blast. Greg Bayne does a great job. He’s good at what he does, so it’s fun.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Does the film focus on your upcoming bout with Javier Vazquez, or is that just one of the many waypoints as the film progresses?
Jens Pulver: It’s basically the everyday deal leading up to here. Obviously that’s … the outcome, being the fight and what happens from there. But it’s about what we’ve been doing getting to that fight, and that’s opening up the gym, that’s pushing "Driven," that’s working on the clothes, that’s doing all these different things. So it’s going to be a lot of that, but it ultimately leads right up to getting ready and doing this last march, doing this last hooray, however long this road goes. That’s what this is about.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Do you know yet when the film will be finished or how it will eventually be made available to consumers?
Jens Pulver: I know we’re going to be getting down. I know that it’s going to be the DVD that we made. I know he wants to make one for TV. … We’ll put it all over the gym website, as far as how to get that going with distribution. Maybe we’ll work something out with Title and get that going as far as getting the word out. I believe we’re gonna sit down for a week after the fight and talk and hang out, and that’s going to be our deal. We’ll go from there. That’s when it should be completed.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): I recently read an interview that you did back in 2005 (with Adiso Banjoko, appearing in OntheMat.com in which you were talking about going over to fight in PRIDE, moving up in weight to, at the time, 165 pounds in order to help them build their division. This is what you said:
"My job is to be a pioneer. To set standards for people. So, I’m over there trying to get that international market going. I’m out there bangin’ away, making fans and having a good time. I’m an advocate for the little guys. I wanna see them have a future in this sport. I’ll be over there for another year at least. I plan to keep on fightin’ so we’ll see what happens."
I thought it was a fitting quote, because in many ways, it seems you still are that pioneer, continuing to serve as a name for the WEC. Do you see yourself that way today? I mean this was back in 2005 —
Jens Pulver: I know I’m that guy. I’m the one that’s helping bring legitimacy to the WEC. When me and (Urijah) Faber had that first fight, that was really our coming out party as far as who we are and what we’re doing. I’d love to see 125 pounders out there (in the WEC). I’m always going to be there to help represent the little guys. I’m always going to be there to build the shows that are going to support that. I love being a part of the UFC family. So with the WEC being under the Zuffa umbrella, it makes things a lot easier. It makes it fun. I mean that is my role — I have no other role. I’m not dominating the world. I’m not destroying everybody I mess with. I’m not being the best fighter out there. But I’m still that guy. I’m still that pioneer, the guy who can, when they see that name, they’re like, "Okay, this guy’s old school, he’s been here from the beginning, and he was the first world champion." So for me, that’s what I’m here to build. I’m here to help build the little guys and help build the shows that are going to support the little guys. And I make that my first and foremost goal. So I’m all about trying to help things out. I know my role. That’s me. I’m a pioneer. Again, when I started this sport, it was only legal in three states, so there’s no other position for me but to be a pioneer.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Well, Jens, you’re always exciting both inside and outside the cage, and I look forward to watching you compete for many more years. Again, thank you for taking the time to do this interview, especially so close to fight time. I wanted to give you a chance to thank any sponsors or if you have any parting words for your fans.
Jens Pulver: Of course. Definitely my biggest and foremost obviously is "Driven.", the clothing. We got other people that are involved, and I love them and support them. Obviously, TapouT for always being there for me, I love ‘em to death. FightJungle.com, that’s like the Facebook of MMA, we have a good time there. And of course the one — I don’t know if anybody’s ever messed with it, I don’t go selling too many products, if you ever see, I do not push too many things in this world, but if you have not messed with Hydrate2o. and you’re an athlete there is seriously something the matter with you. No longer having to carry around a gallon jug of water to get hydrated, I can do it in just three or four bottles. This stuff is incredible. They’ve been a good force for me helping out there in Idaho, so they’ve been doing a lot of things, helping to promote and push the gym. And of course Title. I don’t know if people (have) had a chance to check it out, but Title Boxing, everybody knows what that is, but they got that new gear at Fighting Sports. They’ve been incredible, man, they hooked us up with the gloves. They got unbelievable boxing gloves, MMA gloves, shin pads made for grappling and stuff like that. I give a huge shout out to them and a big thanks, of course.